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King Abdullah – Last Bastion of an Ancien Regime or Enabler of a New Era?

January 26, 2015

King Abdullah

I have read a lot about Saudi Arabia over the past few days, from Saudis who are grieving over the passing of King Abdullah, from analysts who worry about the country’s future and from denizens of the social media who are quick to criticise Western leaders who headed to Riyadh to pay their respects to the King’s family.

There are also those who object to flags being flown at half-mast in the UK to mark the King’s death, and those who have taken the opportunity to blame Saudi Arabia’s lavish funding of mosques and madrassas in unstable parts of the world for the rise of Islamic extremism.

One post on Facebook from someone within my circle of friends is fairly typical of the stuff being said about the country within the West:

“15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis. A blogger was punished by flogging in Saudi last week. The world leader in beheadings is Saudi. A 79 year old half-brother of the just-dead King Abdullah …. is taking the House of Saudi. And Obama is going to the funeral? Oh please….”

I’m not a fan of capital punishment anywhere, and as a blogger I can’t support the punishment of Raef Badawi for expressing opinions that were not to the liking of the Saudi establishment. I could ask whether decapitation is any less humane than electrocution, shooting or by a twenty-minute three-stage poisoning process. But I’m not going there.

I would however like to share a few thoughts about King Abdullah and Saudi Arabia in general. One or two of them I think have been missed in the torrent of comment and analysis.

First, there is a common misconception – brought about by the description of the Kingdom as an absolute monarchy – that King Abdullah and his predecessors only had to click their fingers for their orders to be carried out without question. Not so. Saudi Arabian leaders sit at the apex of a complex structure of competing interests. Within the royal family itself there are factions with differing views about the way forward. There are tribes that compete with each other for influence and a share of largesse. The country’s merchant families form a powerful constituency. Above all, the religious establishment – with which Abdullah’s father Abdulaziz made common cause when he created the kingdom that bears his family name – is a vested interest. Without the support of the ulema the royal family would find it almost impossible to rule other than through the barrel of a gun.

In other words, Saudi Arabia’s monarchy is far from absolute, and the King’s ability to act unilaterally is arguably no greater than that of Barack Obama or David Cameron, even if the constraints on his power are more fluid and less formal than those that apply to the leaders of Britain and the United States.

Am I suggesting that King Abdullah was what we in the West might see as a closet liberal struggling with the shackles of his predecessors’ legacies? Far from it. He was one of a series of leaders who believed that the preservation of his family’s power, the welfare of his people and the conservation of his people’s culture and way of life were all one and the same thing. He may have wanted to bring more change to his country faster, but he would never have been sympathetic to Western voices who wanted Saudi Arabia to “be more like us”.

My second point is that the world leaders who are flocking to Riyadh are not concerned about what has been. They have to deal with today, and what might be in the future. They will be acutely aware that without the unifying force of the royal family, Saudi Arabia might turn into a country far less of their liking than it is today. They are not naïve enough to believe that if the Al-Saud were to disappear tomorrow, it would be replaced by government of joyful liberal democrats. More likely it would descend into factional chaos with a large dollop of sectarian conflict, aided and abetted by regional players with opposing ideologies. The current regional instability would be dwarfed by the turbulence resulting from the fall of the Al-Saud. And for all the obvious reasons, not least the impact on energy supply, that turbulence would have global consequences.

As for King Abdullah himself, I can testify through personal experience that while many in Saudi Arabia may not be comfortable with the Kingdom’s current system of government, the King was respected by most Saudis and loved by many – not an accolade that can be granted to all of his predecessors, though King Faisal was equally respected.

Those who criticise his apparent indifference to human rights sometimes fail to mention achievements that Saudis and Westerners alike can agree upon. The West would be the poorer if the Kingdom’s wealth had not been recycled into projects from which it has benefited. Not just military and infrastructural expenditure, but the investment in education under his watch. His scholarship program has sent tens of thousands of young Saudis into foreign universities. Colleges around the world have had their coffers filled thanks to his initiative.

On all of his other achievements – his efforts to promote a settlement between Israel and Palestine, his attempts to foster dialogue between faiths and his support of women’s advancement – you will find plenty of discussion in the mainstream media. Many argue that he didn’t do enough, especially to free women from the social constraints that bind them. But his critics perhaps underestimate the power of the religious conservatives who stubbornly opposed even the moderate changes he brought about.

I am not in any way an apologist for Saudi Arabia or for its rulers. They have faults and have made mistakes over the years, like most countries. They are an easy target for those who frown on their social customs and religious conservatism. Life for many who were born in the country or came there to work is neither pleasant nor comfortable.

But I do believe that whatever the world thinks of Saudi Arabia, his people have much to thank King Abdullah for. And, for his role in enduring the stability of his country through two decades, so do many of us in the West – whether or not we realise it today. What happens in the next few years will determine whether he will be known as one of the last bastions of an ancien regime or, by helping a generation of young Saudis to see another perspective on the world by studying abroad, the enabler of a more socially inclusive and outward-looking nation that others will be happy to have as a friend because of what it is rather than what it owns.

For the sake of my many Saudi friends, I hope it will be the latter.

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