Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, born on August 1, 1924, passed away after a long illness at the age of 90. Like his father, King Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman, and equally important, like his brother Faisal, Abdullah will long be remembered as one of the most reform-minded rulers in the history of the kingdom.
Among his most important contributions to contemporary Saudi society were his efforts to revamp the country’s succession mechanism, which he revamped in 2007 when he established the Allegiance Council (Hayat al-Bayah). His successor, Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, will most likely continue in his footsteps, pursuing consistent policies both at the regional and global levels.
In the course of multiple visits to the kingdom, and numerous meetings with senior members of the ruling family including the late king, Abdullah projected a vision of Saudi Arabia to this author that distinguished him from most of his counterparts. He once told me that he wanted Saudi Arabia to be known “for its men and women – not just for oil”.
From 1982 until 2005, Abdullah was heir apparent to his half-brother, King Fahd bin Abdulaziz. He assumed the regency of the kingdom in 1995 when Fahd suffered a stroke. In 2005, upon assuming the throne, he appointed his brother Sultan as heir, although Sultan passed away in October 2011. Abdullah then selected his brother, Nayef bin Abdulaziz as heir, though the latter died in June 2012.
Unprecedented reform agenda
After 2005, when he assumed the throne, Abdullah embarked on an unprecedented reform agenda that included liberalisation on both the social and economic arenas. His legacy in appointing 30 women to the expanded Majlis al-Shura in 2011, bringing the total number of members to 150, will long be remembered as the stepping stone on which all social reforms that the country experienced in contemporary history were based.
Abdullah became the first king to visit Riyadh’s shantytowns where he witnessed the level of poverty that some Saudis experience, and vowed to take the necessary measures to alleviate those conditions.
In 2010, the monarch and then heir apparent Sultan sat for a photograph with a room full of unveiled women, which was published on the front pages of every major Saudi newspaper.
The women, all dressed in abayahs but mostly without niqabs, broke a taboo that prohibits men and women who are not relatives in the first degree from interacting. Still, by welcoming the women, who attended a health conference in Najran, the picture illustrated how systematic the ruler’s long-term reform ideas were.
He telegraphed a royal “message” to rigid clerics, which was emulated by at least Sheikh Ahmad al-Ghamidi, a former high-ranking Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice [Mutawain] officer, who recently appeared on Saudi television with his unveiled wife sitting next to him to reiterate the acceptability of unveiled women in the eyes of Islam.
In September 2009, the Saudi monarch inaugurated the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST), which cost an estimated $10bn, a co-ed institution for advanced scientific research. Remarkably, the co-ed institutions initiated unrestricted interaction between students of both sexes without imposing a dress code on women who attend classes. It was an epochal step for the conservative country.
Higher legal standards
Among his many achievements, King Abdullah’s desire to create a supreme court to replace the old judicial higher council was destined to make history too, as it meant that Riyadh would, henceforth, abide by higher legal standards. Accountability and transparency, although not practised with a vengeance, became the reformist monarch’s hallmarks.
In one of the most poignant developments in 2005, Abdullah became the first king to visit Riyadh’s shantytowns where he witnessed the level of poverty that some Saudis experience, and vowed to take the necessary measures to alleviate those conditions.
Towards that end and in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab uprisings, Abdullah authorised the spending of hundreds of billions of riyals to improve living conditions, including providing, for the first time, unemployment compensation to those seeking full time jobs. He also increased salaries to all state employees, including the military, academics, and bureaucrats.
In unprecedented decrees, he encouraged the private sector to adopt similar measures by improving existing incentives to the kingdom’s business community.
Long a champion of Arab nationalism, and in the line pursued by all of his predecessors, King Abdullah adopted Arab causes … [and] led the Muslim world in adopting tolerance, and exchanged correct ties with western allies.
Long a champion of Arab nationalism, and in the line pursued by all of his predecessors, King Abdullah adopted Arab causes, stood by the Palestinian people, backed all Lebanese factions that wanted peace in that hapless country, challenged Iran’s interferences in Arab affairs, led the Muslim world in adopting tolerance, and exchanged correct ties with western allies.
He relied on friends to defend the kingdom, but he relied more on intrinsic Saudis to stand as the first line of defence against all foes.
The father of more than 16 children, four of Abdullah’s sons are likely to play prominent roles in the kingdom. Mitab, the Minister of the National Guard after May 27, 2013; Mishaal, the governor of the Najran Province between 2009 and 2013, now governor of Mecca; Abdul Aziz, a deputy minister of foreign affairs since 2011; and Turki bin Abdullah, who serves as governor of Riyadh province since May 2014, all served the kingdom with distinction.
Abdullah’s personal fortune has been estimated at $18bn, making him the third wealthiest head of state in the world.
Dr Joseph A Kechichian is Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research & Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and an author specialising in the Gulf region.