Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Is Pushing for a 'Moderate' Future and It Could Change Everything
Photo by Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters
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Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Is Pushing for a 'Moderate' Future and It Could Change Everything

A swing toward moderate Islam could have wide-reaching impacts on countries like Indonesia.

They were words few expected to hear. Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the man who is set to inherit the throne from his father, laid out his vision for the future of Saudi Arabia—a country that has, for decades, been seen as the poster child of ultra-conservative interpretations of Islam, in an interview with The Guardian newspaper.

The last three decades, a period that ushered in the spread of a fundamentalist Wahhabi strain of Islam across the kingdom and abroad, were "not normal," and "not Saudi Arabia," Prince Mohammed explained.

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"What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia," the 31-year-old crown prince told The Guardian. "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."

The crown prince's words, taken at face value, represent a serious shift for the oil-rich kingdom. Saudi Arabia is a country where women, until last month, were not allowed to drive. It's a place where a video of a young woman walking through an ancient city in a short skirt raised such a stink that she was briefly detained for her own safety.

Saudi Arabia enforces strict rules that limited a woman's freedom of mobility by requiring her to receive the approval of her male guardian whenever she wants to travel, get married, or even rent an apartment. It's basically been a pretty rough place to live for many women, and there were, for a long time, few signs things would change.

A Saudi woman uses her smartphone as she checks a car at a showroom in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo by Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters

But the crown prince has long been pushing for a more open Saudi Arabia, and his comments during his latest interview seem to show his head is in the same place despite recent moves that now place him next in line for the throne. Prince Mohammed said that he was planning for a more modern country by looking backwards to a time before ultra-conservatism took root.

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"We are simply reverting to what we followed—a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions," he told The Guardian. "70 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."

We recently got an idea of what this future could look like. Saudi Arabia just announced plans to build a massive—and we mean massive—new city called Neom on the coast of the Red Sea. The city, which will be 22 times bigger than New York City, will cost an estimated $500 billion USD. But the biggest take-away from the project isn't the price tag, it's the scenes of women jogging in sports bras and working in co-ed offices that's making headlines. Neom is basically a new Dubai, but in Saudi Arabia instead. Just take a look at the futuristic ad they produced below.

The new city is part of the crown prince's Vision 2030 plan which aims to dramatically change Saudi Arabia's economy, shifting away from such a heavy reliance on oil—a resource that made the kingdom rich but is also, by most estimates, rapidly running out. Take into account the fact that Saudi Arabia suffered huge deficits in 2015, 2016, and 2017 and you can see why the days of petrodollars paying for government jobs, Italian sports cars, and insanely expensive yachts are numbered.

But can the crown prince actually challenge the kingdom's massively influential hardline clerics and change the face of Saudi Arabia? And what does it mean for countries like Indonesia, where Saudi organizations have bankrolled a university, scholarships, and countless Islamic boarding schools all to spread their ultra-conservative strain of Islam across the Muslim world?

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In the 1970s, the kingdom's elite conservative clerics opposed any efforts to modernize the country if that "modernization" came with more liberal rules on women's rights, dress, and religious expression. But King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was eager to build-up the kingdom's infrastructure so he struck a bargain—let the government build its bridges and skyscrapers and the royals will keep their hands out of religion.

Saudi women take part in Glowork exhibition in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo by Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters

The deal still stands today. The Sharia Police wield considerable power, clerics have railed against everything from Pokemon Go to musical instruments, and all of this was left relatively unchecked until now. But as the reform-minded crown prince rises in power, the chasm between the kingdom the royals want Saudi Arabia to become and the place the clerics want it to remain has become more apparent than ever. Even efforts to reopen movie theaters—they were all closed in the 70s—have been recently met with a hostile reactions from religious authorities.

"Prince Mohammed's statement is a statement of war against the clerics in power," Faisal Assegaf, who runs the Middle East analysis website Albalad, told VICE. "This will cause friction between the government and the clerics. But if they want to be a moderate country, Saudi should learn from Indonesia."

Indonesia has been widely seen by the West as the modern face of Islam for more than a decade. The country is held up as a sign that a nation can be both Muslim-majority and democratic at the same time. But the recent rise of hardline Islam, as well as sectarian-tinged nativism, now threaten to undermine the country's reputation as a tolerant and pluralistic place. And, to a lot of people, Saudi Arabia is more than partly to blame for this shift.

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Saudi Arabia is the home of Mecca, the holiest place in the Islamic faith, and the Saudi people's proximity to the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad gives them a special air of significance in the eyes of a lot of Indonesian Muslims. So what does it mean if, one day soon, Saudi Arabia starts looking a lot more like Indonesia?

"If Saudi Arabia becomes a moderate state, then the radical groups in Indonesia will have less room," Faisal said. "They will be cornered."

The basic belief goes that most of Indonesia's religious fundamentalists have some connection to Saudi Arabia, whether it's through funding, scholarships, or even political protection. The head of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) Habib Rizieq Shihab has been avoiding arrest in a pornography case for months by hiding out in Saudi Arabia. So a shift in the kingdom's national identity could delegitimize these kinds of ultra-conservative beliefs.

Others, though, warn that a more open Saudi Arabia doesn't necessarily mean an end to hardline Wahhabi beliefs. The clerics and muftis could just move somewhere else, setting up shop in a new country more receptive to their views—and possibly in-need of the kinds of money they bring with them.

"Saudi Arabia becoming more moderate will affect Indonesia," Mahfudz Siddiq, a member of the Islamist Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) and a lawmaker in the House of Representatives, told VICE. "But there will be contraction and division too. There's a chance the mufti will be sent to other Muslim-majority countries to revive Salafi teachings there."

Regardless, Saudi Arabia first has to prove that it's actually willing to change before the potential impacts on countries like Indonesia can be measured.

"If there's a commitment to move toward a moderate direction, that would be revolutionary," Faisal told VICE. "But they have to prove this."