Saudi Arabia rejects extremism, embraces forward-looking vision

The NEOM project’s name is a reflection of the kingdom’s fusion of modern and Arab cultures.

Swift changes. A woman walks past a sign during the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, on October 24. (Reuters)

2017/10/29 Issue: 129 Page: 1

The Arab Weekly
Mohammed Alkhereiji

London- Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz has pledged to eradicate extremism from the kingdom and spearhead the country’s move into a modern era of prosperity and tol­erance.

Speaking at the Future Invest­ment Initiative (FII) conference in Riyadh, Crown Prince Mohammed said Saudi Arabia would return to a “moderate” form of Islam, stress­ing that the change needed to take effect “now.”

“Frankly speaking, we cannot spend 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas. We will de­stroy them today and immediate­ly,” Crown Prince Mohammed said.

Saudi Arabia’s ultraconservative brand of Islam has been accused of contributing to the rise of radical­ism and violence. New Saudi ini­tiatives have focused on counter­ing extremist messages. A Global Centre for Combating Extremist Ideology was inaugurated in May when US President Donald Trump visited Riyadh.

Since the ascension of King Sal­man bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in January 2015, Saudi Arabia has undergone swift changes, some of which were necessitated by Crown Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 economic plan, the success of which is predicated on social and cultural reforms.

“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,” Crown Prince Mohammed told Britain’s Guard­ian newspaper. “So this is what we are trying to do here and we hope we get support from everyone.”

A battle to keep ultraconserva­tives in line followed. First was the launch in May of the General Au­thority for Entertainment, a body tasked with building an entertain­ment industry in the kingdom. That move was an easy target of extremists to dispute.

A report in Foreign Affairs maga­zine in January stated that Crown Prince Mohammed had put to­gether a multi-pronged strategy to deal with potential backlash to modernisation from the conserva­tive religious establishment.

Foreign Affairs said Crown Prince Mohammed noted that only a small percentage of Saudi reli­gious scholars would be “too dog­matic to be reasoned with.” How­ever, any incitement or violence would be met with “isolation and other punitive measures,” he said.

The evolution has been quick with a number of recent landmark steps, including curtailing the powers of religious police, staging music concerts for the first time in more than a decade and the rever­sal, to take effect next June, of the female driving ban.

Also revealed during the FII was a Saudi plan to build a $500 billion mega-city and business zone three times the size of New York.

“There will be many opportu­nities but we will work only with the dreamers — people who want to create something new in the world,” Crown Prince Mohammed said in announcing the project.

The project, called NEOM, would extend into Jordan and Egypt and would be a futuristic, technology hub focusing on specialised invest­ment sectors such as water, trans­port, biotechnology, technical and digital sciences, media production and entertainment.

The project’s name is a reflection of the kingdom’s fusion of modern and Arab cultures; “neo” means new and “m” is the first letter in the Arabic word “mustaqbal,” which translates to “the future.”

Mohammed Alkhereiji is the Arab Weekly’s Gulf section editor.

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