Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, the powerful U.S. ally who joined Washington’s fight against al-Qaida and sought to modernize the ultra conservative Muslim kingdom with incremental but significant reforms, including nudging open greater opportunities for women, has died, according to Saudi state TV. He was 90.
More than his guarded and hidebound predecessors, Abdullah assertively threw his oil-rich nation’s weight behind trying to shape the Middle East. His priority was to counter the influence of rival, mainly Shiite Iran wherever it tried to make advances. He and fellow Sunni Arab monarchs also staunchly opposed the Middle East’s wave of pro-democracy uprisings, seeing them as a threat to stability and their own rule.
He backed Sunni Muslim factions against Tehran’s allies in several countries, but in Lebanon for example, the policy failed to stop Iranian-backed Hezbollah from gaining the upper hand. And Tehran and Riyadh’s colliding ambitions stoked proxy conflicts around the region that enflamed Sunni-Shiite hatreds – most horrifically in Syria’s civil war, where the two countries backed opposing sides. Those conflicts in turn hiked Sunni militancy that returned to threaten Saudi Arabia.
And while the king maintained the historically close alliance with Washington, there were frictions as he sought to put those relations on Saudi Arabia’s terms. He was constantly frustrated by Washington’s failure to broker a settlement to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He also pushed the Obama administration to take a tougher stand against Iran and to more strongly back the mainly Sunni rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Abdullah’s death was announced on Saudi state TV by a presenter who said the king died at 1 a.m. on Friday. His successor was announced as 79-year-old half-brother, Prince Salman, according to a Royal Court statement carried on the Saudi Press Agency. Salman was Abdullah’s crown prince and had recently taken on some of the ailing king’s responsibilities.
He can’t have had an easy time trying to balance between the needs of modernizing his country and the ultra conservative religious establishment which controls so much of the kingdom’s society. As the obituary mentions, King Abdullah was an ally in the fight against al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorism, yet Saudi Arabia has supplied much of the funding for that terrorism, with members of the Saudi royal family almost certainly providing assistance to radical groups. The strict Wahhabi sect of Islam which is Saudi Arabia’s official religion has provided much of the ideological backing for the most extreme Islamic groups and Wahhabism has spread in the Islamic world due largely to the financial support from the sale of Saudi oil.
Saudi Arabia is among the few countries left in the world governed by an absolute monarchy. The King of Saudi Arabia holds all the legislative, judicial and executive functions of government in his own persons and his royal decrees make up the law of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is also one of the few countries without even a pretext of any democratic machinery. Totalitarian dictatorships such as the People’s Republic of China and the People’s Democratic Republic of (North) Korea have (one party) elections and a legislature to rubber stamp the rulers’ commands. Saudi Arabia is still ruled like a medieval kingdom or a Bedouin tribe. Things are beginning to change in this old fashioned land. Recently there have been elections on the municipal level though no political parties are permitted and the councils elected are mostly powerless. In the 2015 elections, women will actually be allowed to vote and even run for office.
The king’s rule is not absolute, however. He must rule in accordance with the Koran and sharia law. Every Saudi male has the right to petition the king through a tribal council called the Majlis and in practice members and branches of the royal family have considerable influence as well as ulema, the religious establishment of Islamic scholars and jurists. The royal family, the Sauds, form an elite in the kingdom. These are the descendants of the first king of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz ibn Saud who united the Arabian peninsula and founded the Kingdom in 1932. Because of the practice of polygamy, the number of princes in the kingdom is very large, perhaps more than 7000. Of these, around 200 play an important role in the kingdom’s government. The Sauds effectively own the whole country and little distinction is made between the family’s assets and the finances of the state. They are the Saud in Saudi Arabia.
It is not easy to determine what will come next in the desert kingdom since so much is dependent on the personality and concerns of the king. So far, every king of Saudi Arabia has been a son of Abdulaziz. The new king, Salman, is 79 years old, so I doubt he will provide vigorous leadership. Since Abdulaziz died in 1953, I doubt if any of his remaining sons are much younger, so it is possible there will be a series of short-lived, feeble kings for several years until the line of succession goes to the next generation.One can only hope that the desert kingdom continues to inch toward modernity.