On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia's crown prince declared war on the clerical elite who have long shaped Saudi society.
The man who will be Saudi Arabia's next king, Mohammed bin Salman, did so by delivering an unequivocal message, "We are returning to what we were before, a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world." The crown prince continued, "We will not waste 30 years of our lives wasting time dealing with extremist ideas. We will destroy them today," he said.
Yet, it isn't just what bin Salman said that matters, but also where and to who he said it.
After all, he said it to an unveiled Fox Business host, Maria Bartiromo, at an event designed to attract foreign entrepreneurial investment. Both those considerations — the unveiled American reporter sharing a royal stage on Saudi soil and the endorsement of capitalist dynamism — are incompatible with the worldview of the Saudi Ulama, or clerical elite.
By his actions, Mohammed bin Salman isn't just throwing down the gauntlet to the Ulama; he's goading them.
Still, while this is just the latest step in bin Salman's ongoing effort to advance women's rights and economic diversification, his Tuesday appearance was staggering for another reason. Because bin Salman pledged that Saudi Arabia will now build a new mega-city named Neom, stretching onto Egyptian and Jordanian soil. According to bin Salman, Neom "will be backed by more than $500 billion over the coming years by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia ... as well as international investors."We're also told that Neom will adopt "an idyllic lifestyle paired with excellent economic opportunities that surpass that of any other metropolis."
In my opinion, however, this vision for the future is antithetical to that of the Ulama. They believe that Saudi Arabia's future depends on its continued adherence to Wahhabi traditionalism and dominant religious authority over society. Moreover, the clerics have long believed that their position was assured as long as they continued to support the unilateral right of the House of Saud to rule the desert kingdom.
Mohammed bin Salman just detonated that understanding.
But now, the hard work begins.
Facing inevitable pushback from the clerics, bin Salman will have to prepare for civil instability and a possible rising tide of terrorism. Still, aside from countering those actually involved in violent conspiracies, bin Salman shouldn't overreact to his public critics. Instead, the crown prince should focus on displacing the Ulama's power by empowering young Saudis (well more than 50 percent of the Saudi population is under 30 years old) in the knowledge that his plans will improve their lives.
Regardless, this is good news for the United States. Unless Saudi Arabia's leaders pursue bold reforms, declining oil prices and a young population will mean a cauldron of terrorism.