- The Crown Prince of ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia has promised to "destroy extremism" and promote "moderate Islam"
- His comments have been characterized as a cynical attempt to win investment from the West
- Suggestions have been raised that he could face a backlash from the Saudi religious establishment
- But, in fact, "fighting extremism" might not mean the same in Saudi Arabia as it does to a Western audience
As the Saudi monarchy continues to roll out its dramatic program of economic and social reform, experts warn that the changes, presumed to be aimed at attracting outside investment, lack internal appeal.
On Tuesday, the nation’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman vowed to “destroy extremism” and return to a “a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions”.
Bin Salman made the comments at an event attended by international business people during which he announced the launch of a $500 bn project on the Red Sea.
In this context, analysts described his words as little more than an attempt to impress the West.
“He's doing this to give a new face of Saudi Arabia aimed at the Western world, primarily, dazzling them with all the buttons that they want to hear pushed about entrepreneurship, liberalism, moderate Islam,” Rami Khouri, professor of journalism and senior public policy fellow at American University of Beirut, told Bloomberg.
“You can't make everyone happy so you say I'll go with the youth, I'll go with the women and I'll go with the people who are modern and inshallah (God willing) enough of the religious scholars will give me a rubber stamp for what I am doing,” he added. “It's not going to work.”
The Saudi royal family has depended on backing from the ultra-conservative religious establishment to ensure its claim to legitimacy.
In recent months, however, they have implemented unprecedented reforms constituting, according to The Guardian, an effective “cultural revolution”, potentially undermining that deeply conservative power base.
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Yet fears Bin Salman might face resistance at home over his comments on combating extremism appear to be, at least to some extent, misplaced.
In fact, if the social media response is anything to go on, he may well have played a clever game. By saying “we will destroy extremism”, the young Crown Prince exploited a dual understanding to appeal to both his audiences.
For foreign investors, combating extremism and promoting moderate Islam might mean moving away from the Wahhabist ideology upon which Saudi Arabia was founded.
Yet among those Saudis backing him online, there was an implicit understanding that he was referring instead to Saudi Islamist movement “Sahwa” or “Awakening”.
The tombstone reads "Sahwa, 1979-2017"
@aa1358 tweeted that Sahwa had created “a generation that understood Islam only though the language of violence and exclusion”, adding the hashtag "we will destroy extremism".
ِA dissident group, which undermined the Saudi King's authority by protesting against the hosting of U.S. troops fighting Saddam Hussein, it was crushed in 1995.
Sahwa was dismissed as an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, described by one Saudi royal as “the source of all evil”, and itself combatted as a terrorist group in the kingdom.
The movement reemerged with the Arab Spring in 2011, when members called for reform in Saudi Arabia.
Those included Salman al-Ouda, who wrote an open letter to the then King Abdullah in March 2013. Last month, al-Awda was arrested in an apparent crackdown on opposition clerics.
Ironically, in recent times al-Ouda had been increasingly seen as a moderate voice.
Whether intended or not, these parallel understandings of promoting "moderate Islam" may well work in Bin Salman’s favor.
While abroad he can engage liberalizing rhetoric, at home he can appease conservative clerics and ordinary Saudis while consolidating his and his father’s power by removing opposition voices
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