Saudi Arabia‘s crown prince, speaking at a major investment conference, has promised the country will “return to what we used to be – moderate, open Islam”.
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 told interviewers.
“It was not like this in the past… We will end extremism very soon”, the prince added.
Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, is governed under an puritanical Sunni form of Islam known as Wahabism; it is extremist versions of Wahabism that are espoused by jihadist groups 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 – but have often been criticised for not doing enough.
10 examples of Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses
In October 2014, three lawyers, Dr Abdulrahman al-Subaihi, Bander al-Nogaithan and Abdulrahman al-Rumaih , were sentenced to up to eight years in prison for using Twitter to criticize the Ministry of Justice.
In March 2015, Yemen’s Sunni President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was forced into exile after a Shia-led insurgency. A Saudi Arabia-led coalition has responded with air strikes in order to reinstate Mr Hadi. It has since been accused of committing war crimes in the country.
Women who supported the Women2Drive campaign, launched in 2011 to challenge the ban on women driving vehicles, faced harassment and intimidation by the authorities. The government warned that women drivers would face arrest.
Members of the Kingdom’s Shia minority, most of whom live in the oil-rich Eastern Province, continue to face discrimination that limits their access to government services and employment. Activists have received death sentences or long prison terms for their alleged participation in protests in 2011 and 2012.
All public gatherings are prohibited under an order issued by the Interior Ministry in 2011. Those defy the ban face arrest, prosecution and imprisonment on charges such as “inciting people against the authorities”.
In March 2014, the Interior Ministry stated that authorities had deported over 370,000 foreign migrants and that 18,000 others were in detention. Thousands of workers were returned to Somalia and other states where they were at risk of human rights abuses, with large numbers also returned to Yemen, in order to open more jobs to Saudi Arabians. Many migrants reported that prior to their deportation they had been packed into overcrowded makeshift detention facilities where they received little food and water and were abused by guards.
The Saudi Arabian authorities continue to deny access to independent human rights organisations like Amnesty International, and they have been known to take punitive action, including through the courts, against activists and family members of victims who contact Amnesty.
Raif Badawi was sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for using his liberal blog to criticise Saudi Arabia’s clerics. He has already received 50 lashes, which have reportedly left him in poor health.
Carsten Koall/Getty Images
Dawood al-Marhoon was arrested aged 17 for participating in an anti-government protest. After refusing to spy on his fellow protestors, he was tortured and forced to sign a blank document that would later contain his ‘confession’. At Dawood’s trial, the prosecution requested death by crucifixion while refusing him a lawyer.
Ali Mohammed al-Nimr was arrested in 2012 aged either 16 or 17 for participating in protests during the Arab spring. His sentence includes beheading and crucifixion. The international community has spoken out against the punishment and has called on Saudi Arabia to stop. He is the nephew of a prominent government dissident.
Prince bin Salman, who was appointed heir to the throne by his father King Salman earlier this year, is seen 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 plan to wean itself off dependence on oil, and is popular for his reforms to the country’s ineffective state bureaucracy.
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 criticism for 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.