Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, speaking at a major investment conference, has promised his kingdom will return to “what we were before – a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world”.
Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud made the announcement at the beginning of the landmark Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh on Tuesday.
The country would also do more to tackle extremism, the prince said. “We will not waste 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas; we will destroy them today,” he said when asked by Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business Network.
“It was not like this in the past... We will end extremism very soon,” the prince added, in his most direct criticism of Saudi Arabia’s conservative religious establishment to date.
Expanding on his earlier comments in an interview with the Guardian, the crown prince said that the country's conservatism was in part fallout from Iran's Islamic Revolution.
“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.
"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."
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, is governed under an puritanical form of Sunni Islam known as Wahabism; it is extremist versions of Wahabism that are espoused by jihadist movements such as al-Qaeda and Isis.
In the wake of 9/11, the Saudi authorities have worked alongside the US and other Western countries to tackle radicalisation and terrorism funding – but have often been criticised for not doing enough.
The claims from Prince bin Salman will be met with scepticism internationally, as Saudi’s hardline clerics still wield much power and influence in the country. Rights groups continue to condemn the state’s human rights violations, the precedent for many of which is based on the Saudi interpretation of Quranic law.
Prince bin Salman, who was suddenly appointed heir to the throne by his father King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud earlier this year, is viewed by many as the face of the modern kingdom.
The 32-year-old is the driving force behind ‘Vision 2030’: Saudi Arabia’s long-term economic and social policy designed to wean itself off dependence on oil, and is popular for his reforms to the country’s ineffective state bureaucracy.
Last month, it was announced women in Saudi Arabia would be finally be given the right to drive, a symbolic move signalling changes to the institutionalised discrimination against women in the country.
While Prince bin Salman has built his reputation as a bold and socially liberal reformer, critics note his hawkish foreign policy. As defence minister – a position he has held since 2015 – he has attracted censure over his role in Saudi Arabia’s bloody intervention in the Yemeni civil war, as well as his aggressive stance on Iran.
The prince is also regarded as one of the primary decision makers behind the Gulf states’ recent cutting of ties with Qatar.
Also at the Future Investment Initiative, Prince bin Salman announced the creation of Neom, a new $500bn (£381m) independent economic zone to be built on the border with Jordan and Egypt.
The 2025 project will operate using alternative energy and serve as a worldwide technology innovation hub, he said.
The conference, which runs until Thursday, is aimed at showing that Riyadh is opening itself up to the modern world and diversifying its revenue streams, following a global plunge in oil prices.