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Saudi Arabia wants to return to ‘moderate Islam.’ Skeptics say it’s a marketing ploy.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sits during an allegiance pledging ceremony in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, on June 21. (Bandar Algaloud/Saudi Royal Court/Reuters)

When Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced Tuesday that he wanted the kingdom to return to “moderate Islam,” not everyone was convinced.

On the face of it, the statement fueled hopes that the ultraconservative kingdom would finally give in to critics who have long demanded more liberties and tolerance, but others cautioned that it was not at all clear what a more “moderate Islam” would look like for Saudi Arabia. In fact, the declaration might have more to do with boosting the kingdom’s economy rather than reversing decades-old practices.

Mohammed’s remarks Tuesday, at a conference and in interviews, indicated that he was committed to combating extreme interpretations of Islam and to focusing on economic reforms. “Seventy percent 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,” Mohammed said at the conference, which was attended by global investors.

“We are simply reverting to what we followed — a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions,” he said.

In a subsequent interview with the Guardian, he unexpectedly blamed Saudi Arabia’s arch enemy Shiite Iran for the kingdom's turn toward Wahhabism, an ultraconservative branch of Islam, which is being promoted by Riyadh both domestically and abroad.

“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,” said Mohammed, speaking to the Guardian.

The Saudi state is deeply rooted in and has long been intimately entwined with Sunni Wahhabism. Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, the religious leader who founded the branch about three centuries ago, was a key ally of Muhammad ibn Saud, who is widely considered to be the founder of the Saudi state.

With the foundation of the modern Saudi state in the 20th century, Islam became the state religion with almost all clerics promoting the state-funded and government-supported ultraconservative Wahhabi branch. That same Islam was widely promoted in Muslim countries around the world, thanks to the Saudi state’s deep pockets.

This sudden royal criticism of the kingdom’s long-held religious practices provoked skepticism from critics of the Saudi leadership.

Madawi Al-Rasheed, a Middle East scholar at the London School of Economics, argued in an email that Saudi Arabia was not one of the many countries where moderate Islam turned ultraconservative, but was instead an exception. It is a “unique case of radical religion becoming the official religion of the state and its legitimacy narrative,” said Rasheed, who cautioned that the Saudi leadership imprisoned clerics who had attempted to “offer reinterpretations of Islamic text, for example how Islam and democracy are compatible.”

Rasheed questioned whether the announced religious reforms would really be implemented. “The announcements are definitely geared to attract investors and create a feel good factor for a kingdom that had a very bad reputation,” she said.

“It is unclear how a moderate Islam in Saudi Arabia would look like, but I think what Mohammed bin Salman is trying to mainly achieve is to send out a PR message that he is a Western ally in the fight against terrorism and that he stands for a modern future,” said Sebastian Sons, an associate fellow with the German Council on Foreign Relations who focuses on Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed, 32, has attempted to position himself as a favorite for the kingdom’s younger citizens, who are less religious than older generations and are facing disproportionately high unemployment rates.

Mohammed’s Tuesday remarks about Islam in the kingdom were embedded in an announcement about the creation of a new, futuristic city in the west of Saudi Arabia, near the Jordanian and Egyptian borders. Designed to serve as a center for tech companies, the city will be funded with $500 billion from the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund. It is part of a major reform plan, named Saudi Vision 2030, and led by the crown prince himself to revitalize the economy.

A publicity video for Neom, a proposed development in Saudi Arabia announced Oct. 24, depicts a lifestyle for women very different from what exists in the kingd (Video: Discover Neom via Storyful)

Saudi Arabia’s economy is forecast to stagnate this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, after global energy prices fell by more than 50 percent. Saudi Arabia long relied on high oil prices as its main revenue source. With the sudden and unexpected plunge, the kingdom's leadership was forced to pursue drastic reforms within a short time frame about three years ago.

The need for reforms may already have reversed at least some of the leadership's previous ultraconservative stances. Last month, the kingdom surprised the world when it issued a long-overdue royal decree to allow women to be granted driver’s licenses. At the time, the step was widely interpreted as a sign that the modernizers within the Saudi government may have gained ascendance over the conservative hard-liners.

Saudi women are well educated but underemployed, and increasing their participation in the workforce has become a key goal of Mohammed’s reform agenda.

Saudi Arabia’s hard-liners have been under mounting pressure to agree to such proposals, as the kingdom has become increasingly engulfed in economic woes.

If those reforms fail, Saudi Arabia could eventually run out of money, which would constitute a major political risk to the leadership of a kingdom in which many are employed by the state, or rely on de facto state subsidies. After decades of reluctance to embrace societal or economic changes, Saudi Arabia now appears to be pursuing both — at least rhetorically.

“This doesn’t mean that Saudi Arabia will turn into some sort of completely pluralist society where followers of different faiths will coexist equally, though. There are no signs that repressions against Shiites will stop or that the country will end its guardianship system,” said Sons, referring to women's subordination to men in the kingdom.

“Although Saudi clerics have much less influence today than they used to have 10 or 15 years ago and have been rather quiet about the reforms, I cannot imagine that the crown prince would risk to completely relinquish that bond,” said Sons. Continued repressions against Shiites in the kingdom and anti-Iranian messaging, for instance, might placate Wahhabi clerics. Their lack of public criticism may also be due to fears of being arrested, however.

“Reforming Islam does not mean simply allowing women to drive or wear bikinis,” cautioned Middle East scholar Rasheed.

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