by Thomas Lippman
King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, who died early Friday morning at the age of 90 or 91, left a very mixed legacy – stability, prosperity, and widespread popularity at home, but war and crisis all around the kingdom’s borders and a foreign policy in disarray.
Officially he had been king less than 10 years, since the death of his half-brother Fahd in 2005. But Abdullah had been the de facto ruler for a decade before that because Fahd had been incapacitated by a stroke.
One of the last surviving sons of King Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, Abdullah was heir to a tradition of absolute rule, cautious social modernization, and the primacy of religion in public life, and he tampered with it only at the margins. He never broke with, or seriously challenged, the foundational bargain that set the rules by which the al-Saud rulers and the country’s conservative, entrenched religious establishment reinforced each other’s power. Abdulllah silenced the most radical and vitriolic preachers and bloggers, but he turned on them only when they challenged his rule directly or when their pronouncements were so extreme or anti-scientific that they brought ridicule on the country.
In terms of politics and government, Abdullah imposed changes and created institutions that projected the appearance of reform, such as the so-called “National Dialogues,” but in reality reinforced the power of the monarch. He left the country as he inherited it, governed entirely from the top down by the king and a handful of senior princes whose word was law and who were intolerant of political or religious dissent. The outside world knows Saudi Arabia as much for its public beheadings and floggings as for its oil wealth and breakneck urban development. But by comparison with such neighbors as Iraq, Yemen, and Bahrain, Saudi Arabia looks like a land of sunny optimism—except to the oppressed Shiite minority in the eastern part of the country, whose well-known grievances Abdullah made little effort to assuage.
Individual Saudi citizens appreciated Abdullah because he opened up the space around them. He curbed the authority of the so-called religious police, which are much less likely now than under Fahd to demand, for instance, proof of marriage from a man and a woman dining together in a restaurant or riding in a car. Under Abdullah, some men felt free to wear western-style clothing in public, and women added colorful trim to their abayas. Women may now travel to the five other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council without the permission of a male relative. These modest advances, however, were not institutionalized. A future king could revoke them just as easily as Abdullah bestowed them, because citizens of Saudi Arabia, by law, have only the rights and privileges that the king allows to them, and a future king could be less benign.
From the beginning of his reign, Abdullah signaled a more progressive attitude toward women by including several in his official delegation on a trip to Asia. He made it possible for many more women to enter the labor force: they can now be found working in retail establishments, banks, the news media, and even some factories.
Abdullah gave women a quarter of the seats in the Consultative Assembly, a non-elected advisory body. At the recent opening of the current session, the female members were in the same room as the men, some with faces covered, others not, and the photo appeared in the newspapers. Abdullah also reinstituted the practice of electing municipal officials, abandoned decades earlier, and announced that women would be permitted to vote, and to run as candidates, in the next round. On the other hand, he never permitted women to drive, and at the time of his death two women who did so were in jail, facing trial in a special terrorism court.
His most ambitious domestic program was a great expansion of education. He encouraged women to seek higher education, to the point that the country’s proliferating universities have more female students than male. The university he endowed and named for himself, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, a graduate-level institution of global ambition, is coeducational, the only one of its kind in the Kingdom. Abdullah invested billions in education. What he did not do was expand curricula to include any ideas or projects that would challenge the monarchy or deviate from Islamic orthodoxy. Nobody in those universities is reading Voltaire or studying Christian imagery in art history classes.
Heading Off Insurgency
Under Abdullah, Saudi Arabia survived an extremist uprising, and except in Shia communities, Saudi Arabia has remained generally peaceful and stable through all the turmoil that has followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the “Arab Spring” uprisings. Not long before he officially took over, the country was staggered by an armed insurgency led by a radical group known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. When that insurgency broke out in 2003, Saudis for the first time heard gunfire in the streets and saw security barricades go up around public buildings. But the rebels never seriously threatened the regime. They had little popular support, and within a few years the kingdom’s well-trained, well-equipped, and ruthless security forces had suppressed the insurgency.
In this decade, the country has thrived, mostly without violence. Abdullah headed off any Arab Spring-style uprising in his country by disbursing billions to create government jobs, raise salaries, build housing, and for the first time institute unemployment benefits. Many Saudis are unhappy because of the tight constraints on political speech and activity, and because of widespread corruption, but the government has kept a tight lid on expressions or demonstrations critical of the regime, which faces no serious domestic challenge.
Partly because of that stability and partly because of high prices for oil, at least until recently, the kingdom is prosperous. It has no external debt, and its foreign-currency reserves exceed those of France and Germany combined. Massive capital projects are going up around the country: an aluminum complex in the northeast, a big new refinery in Jizan, a metro subway line in Riyadh, a massive new port on the Red Sea, a nationwide freight railroad network. These projects have not solved Saudi Arabia’s chronic unemployment problem or ended its dependence on foreign labor, but at the same time ambitious young entrepreneurs have a bit more space and opportunity to start their own businesses. Under Abdullah, the kingdom modernized its investment and trade laws to gain membership in the World Trade Organization.
Abdullah also put in place a law setting procedures for the selection of future kings. Because the new king, Salman, and the new crown prince, Muqrin, were already in place, the succession law has not been tested. If followed, however, it will be a blueprint for orderly successions in the future – always, of course, within the closed circle of the al-Saud family.
Flawed Foreign Policy
Outside the kingdom’s borders, the picture is considerably less rosy.
Despite differences with the United States over policy toward Iraq and Egypt, Abdullah managed to maintain his country’s most important bilateral strategic relationship. Washington and Riyadh are intimately linked in military affairs and training, cyber-security, and counterterrorism cooperation. But Abdullah did not achieve, and did not really come close to achieving, his major regional policy goals: ousting the Assad regime in Syria, curbing Iranian influence in Iraq and Lebanon, eliminating any possibility of Iran developing a nuclear weapons, engineering a transition to stability under a friendly regime in Yemen, and stabilizing the rule of the minority Sunni monarchy in neighboring Bahrain. He persuaded his fellow Arabs to offer peace to Israel, but his initiative went nowhere because it was based on terms no Israeli government would accept.
Not only did the Gulf Cooperation Council fail to come together in a political union, as envisioned by Abdullah, it nearly broke apart entirely over differences between Saudi Arabia and Qatar over policy toward the Muslim Brotherhood, which Qatar supported during its brief rule in Egypt but Saudi Arabia has branded a terrorist organization.
For years Abdullah refused to have any dealings with the Shia-dominated Baghdad government of Nouri al-Maliki, whom the Saudi monarch viewed as a stooge of Iran. His policy left Saudi Arabia and Sunni Islam on the sidelines as Iran filled the political and economic vacuum created by Saudi absence. Only in the last months of his life did Abdullah assent to opening a Saudi embassy in Baghdad, and meanwhile the Saudis are constructing a security fence along the entire border.
In fairness to King Abdullah, nobody else has been able to put a stop to the regional deterioration either. The rise of the so-called Islamic State may force Abdullah’s successor to distance himself from Abdullah’s policies and seek some cooperation with Iran and with Syria’s Assad to confront a common enemy – just as it is doing to the United States.
Abdullah’s decades as commander of the National Guard, the kingdom’s principal domestic security force—which is trained and equipped by Americans—ensure his place in modern Saudi history. It seems less likely that he will be remembered as a true reformer, or as a statesman.