Saudi Arabia’s ambitious young crown prince has said he will lead his country back to “moderate Islam” as he announced plans for a vast new £380 million economic development zone.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman told investors gathered in Riyadh that his economic modernisation plans would go hand-in-hand with with political reforms to guide the conservative kingdom away from severe Wahhabi Islam.
"We are returning to what we were before - a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world," the 32-year-old prince said.
"We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with destructive ideas. We will destroy them today," he added. "We will end extremism very soon."
The prince's pledge is a challenge to Saudi's conservative clerics and came as he announced plans for NEOM, a new economic zone that will stretch across Saudi’s borders into neighboring Egypt and Jordan.
The zone will be 26,500km square, making it bigger than Wales and significantly larger than neighbouring Middle Eastern states like Israel, Lebanon or Kuwait.
The project is the latest announcement from Prince Mohammed, who is pushing aggressively to modernise the kingdom and wean it off its dependence on oil as part of his Vision 2030 plan.
He laid out a vision of a futuristic economic zone where robots may outnumber humans, drones will carry passengers and omnipresent high-speed internet will be known as “digital air”.
Saudi has announced a string of reforms in recent months, including plans to allow women to drive, but it remains one of the world’s most socially conservative societies.
Prince Mohammed’s modernising plans have been applauded by many western leaders but some analysts are sceptical that he will be able to push through economic and political changes on the scale he is talking about.
Earlier this year, the royal family backed away from plans to cut benefits for state employees in the face of public anger - a sign of how difficult it may be to reform Saudi Arabia’s oil-based economy.
Last week, Saudi authorities said they were forming a council of Islamic scholars who would counter violent interpretations of the Koran and the hadith - a set of lessons learned from the life of the prophet Mohammed.
The government has also eased restrictions on the use of video messaging applications like Skype and Whatsapp.
The investment conference itself was intended as a symbol of modernity and dubbed by some observers as “Davos in the Desert”. Men and women sat together at the event and it was attended high-profile figures like Tony Blair and Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund.
“This initiative is something you couldn’t have imagined happening in Saudi Arabia even a few years back,” said Mr Blair, who praised the direction of Prince Mohammed’s reforms.
His comments were criticised by Reprieve, a British human rights group, which called Mr Blair’s praise “spectacularly tone deaf” in light of Saudi Arabia’s poor human rights record. “The Saudi government has executed hundreds of people in the past few years – including protesters and children,” said Maya Foa, Reprieve’s director.
Prince Mohammed became heir to the throne in June at the expense of his older cousin, the powerful interior minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayaf, who was stripped of his title as crown prince.
His father, King Salman, is 81 and in poor health and Prince Mohammed is widely seen as the effective ruler of Saudi Arabia. He serves as the country’s defence minister and has wide powers to manage its economy.
The prince has led the country’s war in neighboring Yemen, which has seen more than 10,000 people killed. The UN recently blacklisted the Saudi-led military coalition for killing and injuring hundreds of children in the conflict.