Mohammed bin Salman wants to ensure a normal life to the country in which religion means tolerance and kindness. This includes the NEOM project, a city based on alternative energy sources, beyond the control of ultra-conservative clerics. For some these are signs of deep changes, but for others, economics is the driving force.
Riyadh (Asia News/Agencies) – ‘We want to live a normal life. A life in which our religion translates to tolerance, to our traditions of kindness,” said Saudi Arabia’s powerful Prince Mohammed bin Salman. His goal is to make his country “moderate, open”.
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince made the statement yesterday hours after the opening of the Future Investment Initiative, a three-day economic conference that drew some 2,500 dignitaries, including 2,000 foreign investors, to Riyadh.
Breaking with the kingdom’s archconservatives, Salman said he wanted a "new" country. This goal includes a US$ 500 billion plan to build a new city, named NEOM, that would operate under different rules from those in the rest of the country.
Starting in the 1970s, Saudi Arabia underwent major reforms, such as education for girls and television, and this despite resistance by conservative religious circles.
However, the assassination of King Faisal in 1975 slowed down this process in a country built on an alliance between the religious camp, represented by the al-Sheikh family, which controls the social space, and the al-Saud family, which has reigned since the kingdom was founded in 1932.
Since his appointment as crown prince in June, Mohammed bin Salman has sought to loosen the chains of religion on society. He is considered the main player in lifting the ban on women driving.
At the same time, he had more than 20 people arrested, including two influential religious preachers, highlighting his "authoritarianism," this according to some experts and NGOs.
Thanks to bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is starting to open up to the arts and music. For the first time, women have been allowed to participate in the National Day celebrations at a stadium in Riyadh in September.
Saudis are now waiting for cinemas and entertainment, hitherto forbidden by conservative circles.
Some observers wonder how open and tolerant the prince’s choices are, and how much they are dictated by economic factors.
For the past three years, the kingdom has been forced to seek foreign capital, given the more than 50 per cent drop in the price of crude oil.
The new NEOM project calls for the construction of a city that is completely based on alternative energy that would serve as an innovation hub.
The film industry is also expected to lead the way to this new reality, operating under regulations separate from those of the rest of Saudi Arabia.
“This place is not for conventional people or conventional companies,” Prince Mohammed said. “This will be a place for the dreamers of the world.”
Reactions to Prince Mohammed bin Salman vary. Some say this way he is sending a message not only to the Saudis but also to the world, that the kingdom is ready for change. But others note that these developments confirm the prince's image as Saudi Arabia’s strongman.
Appointed Defence minister in January 2015, he has led operations against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, at the helm of a coalition of 34 countries.
At the same time, the prince has committed Saudi Arabia to Syria, alongside the US-led International Coalition, against the Islamic States group.
Now he wants to stop operations in Syria to focus on the conflict in Yemen.