Skip to content

RetroSaudi: The Bedouin King

November 11, 2017

The next part of my RetroSaudi series concerns the man who, eighteen years after I wrote the piece below, became the sixth King of Saudi Arabia. After King Abdullah’s death, his half-brother Salman took the throne, and, his critics say, set about dismantling the carefully-constructed consensus politics that Abdullah and his predecessors had maintained.

Then (1987):

His Royal Highness Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz is, as his name suggests, one of the fifty-three sons of Abdulaziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia. He is also the Deputy Premier and head of the National Guard, as newspapers and TV newscasters, who repeat the formulaic titles in every reference to the man, never let us forget.

Abdullah has a mixed reputation in the Kingdom, and it’s difficult to arrive at a balanced portrait of the heir to the throne through his public utterances. Like all speeches emanating from members of the Government, his are about as precise, original and candid as Mr Nigel Lawson’s financial forecasts.

Some say he’s a deeply religious man who, when he becomes king, will drag his country back to the Dark Ages (from which many would say it has never emerged) by a series of ultra-religious edicts. Others say he’s a prudent and practical man like his brother King Faisal, who will rescue the Kingdom from the real or imagined profligacy of King Fahad. Either way, relations between the King and his heir apparent have never been cordial, despite vigorous attempts by the media to suggest otherwise.

Fahad and Abdullah are only half-brothers, born of different wives of Abdulaziz, and Abdullah has clung on to his power base, the largely bedouin National Guard, since his appointment in 1963. Cynics say that the National Guard exists not to guarantee the security of the nation, but to serve as a counter-weight to the army, navy and air force, whose commander is none other than the next in line to the throne after Abdullah, Fahad’s full brother Sultan (“Second Deputy Premier, Minister of Defence and Aviation and Inspector-General”). The hand-picked bedouin who make up the National Guard tend to be personal and tribal in their loyalties, and therefore pledge their allegiance to their commander rather than their king, which is perhaps why Fahad has been unable to detach Abdullah from his private army.

Sultan’s forces, however, with their flashy and expensive hardware (Tornados, F-16’s AWACS and all) tend to attract the more worldly-wise and technically-minded Saudis. And quite possibly the more fickle ones too.

A clash between those who wish to keep the Kingdom entrenched in the old ways and those who wish to step into the brave, and frequently unIslamic, new world is a scenario often predicted by those who look beyond the demise of King Fahad. The forces of change are said to be represented by Sultan, and of the ancien regime by Abdullah.

Such a clash is unlikely. It nearly happened when King Saud was persuaded to give up the throne in favour of Faisal but in the end family loyalty prevailed. The Saudi Royal Family know only too well that there are any number of predatory forces waiting to exploit a crack in the family’s much-touted unity, to turn a fracture into a collapse. The Ayatollah and Colonel Gaddafi are two of Al-Saud’s more fervent detractors.

Never underestimate the ability of the Arab family, of brothers, cousins, tribes or nations, to hold together, as well as fall apart, when the occasion demands it. “Me against my brother, my brother and I against our cousins, me, my brothers and cousins against the world”.

Now (2017):

Those who were concerned about Abdullah’s religious conservatism – and they included influential voices in the United States who feared that he would not be as pliant as Fahad – were proven wrong. After a period when he was in command but not in power – he served as de facto regent after Fahad suffered a crippling stroke – Abdullah turned out to be a cautious yet steady and pragmatic ruler. Perhaps foreign observers mistook his plain-speaking Bedouin ways for an entrenched conservative outlook.

In fact, while not going as far as some would like, he will be remembered for two key decisions that are likely to have a profound effect on his country. The first was the establishment of the international scholarship programme named after him, which sent hundreds of thousands of young Saudis to study at foreign universities. And just as many women received scholarships as men. I’ve met many of the returnees. They’re bright and strongly motivated to succeed.

The second act was to build a massive new campus for the Princess Noura women’s university. It covers a huge area of north Riyadh close to the airport. It has capacity for at least thirty thousand students a year. Needless to say, its facilities are top dollar, as I discovered when I visited it a few years ago.

By those two decisions Abdullah implanted the bacillus of change – as Churchill said when Germany packed Lenin off in a train to St Petersburg at the beginning of the Russian revolution. While he didn’t change the rules dealing with the role of women in society, by sending so many of them to university, he created the expectation of change.  As far as the men are concerned, he educated many of the young technocrats who now surround Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

It’s arguable that without Abdullah’s educational legacy, the current Crown Prince would find it difficult to surround himself with sufficient numbers of the technocratic shock-troops he needs to bring about his reforms.

Whereas King Faisal was universally respected, Abdullah was much loved by his subjects, not least for his simple manner. Some while ago I spent a year working for one of his close relatives, who would regularly return from the King’s ranch with dusty shoes. The result, he claimed, of incessant games of petanque.

His reign was not without its challenges. He had to deal with the fallout from 9/11, the second Iraq war, and the series of Al-Qaeda attacks within the country during the mid-2000s. Iran, as I foresaw in the piece above, was a constant worry. In the eyes of his successor, it continues to be so.

His response to the Al-Qaeda attacks was to unleash the hounds of the Interior Ministry, which effectively cracked down on the insurgents. But he also set up institutions for inter-faith dialogue in an effort to enhance understanding between followers of different religions and sects, and went to some effort to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Back in 1987 I also mentioned Gaddafi as a concern. In 2003, Abdullah, it was widely reported at the time, survived an assassination plot hatched on the instigation of the Libyan leader.

Towards the end of his reign, Abdullah also had to deal with the Arab Spring. He responded internally by banning protests but increasing welfare handouts. Externally, his most decisive act was to send troops into Bahrain (where I was at the time) in order to snuff out the protests there.

As for my comments on the National Guard, having delivered numerous training workshops for its hospital group in recent years, I can testify to the high regard in which he was held.

Would he have approved of the changes his successor is making? My guess is that he would have supported the goals – to modernise the economy, to reduce dependence on oil and gas and to empower the women of the country – though not necessarily the methods employed to achieve the changes.

He was, after all, a cautious man. Possibly, depending on how things turn out, the last of the great Saudi patriarchs.

One final thought: In 2007 King Abdullah set up an Allegiance Council to formalise the procedure for the selection of the next crown prince. Under the rules, direct descendants of King Abdulaziz, be they sons or designated grandsons, have a vote. Given that a number of senior princes are currently under lock and key, one wonders how the Council would work if King Salman were to pass away any time soon. An issue yet to be resolved, I imagine.

Further reading: Search this blog for King Abdullah and you’ll find plenty of reading. Particularly I suggest my piece on Princess Noura University, and an article I wrote just before the Arab Spring on the generation gap. Robert Lacey is also excellent on Abdullah in Inside the Kingdom.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: