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The legacy of King Abdullah: the good, the bad and the downright ugly

Published January 23rd, 2015 - 10:20 GMT
Al Bawaba
Al Bawaba

Tributes, condolences and kind words have continued to pour in for King Abdullah following his death early on Friday. Saudis across the kingdom are grieving and leaders across the Arab world have declared days of national mourning in respect for the late king.

The words have been kind and respectful. Egypt’s President Sisi hailed him a “just” leader. Obama spoke of the “genuine and warm friendship” the two shared. Even Israel’s former president Shimon Peres came out with a touching line about the king’s death being a loss for Middle East peace. Yes, this paints a cozy picture of unity and grand achievements, but in reality King Abdullah’s legacy is much more complex.

When Abdullah came to power in 2006, he was full of ideas and promises. But did he achieve anything worthwhile? His half-brother and successor, the new King Salman was quick to emphasize that he would "continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment." But what are these policies and have they been a force for change?

Women’s rights: the good?

They can’t drive, they have to be accompanied by a male guardian when they go out and they can’t vote. It’s no secret that Saudi Arabia has long enforced repressive and outdated policies when it comes to women.

Why then has King Abdullah been noted by some as man who advanced the opportunities and freedoms of women in the Kingdom? Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, paid tribute to the late leader, going as far to call him as a “strong advocate of women”, although she said it was in a “very discreet way.”

King Abdullah did achieve some notable gains for women. Employment and educational opportunities slowly started to open up under his reign. Women were allowed to work as supermarkets cashiers. He appointed the first female cabinet member as one of his deputies in 2009 in a move that faced stark opposition by some Saudi Arabian officials, but was hailed as a major step forward by the international community. With a ban on male staff selling underwear, women were finally allowed to work in lingerie stores, cutting the awkwardness out of buying bras from men. But did it go far enough?

Then there’s the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which was the first higher education institution where men and women were able to study together, one of the late king’s pioneering and concrete examples of reform. And let’s not forget, it’s because of him that later this year, women will be able to vote in municipal elections for the first time. The major move was announced in 2011 by the king and it’s been a long time coming, but we should witness it in practice when women go to the polls in June.

So perhaps this is the positive part of Abdullah’s legacy. But many will disagree. What about the fact that women still effectively live under the control of men? They can’t go out the house alone, let alone leave the country without their male ‘guardian’s’ permission.  

There have been a spate of reports in the media of women arrested for driving, something they aren’t permitted by law to do. In 2005 King Abdullah promised that women would be allowed to drive. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen. Despite political and personal will perhaps demonstrated by the leader, he faced unwavering opposition from hardline conservatives. To this day, Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world where a ban exists on women driving.

Abdullah may have started to pave a very narrow path for women’s rights, but it is hard to say he championed these rights. It’s unlikely his daughters believe he did either. King Abdullah’s former wife Princess Alanoud Al Fayez, said last year that he daughters had suffered years of abuse at the hand’s of the late king and were effectively prisoners in the royal compound in Jeddah.

War and terrorism: the bad?

The king enjoyed a close relationship with the West and is acknowledged to have attempted efforts against radicalization. It was the only Arab country with a seat at the G20 was a key member in the US-led coalition against Daesh. But Saudi Arabia and the strict strand of Sunni Islam, Wahabism, that originated from the country have been accused of being at the core of extremist ideologies.

More than 13 years ago when the 9/11 attacks shook the world, it soon emerged that 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudi Arabian. King Abdullah may not have officially been in power in 2001, but given that the then leader, King Fahd, had suffered a stroke five years previously, it was up to Abdullah to oversee international security. Those at the top of the Saudi political arena were shaken, shocked and unsurprisingly concerned about their relationship with their US ‘friends.’

He did thrown himself into tackling problems in the region, and also tried to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, even drafting a plan that was adopted by the Arab league. But it was only after a series of terrorist attacks in 2003 inside the kingdom, that the threat of Islamic extremism really rocked home and by then it was already a rapidly rising force.

Saudi Arabia, a Sunni state, has handed over millions of dollars to a UN anti-terror programme, but at the same time has been accused of funding armed Sunni groups in the region, mainly to counter Iranian proxy militias in Syria, that have led to sectarian divides and further bloodshed.

At a time when less war and violence was desperately needed, King Abdullah seemed to be championing the cause of more. He was reported to have said in a diplomatic note to the US in 2008 to “cut the head off the snake”, referring to launching military action Iran. In the midst of the Arab Spring, while everyone else was comdening the harsh tactics employed against protesters in Egypt and Bahrain, Abdullah retained his unwielding support for the country's leaders. In Bahrain, he even intervened to ensure the stability and continuation of the al-Khalifa monarchy.

Yes, some of King Abdullah’s ideas might have been commendable, but Saudi Arabia has often been slow to react to radicalization, terrorism has still flourished and tangible achievements are lacking.

Human rights: the downright ugly!

While the good and bad of the Saudi monarch's legacy are debatable, few disagree that the human rights record under the king was inexcusable. Although, with all the outpouring of emotion, Western leaders seem to have forgotten the gravity of these violations. Saudi’s human rights record has reached such notoriety, it’s even been compared to Daesh’s. Public floggings and beheadings are not uncommon for crimes such as drug smuggling, robbery and apparently, sorcery!

Saudi blogger Raif Badawi may have got away with receiving the death penalty, but instead was sentenced last May to ten years in prison and 1000 lashings for daring to criticize and question the establishment in the country. He received his first 50 lashes on 9 January, but none since, perhaps the country is finally taking note of the international abhorrence to the sentence? Probably not. It was only a week ago footage was released online of a woman being beheaded in the kingdom for allegedly murdering her stepdaughter, which she continuously denied.

Anyone daring to question the human rights issues might just get a hefty punishment of their own! Human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khairwas given 15 years in prison over criticizing the government’s human rights record in media interviews and on Twitter. Freedom of expression appears to be given little, if any value.

But why haven't western powers intervened? Saudi Arabia is a key US and Western ally in the fight against terrorism, not to mention a partner in trade, and for far too long abominable abuses of human rights have been criticized lightly, if at all, for fear of any political misgivings between the 'friends.' But these Western powers have been accused of putting trade before human rights, as a BBC report puts it.

So while leaders are rallying to praise the late King Abdullah as a force for peace, and while he may have made marginal reforms, Saudi Arabia is still left with limited rights and a lot of room for change.

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