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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Saudi's Mohammed bin Salman promises return to 'moderate open Islam'

At global conference in Riyadh Crown Prince tells audience that country wants to go back to how it was before 1979

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh AFP
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attends the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh AFP

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince promised that the Kingdom’s transformation, which he is leading, will include a return to “moderate open Islam” as landmark plans were unveiled to build a “next generation global city” extending across its borders into Egypt and Jordan.

During a panel discussion at the Future Investment Initiative summit in Riyadh, attended by the world’s leading corporate executives, entrepreneurs and government ministers and organised to showcase the kingdom’s Vision 2030 economic blueprint, Prince Mohammed bin Salman - who leads the vision and became Crown Prince in June - said the country wanted to go back to “what we were before”.

“Saudi Arabia was not like this before 1979. We want to go back to what we were, the moderate Islam that's open to all religions. We want to live a normal life .... coexist and contribute to the world,” he said.

In 1979, armed extremists seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca and demanded the overthrow of the ruling House of Saud. In the wake of the deadly siege, a stricter code of Islam began to be enforced in the Kingdom.

Yesterday, Prince Mohammed also promised to “end extremism very soon".

"We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today," he said.

Last week, Saudi said it would establish a religious centre that will monitor interpretations of Prophet Mohammed’s Hadiths to prevent extremists from using them to justify acts of terror and violence. Women will also be allowed to drive from next year, following consultations with senior scholars, it was announced last month.

Neom, the name of the planned mega-city also being billed as a “start-up the size of a country”, will span 26,500 square kilometres of what is essentially desert on the Kingdom’s Red Sea coast, across from the Sinai Peninsula and south of Aqaba. The site will also become the main entrance to the King Salman Bridge, linking Asia and Africa. Neom will have its own laws but will remain under Saudi sovereignty.

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It will cost US$500 billion to develop Neom with the funding coming from the Public Investment Fund and international investors such as Japan’s Softbank. Former Alcoa and Siemens executive Klaus Kleinfeld has been appointed to lead the project.

All services and processes in Neom will be full automated, wireless high speed internet will be provided free of charge as “digital air’ and the development will be powered entirely by renewable energy.

The project is aimed at inspiring the 70 per cent of Saudi’s 27 million population that is under-25. Prince Mohammed bin Salman said he believes that they have what it takes to “create the impossible”.

“If they work properly they will create a totally different country [but] if they go the other way they will bring destruction on this country,” he said. “What is comforting is they have great passion on a personal and national level.”

The link up with neighbours Jordan and Egypt signifies a cementing of Saudi Arabia’s status in the region. The three are also leading regional allies of the United States and Saudi and Egypt, together with the UAE and Bahrain, are aligned their isolation of Qatar of its support of extremist groups.

Jordan and Egypt did not immediately comment on the launch of Neom.