On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia's crown prince and heir apparent to the throne Mohammed bin Salman said that he wants to restore the country to a moderate form of Islam and rid it of extremists.
"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 told Fox Business's Maria Bartiromo at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh. "We will not waste 30 years of our lives dealing with extremist ideas, we will destroy them today."
Prince bin Salman went on to criticize the Saudi Arabia of old, saying, "It was not like this in the past ... We will end extremism very soon."
For starters, the fact that bin Salman spoke to an American woman journalist who did not wear a hijab (or head covering) is a good first step that sends a message that he means what he says. In late September, Saudi Arabia announced that, after years of restricting women's rights and privileges, they would finally let women drive.
It's nice that the Saudi government wants to treat its own citizens better. It really is. However, they're still pretty keen on making the lives of their neighbors more miserable, and that, in principle, is antithetical to what a moderate Muslim country should strive to be.
For example, the Saudi government has been leading the bombardment of their southwestern neighbor Yemen since March 2015 that's led to thousands of civilian casualties. According to the United Nations Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, an estimated 5,000 civilians (most of whom are Yemeni) have been killed and over 8,000 have been wounded as recently reported as of June 2017. Prince bin Salman was appointed Defense Minister in January 2015, which puts him at the center of overseeing the brutal intervention.
Not only has Saudi Arabia's Sunni monarchy been aggressive towards Yemen, but they have also done everything they could to their Shia counterpart, Iran, for the hegemony of the Middle East without leading a direct invasion. Saudi Arabia's beef with Iran is a key reason why they're leading the bombing campaign in Yemen. The Iranian-backed Houthi rebels are seeking to control Yemen, which directly threatens the balance of power for the Saudis.
Additionally, the Saudi government's treatment of its Shia minority population can best be remembered with the arbitrary arrest and subsequent execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. In January 2016, Sheikh Nimr was executed for his role in the Arab Spring uprising. While he was sentenced to death for "terrorism" and seditious behavior by a specialized criminal court, many Shias viewed Sheikh Nimr as a cleric who merely called for equality and better treatment by the Sunni government.
Of course, Iran's aggression should be condemned. However, the main difference between Saudi Arabia and Iran is that we call the former our "ally" and the latter as the "leading state sponsor of terrorism." As the stewards of the two holiest sites in Islam (Mecca and Medina), the Saudis are capable of doing better. It starts with looking harder at themselves in the mirror.