Will Saudi Arabia’s NEOM Mega-city Project Promote Religious Reform?
Trump's Diplomacy Supports the Young Saudi Crown Prince's Ambition

Key points in this article:

  • Religious rules based on Islamic laws, such as the driving ban on women, will be lifted in a mega-city planned by Saudi Arabia.
  • The relaxation of religious codes by the Saudi King and Crown Prince is backed by Trump’s policies.
  • If Saudi Arabia, a strict Islamic country, advances its religious reform, the movement will spread to the entire Islamic world.

Saudi Arabia recently announced a project to build a futuristic mega-city featuring cutting-edge technology, which is drawing the world’s attention. Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, unveiled the plan in front of an audience of more than 3500 investors, key figures in businesses, corporate executives and government officials who gathered in Riyadh from all over the world.

The mega-city, dubbed “NEOM”, will be built in the desert area on the waterfront of the Red Sea. The areas for development cover 26,500 square kilometers and about $5oo billion will be invested into the project.

While Saudi Arabia is promoting the project with the aim of moving away from being an oil-dependent economy, the project also has an aspect of religious reform. In this article, we will look at the religious reforms that are under way in Saudi Arabia and the influence that U.S. President Donald Trump is having on those reforms.


Saudi Arabia, the County Where Women Are Prohibited from Driving

In Saudi Arabia, women are currently not allowed to obtain a driver’s license.

However, on September 26th, King Salman issued a royal decree allowing women to get driver’s licenses from June of 2018. Nonetheless, there is still persistent opinion in the country against the ban being lifted.

Islam, which was established more than 1400 years ago, obviously has no tenets forbidding women from driving. It seems that the enactment of the Saudi ban on women driving was a product of Islamic fundamentalists who discriminate against women.

There is even a cleric who makes an unsubstantiated claim about women driving cars. He says, “If a woman drives a car, it will affect her ovaries because it pushes the pelvis upward. For women who continuously drive cars, their children are born with varying degrees of clinical problems.” (The September 25th issue of online publication Newsweek)

In the midst of the heated debate, Saudi Arabia has decided to lift the driving ban on Saudi women in NEOM. Women in Saudi Arabia are required to wear a burqa and remain strictly separated from men in public places, but the just-released promotional video of NEOM features women who are practicing yoga in crop tops, ballet dancing, and working alongside men. This shows an increased willingness to embrace diverse cultures.

Given Saudi Arabia is known as a country that strictly adheres to Islamic law and once required non-Muslim foreigners to observe the law, this shows how seriously they intend to bring about religious reform.

In fact, when Crown Prince Mohammad announced the launch of NEOM, he clarified his policy of driving out extremists from the country. He told the conference, “We will not spend the next 30 years of our lives dealing with any sort of extremist ideologies. We will destroy them today and at once. We want to live a normal life, a life in which our religion translates to tolerance, to our traditions of kindness so that we can co-exist with the world and contribute to the development of the world.”

The Crown Prince Mohammad and King Salman seem to be trying to separate the essential part of faith from the rules created through culture and the interpretation of the teachings.


Trump-led Network for the Elimination of International Terrorism

President Trump’s anti-terrorism and anti-extremism policies strongly influence the Saudi’s moves toward religious transformation.

In May of this year, President Trump attended the US-Arab Islamic Summit where he delivered a speech to the kings, crown princes, and other leaders of more than 50 Muslim countries. In his speech, he appealed to the audience about the importance of unity to eliminate terrorism, stressing that this is a battle between good and evil. He reiterated the need to exclude terrorist and militant groups from their countries to protect their religious faith. His speech received a great response from the Muslim leaders.

In March this year, then-deputy Crown Prince Mohammad met with Trump at the White House. In June, Trump called King Salman and talked about the importance of unity between the Arab states of the Persian Gulf to eliminate terrorism. When Mr. Mohammad was elevated to Crown Prince, Trump called him to congratulate him on his promotion. Both countries are fostering a close relationship with each other.

It seems that the King and Crown Prince, who were impressed with Trump’s policy to stamp out terrorists and extremists acting against God’s will, have set out to do something about the anachronistic culture of the Islamic world and the twisted interpretation of the teachings that can spawn extremists. The religious right in the country has been expressing opposition because they believe that such movements can lead to corruption. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia is expected to steadily move ahead with its religious reform with the support of President Trump.

There are some Saudi Arabians who support the country’s policy of religious reform.
Mr. Ahmed Qassim al-Ghamdi, a former top official of the Saudi Religious Police that enforces the country’s Islamic rules, is one of those people.

In an interview with the New York Times, he said that he had begun to question the strict Islamic rules. He turned to the Quran and continued to study the teachings. Then, he found that much of what Saudis practiced as religion was in fact Arabian cultural practices that had been mixed up with their faith. Jawaher bint Ali, Mr. al-Ghamdi’s wife who supports his activities, says, “Religion is not practices or tradition. It is something different.”

Most religious conflicts are not caused by the differences in the original teachings preached by founders of religions, but by the differences in culture and the interpretation made by believers of each religion. It is not the true intention of God that religions, which are created to save people, fight with each other and take people’s lives.

If Saudi Arabia can advance its religious reform, this will affect the entire Islamic world. We will watch carefully the future movement of Saudi Arabia and President Trump’s support of these initiatives.

Will Saudi Arabia’s NEOM Mega-city Project Promote Religious Reform?
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