Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the heir apparent to the throne of Saudi Arabia, is determined to be a transformative monarch. He has announced that under his rule, the kingdom will be “returning” to a form of moderate Islam. Leaving aside whether Saudi Arabia, well known for its kind of radical Wahhabism, was ever moderate, a singular reason exists for the Kingdom to lessen its support for extreme Islam. It is running out of oil revenues and needs to reinvent itself while it still can.

Saudi Arabian oil revenues are drying up

The growth of hydraulic fracking in the West, especially the United States, has loosened the once dominant position that Saudi Arabia had in the oil and gas markets.

Add to that development the long-term trends toward alternative sources of energy, the Kingdom finds itself in the unenviable position of not being able to base its economy on fossil fuels any longer. Clearly, it has to switch over to another basis, that of a knowledge-based economy that relies on science and technology.

The barriers to a Saudi knowledge-based economy

The Middle East Policy Council once noted that Saudi Arabia has a number of obstacles to its transformation to a knowledge-based economy. It needs to develop a “national innovation ecosystem” to foster the development of a “relationship between people, enterprises, and institutions that guides the flow of technology and information within a country.” The existence of a system of radical Islam that marginalizes women, keeps out or isolates non-Muslims, and relied overmuch on religious texts rather than science as sources of knowledge all are barriers to developing the NIS.

The challenges of making Saudi Arabia a moderate Muslim state

Crown Prince bin Salman will have his work cut out for him, even after his ascends to the throne and becomes, in theory at least, an absolute monarch. The Imams in the Kingdom are still a dominant force to be reckoned with and will be reluctant to give up power.

Bin Salman also risks sparking a “revolution of rising expectations” especially among younger Saudis who are eager to join the world as part of an ordinary country with freedoms and opportunities that thus far they have been denied.

Numerous examples exist in history in which a little bit of reform creates demands for a radical transformation of a hitherto totalitarian country into something else.

Still, Saudi Arabia has some real-world examples to follow of countries that have become centers of technological innovation, such as South Korea, Taiwan, India, and even China to a certain extent. If the Kingdom can manage such a transformation without blowing up the Middle East, will be changed much for the better.