Saudi leaders, spurred by the need to diversify the oil-dependent economy, are moving faster than any of their predecessors to unravel the legacy of Islamic conservatism that had taken hold of the country four decades ago and shaped the education of generations.
Spearheading the transformation is 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who sees social liberalization as a vital part of his radical economic modernization plan and has vowed to return his country to a more tolerant form of Islam.
“We are only going back to how we were: to the tolerant, moderate Islam that is open to the world, to all the religions and traditions of its people,” Prince Mohammed said during an investment conference in Riyadh in October.
Last year, the government also began sending teachers abroad to see how Western schools function, a step partly aimed at tackling extremism among educators.
“We are moving in a new direction for education and a new direction for the country,” said Saudi Education Minister Ahmed al-Eissa. He added that new textbooks, scrubbed of vitriol, will be rolled out in the next academic year.
In 2016, the Saudi government stripped the religious police of its power to arrest, the most consequential result of the eroding alliance between the monarchy and the clerical establishment.
The Muslim World League—a body that was once the key vehicle through which Saudi Arabia spread Wahhabi ideology beyond its border—is now led by a moderate cleric, who says promoting greater understanding among faiths is a priority.
“In 1979 our religion was hijacked,” said Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, a former minister of justice, who in a gesture of tolerance routinely encourages the non-Muslim women he meets to remove their headscarves, “Now we are eradicating the roots of extremism.”