The Legacy of King Abdulla

As the baton of leadership has now passed on to the new ruler King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia, the late King Abdullah’s short reign from 2005 to 2014 has been under much debate and analysis.

For the last two days, various newspapers and news TV channels have been incessantly discussing the life and times of the monarch who passed away in the early hours of Friday, at the age of 90.

As the head of a country which is the birth place of Islam and which has Islam’s two holy mosques, and as the head of the world’s largest exporter of oil, King Abdullah had no doubt wielded enormous power over Muslim and non-Muslim nations alike.

Despite strong religious opposition from inside, he brought about reforms that may not seem significant by the world standards but are definitely radical by Saudi standards.

Yesterday, I heard the former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair talking about King Abdullah to the veteran journalist Fareed Zakaria on the latter’s CNN TV show ‘Fareed Zakaria GPS’ – broadcast from the World Economic Forum being held at Davos, Switzerland.

The journalist said that despite King Abdullah’s reputation for reforms and change, Saudi Arabia has not been able to achieve much. And he asked Tony Blair what he has to comment on this.

Tony Blair’s words were these: “If you talk about it (Saudi Arabia, and its reforms) relative to countries like USA or Britain that may be accurate. But if you look at it relative to where Saudi was, it is not. You now have more young women in the university than men. You have a situation where King Abdulla was an author of Inter Faith dialogue, willing to meet Jews and Christians to talk on Inter Faith issues. He was really the architect of the Arab Peace initiative back in 2012 which offered a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“Look at even a company like Saudi Aramco. It is probably one of the best run companies in the world. So I think, there was a real process of modernisation.
“I think he was a genuine reformer and modernizer. And I hope and expect that the process will continue. But there is a long way to go.”

That King Abdulla’s influence is far-reaching is evident from the host of world leaders who descended into Riyadh to pay their respects.

Prince Charles of UK, King Felipe VI of Spain, Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark, Prime Minister David Cameron of UK, Indian Vice President Dr Hamid Ansari and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran were all there.

In fact, besides rulers of the Gulf states , Turkey’s President Erdogan and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif were able to even attend the funeral.

US President Obama had called on King Salman to “personally express his sympathies”.

And now Obama is cutting short his India visit – where he is the Chief Guest for its Republic Day Celebrations today – striking off his planned trip to Taj Mahal in Agra from his itinerary so that he can visit Saudi Arabia and pay his respects to the leader who passed away, and meet with the new king.

The economic changes aside, how significant was King Abdullah’s contribution to political and social reforms? That is the question everyone is asking.

Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent says that in Saudi terms, King Abdullah was definitely a reformer, making princes pay their phone bills and giving women their first ever seats in the high-level consultative council.

He brought back the Saudi scholarship system that sent tens of thousands of students abroad to go and study at university or study English at the government’s expense.

And who can forget that historic moment for Saudi Arabia, when in 2012 at London Olympics, Sarah Attar became its first female track athlete to compete in the Olympics? She was cheered every step of the way in her 800m heat.

The challenges up ahead are, however, noteworthy. With the price of oil at a five year low, and with no sign of increase in the near future, the country which has 90 per cent of its revenues from oil will have difficulties.

On the one hand, the new King might face minor difficulties maintaining internal stability and on the other hand he might have to also deter young Saudi men from getting radicalized by extreme ideologies around.

But one thing is sure. Knowing the path that King Abdullah had trodden well before him, it should be not too difficult for King Salman to continue his predecessor’s legacy.