THE CAUTIOUS REFORMER KING ABDULLAH
WORDS BY DEEMA AL AJLANI
A somber air cloaked the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia early Friday morning as news spread that the beloved king Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz had passed away at the age of 90, on 23 January 2015, three weeks after being hospitalized for pneumonia. It is with broken hearts and grief stricken faces that the Saudis, as well as the Arab and Islamic world, bid farewell to a generous and pioneering figure aptly dubbed the ‘cautious reformer’.
King Abdullah was born in Riyadh in 1924 to the founder of the modern Kingdom, King Abdulaziz Al-Saud, the first monarch of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who united all the provinces into a single kingdom in 1932. The House of Saud henceforth produced all the subsequent kings of Saudi Arabia due to the fact that under Saudi law, the monarch must be a son or grandson of Abdulazziz. The Saud dynasty has therefore presided over the Kingdom since its creation in 1932 with the late king Abdullah ascending to the throne 1 August 2005, following the death of his half-brother, King Fahad.
King Abdullah held a number of important posts throughout the majority of his adult life, which helped shape and sculpt him into the great leader he was when he came to the throne. His early years, however, also contributed to the qualities he came to possess, which helped prepare him for his role as one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful men. At a young age he was educated in religion, Arab literature and science at the royal court. He also received an education in horsemanship and warfare from Bedouin tribes he was sent to live with. This helped instill in him an understanding of his people and origin, as well as their values of honor, simplicity, generosity and bravery which somewhat prepared him for the many roles he would come to assume later in life.
In 1962, Prince Abdullah was appointed to command the National Guard by King Faisal and was later appointed Second Deputy Prime Minister upon the succession of King Khalid in 1975. When King Fahad came to the throne in 1982 he was named Crown Prince and First Deputy Prime Minister and even came to rule in the king’s name from 1995 till 2005 when the king was ill. He subsequently became the sixth king of Saudi Arabia and the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques upon the death of King Fahad.
Saudi Arabia then saw a new era ushered in by King Abdullah, who was as Tony Blair described “a skillful modernizer” who “led his country into the future”. Development was the main focus of his reign. He initiated a range of economic, social, educational, health and infrastructural projects designed to propel Saudi Arabia in the modern age and better equip the country for the changing times: a future where revenue from hydrocarbon fuels may no longer be sufficient to sustain the country. He sought to build solid foundations for the country to be able to grow and for its youth to pave the way for greater change. This, however, was the task of a lifetime, not one to be completed in the ten years he sat on the throne of one of the wealthiest nations in the world.
Perhaps greater change was hindered by the fact that King Abdullah had to always remain mindful of the fact that his family since the 18th century had derived its authority from an alliance with the strict and vehemently conservative Wahabi sect of Islam. He therefore was limited somewhat with many changes he would have liked to initiate. These fundamentalist clerics, who gave the family legitimacy, opposed many initiatives and this clearly exemplifies the strong ever-present ties the Kingdom has with its tribal past.
This perhaps poses a great hurdle in the age of capitalism when countries need to shed some long held archaic rules such as the prohibition of women from driving.
Despite this, however, King Abdullah achieved a remarkable amount during his reign and made a number of changes that were significant in the Saudi context. He ordered the kingdom’s first elections for municipal councils in 2005. He also initiated a number of measures aimed at giving women a bigger stake in the country’s economic and political life such as appointing women as members of the Shura council, which was considered a major landmark in their empowerment. This in turn opened up other spheres for women and enabled them to work at jobs that previously were not open to them such as supermarket cashiers and sales representatives. He also began to build five mega economic cities and created the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology as well as the Princess Nourah bint Abdulrahman University for Girls. He also began projects to expand the two Holy Mosques. He went on to establish job-training programs to ease unemployment among educated young Saudis and to develop natural gas as a commodity to be exported rather than wasted, as was previously the case. He also became the first Saudi king to meet a pope in 2007.
He spent $130 billion to build 500,000 units of low-income housing and raised government employee’s salaries. He approved the unprecedented task of reorganizing the judicial system and set new rules for determining the line of succession within the Saudi ruling family.
King Abdullah was also quick to extend a helping hand to many Arab nations, in their time of need, as the Kingdom often took on the role of defender of both Arabic and Islamic issues; internationally as well as regionally. Peace in the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian issue were some of the issues that concerned him as he sought to resolve conflict in this region long since plagued by unrest. He was thus viewed as the guardian of security, stability and peace in the country as well as the region.
King Abdullah’s legacy and memory will live on for generations as he founded a great number of private and public universities and started a scholarship program that sent tens of thousands of young Saudi men and women abroad to gain an education at Western universities. He thus paved the way for the future, with a solid foundation of educated citizens, who may later break down the presently impenetrable resistance to initiate greater change in the Kingdom.
The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman, who took over the reigns following a swift transfer of power has pledged to honor the late king’s vision of developing Saudi Arabia and propelling it into the future with a strong solid base so that the nation may reach new heights of peace and prosperity as a more modern and reformed entity.
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