“What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East” said Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who has vowed to return the country to “moderate Islam” and asked for global support to transform the hardline kingdom into an open society that empowers citizens and lures investors.
In an interview with the Guardian, the powerful heir to the Saudi throne said the ultra-conservative state had been “not normal” for the past 30 years, blaming rigid doctrines that have governed society in a reaction to the Iranian revolution, which successive leaders “didn’t know how to deal with”.
Expanding on comments he made at an investment conference at which he announced the launch of an ambitious $500bn independent economic zone straddling Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, Prince Mohammed said: “We are a G20 country. One of the biggest world economies. We’re in the middle of three continents. Changing Saudi Arabia for the better means helping the region and changing the world. So this is what we are trying to do here. And we hope we get support from everyone.
“What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”
Earlier Prince Mohammed had said: “We are simply reverting to what we followed – a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions. 70% of the Saudis are younger than 30, honestly we won’t waste 30 years of our life combating extremist thoughts, we will destroy them now and immediately.”
The crown prince’s comments are the most emphatic he has made during a six-month reform programme that has tabled cultural reforms and economic incentives unimaginable during recent decades, during which the kingdom has been accused of promoting a brand of Islam that underwrote extremism.
The comments were made as the heir of the incumbent monarch moves to consolidate his authority, sidelining clerics whom he believes have failed to support him and demanding unquestioning loyalty from senior officials whom he has entrusted to drive a 15-year reform programme that aims to overhaul most aspects of life in Saudi Arabia.
Central to the reforms has been the breaking of an alliance between hardline clerics who have long defined the national character and the House of Saud, which has run affairs of state. The changes have tackled head-on societal taboos such as the recently rescinded ban on women driving, as well as scaling back guardianship laws that restrict women’s roles and establishing an Islamic centre tasked with certifying the sayings of the prophet Muhammed.
The scale and scope of the reforms has been unprecedented in the country’s modern history and concerns remain that a deeply conservative base will oppose what is effectively a cultural revolution – and that the kingdom lacks the capacity to follow through on its economic ambitions.
The new economic zone is to be established on 470km of the Red Sea coast, in a tourist area that has already been earmarked as a liberal hub akin to Dubai, where male and female bathers are free to mingle.
It has been unveiled as the centrepiece of efforts to turn the kingdom away from a near total dependence on oil and into a diverse open economy. Obstacles remain: an entrenched poor work ethic, a crippling regulatory environment and a general reluctance to change.
“Economic transformation is important but equally essential is social transformation,” said one of the country’s leading businessmen. “You cannot achieve one without the other. The speed of social transformation is key. It has to be manageable.”
Alcohol, cinemas and theatres are still banned in the kingdom and mingling between unrelated men and women remains frowned upon. However Saudi Arabia – an absolute monarchy – has clipped the wings of the once-feared religious police, who no longer have powers to arrest and are seen to be falling in line with the new regime.
Economically Saudi Arabia will need huge resources if it is to succeed in putting its economy on a new footing and its leadership believes it will fail to generate strategic investments if it does not also table broad social reforms.
Prince Mohammed had repeatedly insisted that without establishing a new social contract between citizen and state, economic rehabilitation would fail. “This is about giving kids a social life,” said a senior Saudi royal figure. “Entertainment needs to be an option for them. They are bored and resentful. A woman needs to be able to drive herself to work. Without that we are all doomed. Everyone knows that – except the people in small towns. But they will learn.”
In the next 10 years, at least five million Saudis are likely to enter the country’s workforce, posing a huge problem for officials who currently do not have jobs to offer them or tangible plans to generate employment.
The economic zone is due to be completed by 2025 – five years before the current cap on the reform programme – and is to be powered by wind and solar energy, according to its founders.
The country’s enormous sovereign wealth fund is intended to be a key backer of the independent zone. It currently has $230bn under management. The sale of 5% of the world’s largest company, Aramco, is expected to raise several hundred billion dollars more.