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Religious Tolerance in a Changing Gulf

BY Antonino Occhiuto



Religious Tolerance in a Changing Gulf

BY ANTONINO OCCHIUTO – The Arab Gulf is rapidly changing. The ambitious 2030 economic diversification programmes carried out by most members of the Gulf Cooperation Countries are set to reshape the economic landscape of the region, traditionally reliant on oil income, for years to come.

The lack of international attention has, however, characterised another important shift which entails long term implications: the unprecedented focus of the leadership in key Gulf countries to promote religious tolerance while tackling Islamism and extremist preaching in a region which has long suffered from jihadi violence and from which a considerable number of terrorists have been recruited from.

The landmark 2018 summit, held in Dubai, UAE, which involved more than 15 international and local universities, focused on the crucial role of women and the youth in spreading tolerance. This is only the latest of a series of initiatives aiming to prevent religion can be used as a weapon to divide.

As a matter of fact, Gulf momentum behind the focus on religious tolerance was generated by the 2017 Manama Declaration, issued by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, in which Bahrain’s leader called for pluralism, the unequivocal rejection of compelled religious observance, and strongly condemned acts of violence, abuse and incitement in the name of religion.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, as part of his efforts to modernise the Kingdom, has also demonstrated on several occasions, how one of his top priorities is ensuring that the country’s youth and future generations are not contaminated by extremist preaching and teaching. A crackdown on Islamist teachers and schools, stripping the religious police of arrest powers and expanding the space for women in public life, represents an important step to guide Saudi Arabia towards a more moderate form of Islam and modernity.

Due to the Arab Gulf’s growing economic indicators and a large, youthful population, the changes which are currently undergoing are likely to affect the region for the foreseeable future. This is particularly important considering the increasing importance of the Gulf in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond.