The legacy of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah

King Abdullah leaves the kingdom in a region changing quickly – more intricately linked than ever by technology and the speed of news, but in other ways as divided as ever in its modern history, writes Elizabeth Dickinson.

FILE - Saudi King Abdullah, left, greets UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed before the closing ceremony of the GCC-Summit in Riyadh December 10, 2006.  Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah died before dawn on January 23, 2015.  Reuters
Powered by automated translation

In early February 2007, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud took the leaders of warring Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah to the holiest site in Islam and told them to make peace.

The venue was the King’s palace in Mecca overlooking the Kaaba. The two Palestinian leaders, Khaled Meshaal of Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, entered the Holy Mosque together, draped in the robes of pilgrimage, to touch the black stone.

Within days, they walked away with an agreement.

This was classic King Abdullah, a man who, during his nearly 10 years as king and two decades leading the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, gained a reputation for patience, dialogue and unwavering religious faith. His leadership was a powerful blend mixing the soft power of symbolism, the hard power of generous state coffers, and the pragmatism of honest discussion.

King Abdullah died on Friday, January 23, 2015 – having seamlessly woven together the many roles that Saudi Arabia can and does play at home and in the region.

“Saudi Arabia sees itself as the leader of the Arab world, the Islamic world, and the energy world,” said Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute. “Although to the outside world, the energy predominates, to the Saudis generally and King Abdullah in particular, it was the Arab and Islamic leadership that was most crucial.”

King Abdullah was popular – even at the most trying of times for the kingdom and the region. And much of his charm had to do with the very fact of who he was to Saudi Arabia.

The son of a Bedouin woman from the Shammar tribe and the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, Abdullah was the personification of the very marriage that had wed the state of Saudi Arabia together — an improbable kingdom of landed and Bedouin who stretched across hostile desert terrain.

Over the decades that King Abdulaziz ruled, the kingdom’s founder wove together a nation of rural and urban, oil rich and poor, Sunni and Shiite, Bedouin and land owners. When King Abdullah was born, he was proof of that cohesion.

As monarch, he proved that the many threads of Saudi Arabia could stand the wear of time. King Abdullah oversaw a vast economic modernisation of the kingdom, loosening rules for foreign investment, expanding education and improving infrastructure.

But on the weekends and holidays, he preferred the desert, where he raised Arabian horses throughout his life. He once welcomed former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton – and her entire press corps – to his retreat in Radwat Khuraim, an elaborate network of chandeliered tents. With typical Saudi hospitality, the “buffet ran for yards”, one correspondent remembered.

His ability to balance the traditional and modern may be one reason why King Abdullah was known, even when he was crown prince, as a peacemaker of men.

“He has opened up the opportunity for dialogue to address some of the challenges that we have in the country,” said Hussein Shobokshi, a Jeddah businessman and columnist. “It is easier to address critical issues such as women, tolerance and education. These are all subjects that were not mentioned before now.”

King Abdullah brought new ideas to the kingdom, just as his predecessors had done. But he wanted them talked about.

When he pushed forward the Foreign Investment Act as Crown Prince, one of the keystones of his economy policy, he opened the draft up for discussion.

“[That] was a novelty: business elites were not a driver of the FIA, but the Crown Prince … allowed them to be part of the debate,” wrote Steffen Hertog in a study of the Saudi government bureaucracy.

Nor did King Abdullah shy away from difficult discussions. One of his first moves as ruler was to open a dialogue about the uneven national development that had left some parts of the country – particularly Saudi Arabia’s predominantly Shiite East – feeling left behind.

The role of women in the kingdom was also a priority. King Abdullah named the first female cabinet member to the education ministry in 2009. Then, in September 2011, he promised women the right to vote and stand for office in the Shura Council and municipal councils.

“All people know that Muslim women have had in the Islamic history, positions that cannot be marginalised,” he said upon making the announcement. “We reject to marginalise the role of women in the Saudi society, in every field of works, according to Shariah guidelines.”

Education, King Abdullah argued, was fundamental to his country’s development. He put his money on it; education represented an incredible 24 per cent of government spending in 2012. When King Abdullah opened his flagship research university, the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology, in 2009, he called it “a dream of mine for more than 25 years”.

Overseas, King Abdullah took his role as a conciliator equally seriously. He engaged warring factions from Palestine and Darfur to Somalia and Iraq.

When he visited US president George W Bush as Crown Prince in 2004, he carried with him videos and tapes – he was determined to show the American leader what life was really like in Palestine.

He also began a drive toward inter-religious tolerance that won broad praise, meeting Catholic Pope Benedict XVI in November 2007 – the first time a Saudi leader had ever done so. King Abdullah’s gestures carried particular weight in the decade following the September 11 attacks.

“[The kingdom] has equally treated all ideologies, factions and sects forming other societies and called for dialogue, understanding and reconciliation in any region witnessing seeds of sedition and division,” he told the Shura Council that year, laying out his philosophy.

Toward the end of his life, King Abdullah’s concern over religious strife was evident again. Conflict in Iraq and Lebanon, he worried, had reopened sectarian rifts in the second half of the 2000s. As crisis enveloped Syria, the risk of “sedition”, he warned, was stronger than ever.

At a summit of all Islamic countries in August 2012, he urged “solidarity, tolerance and moderation” to solve a crisis there. His condemnation for the regime of Bashar Al Assad was outspoken, and at the time of his death Saudi Arabia was involved in training Syrian rebel forces.

“King Abdullah agonised about things,” said Mr Henderson. “He agonised about the Palestinians when the intifada was at its height, and he was now agonising about the people of Syria.”

His pragmatism helped him steer his country through the turmoil of the Arab Spring, using a blend of assertive foreign policy to support allies such as Bahrain, and dialogue to help others like Yemen through transitions of power.

In November last year King Abdullah, again chose compromise and discussion when he oversaw an agreement between Gulf Cooperation Council leaders that helped resolve one of the most serious disputes in the bloc’s history.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain had recalled their ambassadors from Doha earlier in the year over Qatar’s failure to honour a security agreement.

The personal involvement of King Abdullah was one of the main factors that encouraged GCC leaders to restore diplomatic relations.

“King Abdullah thought that you either have to compromise to maintain the unity of the GCC or to escalate the internal conflict,” said Mustafa Alani, the director of security and defence studies at the Gulf Research Centre.

In his absence, King Abdullah’s legacy will now shape what follows. His half-brother, former Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, ascended to the throne immediately after his death. The new crown prince is Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the youngest son of King Abdulaziz ibn Saud. As one of six royal decrees issued on Friday, King Salman named Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as Deputy Crown Prince.

But perhaps even more fundamentally than succession, King Abdullah leaves the kingdom in a region changing quickly – more intricately linked than ever by technology and the speed of news, but in other ways as divided as ever in its modern history.

As he once said: “We are passing startling days.”

Elizabeth Dickinson is the former Gulf Correspondent for The National