Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, says he wants to move his conservative Muslim country towards a more moderate version of Islam, but how serious is he about religious freedom?

Saudi Arabia is known for its conservative brand of Islam, Wahhabism (World Watch Monitor)

Speaking at a conference for investors in Riyadh last month the 32-year-old Crown Prince said the conservative version of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, only arose after the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

“We were not like this in the past,” he said. “We only want to go back to what we were, to moderate Islam that is open to the world, open to all the religions.”

But Jayson Casper, in an article for Christianity Today, says his comments have to be taken in context. “Stated at the launch of a $500 billion megacity overlapping the borders with Egypt and Jordan, such talk of moderation could encourage investors in the diversification of a lagging economy long dependent on oil revenues, which are now falling,” Casper writes.

Besides that, the country’s economy relies heavily on the labour and expertise of 12 million expatriates (a third of the population), by whom such comments would no doubt be welcomed.

Some have also suggested the reform plans are part of a power grab, citing the recent arrests of members of the royal family, government officials and religious clerics.

But Palestinian Christian journalist, Daoud Kuttab, told Casper: “The days of a religious monopoly in Saudi Arabia are over. No more pushing Islam down every citizen’s throat… There is a lot of hype but we now know the Crown Prince is serious.”

Andrea Zaki, president of the Protestant Churches of Egypt, referenced King Salman’s recent visit to Egypt, where he met Coptic Pope Tawadros II, the first ever encounter between a Saudi monarch and a Coptic Orthodox patriarch.

Last week the Lebanese Maronite Patriarch, Bechara Boutros al-Rai, visited the Crown Prince despite political tensions between the two countries. Danny Nasrallah, a Lebanese Catholic, said it was “a good omen of where the Kingdom is headed”.

As a “gift” to the Lebanese Patriarch, Bin Salman announced plans to restore and re-open a 900-year-old church, to be used as a centre for inter-religious dialogue.

Meanwhile, King Salman has ordered an international council of senior Islamic scholars to monitor preachers and jurists’ use of Prophet Muhammad’s hadiths (sayings) “to prevent them being used to justify violence or extremism”.

But others remain sceptical, saying the “positive noise” coming from the Saudi monarchy should not divert the world’s attention from Saudi Arabia’s role in the brutal conflict in Yemen, in which civilians have borne the brunt of the violence.

“It has been shocking to see the terrible impact of this man-made conflict. In the absence of substantial progress … the already dire situation will continue to deteriorate. The human suffering, already extreme, will grow and grow,” according to Mark Lowcock, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, has for decades promoted and exported Wahhabism, and played a major role in the growth of radical Islam in places like Indonesia and the Horn of Africa.

According to the Pew Research Center, 93 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s population is Muslim, and about 4 per cent Christian. There is, however, not one official church building in the nation and leaving Islam is technically punishable by death.

Saudi Arabia is number 14 on the 2017 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.