Saudi King Abdullah Dead At Age 90: A Reflection

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has died, Saudi officials said Friday. He was 90.

The cause was unknown, but he had been in the hospital since December and was placed on a respirator. The New York Times reported that the royal court issued an announcement, quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency. The announcement stated that the king had a lung infection when he was admitted on Dec. 31 to the Adbul Aziz hospital in Riyadh.

As reported on Fox News, President Obama expressed his condolences.

“I always valued King Abdullah’s perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship. As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions. One of those convictions was his steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond.”

Former President George H.W. Bush also issued a statement.

“[Bush is] deeply saddened to learn of the passing of my dear friend and partner King Abdullah. As President, I found His Majesty always to be a wise and reliable ally, helping our nations build on a strategic relationship and enduring friendship dating back to World War II.”

King Abdullah rose to power late in life and has a reputation as a cautious reformer. He was an ally of the United States and pledged his support to fight against al-Qaida. Despite the challenges of the Arab Spring and discord in the region, Abdullah sought to modernize the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom and sustained a constant effort to balance desert traditions with the demands of the modern world.

Fox News reported that a former American diplomat close to the Saudi royal family said that the death of King Abdullah, coupled with the collapse of the government in Yemen, is a “worst case scenario” for the U.S. because current events are allowing Iran to extend its reach and influence in the region.

Abdullah and Iran had a contentious relationship. His priority was to counter the influence of rival, mainly Shiite, Iran wherever it tried to make advances.

Abdullah could, and did, take strong positions and he voiced his opinion regardless of ally or foe. He denounced the American-led invasion of Iraq as “an illegal occupation” yet, in a secret cable to the United States, he encouraged the U.S. to attack Iran. As quoted in the New York Times, “Cut off the head off the snake,” he said.

For Abdullah, his kingdom’s interests always came first. Regardless of the investment of American oil companies in his countries, he did business with Russian, Chinese, and European petroleum companies. He strove to keep oil prices high, but not so high that they prompted consumers to abandon petroleum. At the same time, he invested billions in solar energy research.

Abdullah’s greatest challenge during his reign was the discovery that 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the September 11 attacks in the United States were from Saudi Arabia. The royal family defended itself from a very public assault against the monarchy, then ruthlessly pursued and suppressed known militants. He had hundreds of militants arrested and some beheaded.

Even under duress, Abdullah became a force of moderation. He contested al-Qaida’s militant interpretations of the faith. Abdullah disagreed with the justification of terrorist acts and ordered that textbooks be purged of their most extreme language. Instead of prison, Abdullah sent 900 imams to re-education sessions.

Abdullah was keenly aware that he derived its authority from an alliance with the strict Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. As king, he also bore the title of custodian of Islam’s holiest mosques, in Mecca and Medina, making him one of the faith’s most important figures. Abdullah carefully attempted to strike a balance with his roles of both custodian and king. He made only slight changes to the kingdom’s conservative clerical establishment.

However, on one occasion, Abdullah chastised senior clerics for not speaking out more forcibly against the jihadists. As the region became more affected by terrorist activity, Abdullah eventually sent Saudi pilots to join the American-led campaign against the Islamic State.

Despite the unrest of the region, King Abdullah gave his attention to his kingdom. His government spent $130 billion to build 500,000 units of low-income housing. The money was also used to bolster the salaries of government employees and to ensure the loyalty of religious organizations.

Abdullah created a Facebook page, where citizens were invited to present their grievances directly to him, although he was staunchly opposed to democracy. On more than one occasion, he admonished President Obama for encouraging democracy in the Middle East, saying it was dangerous.

Abdullah did make changes that made a difference in the lives of women. He allowed women to work as supermarket cashiers and appointed a woman as a deputy minister. Two Saudi female athletes competed in the Olympics for the first time in 2012, and a small handful of women were granted licenses to work as lawyers during his rule. At the $12.5 billion research university he built and named for himself, women study beside men, a huge departure from the cultural norm where a simple conversation can bring on a warning from the religious police.

However, despite a promise made to Barbara Walters of ABC News in his first televised interview as king, women still were denied the right to drive.

The right to vote is still out of reach for Saudi Women. Abdullah ordered the kingdom’s first elections for municipal councils in 2005. He promised that in the second election, in October 2009, women could vote. This promise was postponed until September 2011. Then in March of that year, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs announced that right for women to vote would be put off indefinitely “because of the kingdom’s social customs.”

Abdullah’s greatest gift that invested directly in the future of his kingdom is a scholarship program. Abdullah realized that, even as king, he could not overcome conservative forces. He sent tens of thousands of young Saudi men and women abroad to study at Western universities and colleges with the hope that by receiving a Western education, the young scholars would return home and work in government, industry, and academia.

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud was born in Riyadh in 1924. His father, Abdul Aziz, had 22 wives.

As reported in the New York Times, Abdul Aziz chose his wives partly to secure alliances with other Arabian tribes. Abdullah’s mother, Fahda bint Asi al-Shuraim, was a daughter of the chief of the Shammar, whose influence extended into Syria, Iraq, and Jordan.

Abdullah was Fahda’s only son. She also had two daughters.

Abdullah was educated in religion, Arab literature, and science by Islamic scholars at the royal court. His family sent him to live with some Bedouin nomads, where he learned horsemanship and desert warfare. His time with the nomads influenced him, as Abdullah spoke plainly and refused to be called “your majesty.” He discouraged commoners from kissing his hand.

In 1962, he was appointed commander of the National Guard. His rise to the throne occurred much later as four of Abdullah’s half brothers served as king.

King Khalid appointed Abdullah as second deputy prime minister in 1975. In 1982, Fahd, Khalid’s successor, named him deputy prime minister and crown prince.

After his predecessor, King Fahd, had a stroke in November 1995, Abdullah ruled in the king’s name first as regent. Political pressures later forced the removal of the regent title. Crown Prince Abdullah remained the effective decision-maker. Honoring his brother, Abdullah refused to sign any official papers with his own name as long as his stricken brother lived. Fahd died on Aug. 1, 2005.

Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia hurtled from tribal pastoralism to advanced capitalism in little more than a generation. His forward-thinking and contemplative approach was evident from day one as king.

One of King Abdullah’s first official acts was to pardon two Libyans accused of plotting to kill him. He went on to establish job-training programs to help ease severe unemployment among educated young Saudis. Seeing a potential for economic growth, Abdullah proposed to develop long-wasted natural gas as a commodity that could be exported. He secured a seat at World Trade Organization. Abdullah also became the first Saudi head of state to meet a pope, Benedict XVI, in 2007.

Abdullah was progressive in his domestic affairs. In 2002, 15 girls were burned to death in a dormitory fire in Mecca. The king was furious when he learned that the religious police had not let them escape from the flames because they were not properly dressed. Abdullah dismissed the head of women’s education.

In 2007, he pardoned a teenage girl who had been sentenced to six months in jail and 100 lashes after being raped. He said the pardon was for “the greater good.”

Abdullah kept no more than four wives at once, and was married at least 13 times. He fathered seven sons, and nearly all of whom have occupied powerful positions as provincial governors and officers in the national guard. According to the New York Times, of his 15 known daughters, one is a prominent physician, and another has appeared on television to advocate for women’s rights.

His successor is his 79-year-old half-brother, Prince Salman, who recently has taken on the ailing Abdullah’s responsibilities.

Read more about King Abdullah by clicking here.

[Image: New York Times]