Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said women are “absolutely” equal — a surprising statement from the de facto leader of a country often criticized for its treatment of women.

“We are all human beings and there is no difference,” he said in an interview on CBS’s “60 Minutes” on Sunday.

Over the past year, Prince Mohammed has been incrementally increasing women’s rights in the middle eastern kingdom as part of his “Vision 2030” plan to economically and socially reform his country.

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While he has been celebrated for his efforts to bring Saudi Arabia into the future, it seems the prince was inspired by the past.

During the “60 Minutes” interview with Norah O’Donnell, the prince said that Saudis have been victims since 1979 when neighboring Iran adopted a strict religious code and extremists gained power in Saudi Arabia.

“This is not the real Saudi Arabia,” Prince Mohammed said. “I would ask your viewers to use their smartphones to find out. And they can Google Saudi Arabia in the 70s and 60s, and they will see the real Saudi Arabia easily in the pictures.”

“Women were driving cars,” he said. For decades now, Saudi women have been prohibited from driving, but the government announced last fall that it would allow women back on the roads in June.

“Women worked everywhere,” the prince continued. “We were just normal people developing like any other country in the world until the events of 1979.”

Now, “we have extremists who forbid mixing between the two sexes and are unable to differentiate between a man and a woman alone together and their being together in a workplace,” he said. But this ideology contradicts the “true model” of Islam, he said.

And, perhaps most surprisingly, the prince said that the iconic black abaya now closely associated with Saudi Arabia’s women is not required by Islamic law — called Sharia law — and that women should not be forced to wear it. His sentiment echoed that of Sheikh Abdullah al-Mutlaq, a senior Saudi Islamic scholar, who said last month that women should not be required to wear abayas, noting that 90% of women in the Muslim world do not.

Read more: An Iranian Woman Who Removed Her Hijab Was Sentenced to 2 Years in Prison

“The laws are very clear and stipulated in the laws of Sharia: that women wear decent, respectful clothing, like men,” Prince Mohammed said. “This, however, does not particularly specify a black abaya or a black head cover. The decision is entirely left for women to decide what type of decent and respectful attire she chooses to wear.”

Reuters reported that women have already begun wearing abayas in various colors over the past few years, some even wearing them open over jeans or long skirts.

The ambitious prince said the country is working on more than putting an end to the ban on women driving — which he called a “painful period that we cannot justify.” Equal pay is also on the agenda, but while these are major improvements on the country’s treatment of women, these measures won’t establish gender equality in Saudi Arabia, a fact the prince is well aware of.

“Today, Saudi women still have not received their full rights,” he said. “There are rights stipulated in Islam that they still don't have. We have come a very long way and have a short way to go.”

Read more: 2017 Was A Good Year for Saudi Women, But There’s Still A Long Way to Go

But many would take issue with his latter statement. When it comes to its human rights records, Saudi Arabia arguably has a long road ahead of it.

The prince did not mention whether or not further action would be taken to dismantle the male guardianship system that requires women to get permission from a male relative to do things such as apply for a job or travel.

Saudi Arabia has also been heavily criticized for its role in the war in neighboring Yemen, in which civilians have been targeted and where Saudi Arabia’s aid blockade has created dire famine.

Prince Mohammed has also been accused of detaining people without due process and using coercion and physical force as part of his anti-corruption campaign.

The crown prince is first in line to take the throne, which his father King Salman, 82, currently occupies. The then-31-year-old Prince Mohammed was named crown prince last June, an announcement welcomed by Saudi’s substantial youth population, but controversial among members of its older, conservative generation, the Guardian reported. His appointment to crown prince was supported by 31 out of 34 members of the king’s Allegiance Council — comprised of senior members of the ruling Saud family — but the prince’s progressive agenda and reform tactics have made him a controversial figure both at home and abroad.

While people were excited by the prince’s comments on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, many are hoping that the prince’s actions will speak even louder than his words.

Global Citizen campaigns in support of gender equality and human rights for all. You can take action here to support women’s rights and call on world leaders to #LeveltheLaw and amend gender discriminatory policies.


Demand Equity

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Says Women Are 'Absolutely' Equal

By Daniele Selby  and  Jana Sepehr