King Abdullah: A reformer par-excellence

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King Abdullah: A reformer par-excellence

King Abdullah, born in 1924, had ruled Saudi Arabia as king since 2006, but had run the country as de facto regent for a decade before that.

By (Reuters)

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Published: Sat 24 Jan 2015, 11:14 PM

Last updated: Thu 25 Jun 2015, 10:07 PM

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, born the year the first motorcar bumped through the dusty streets of Riyadh, left a modernising legacy of cautious social and economic reform.

King Abdullah, born in 1924, had ruled Saudi Arabia as king since 2006, but had run the country as de facto regent for a decade before that.

After outliving two designated heirs, Prince Sultan and Prince Nayef, King Abdullah is succeeded by Crown Prince Salman. The new king is thought likely to persevere with King Abdullah’s efforts over nearly two decades to nudge powerful clerics to accept cautious changes aimed at reconciling tradition with the needs of a modern economy.

Plain-spoken and avuncular, King Abdullah was born in the court of his father King Abdulaziz Al Saud in 1924, according to the Saudi embassy in Washington. The capital Riyadh was at that time a small oasis town ringed by mud-brick walls at the centre of an impoverished but rapidly growing kingdom.

By the time he became de facto regent in 1995 when his predecessor King Fahd bin Abdulaziz had a stroke, he was known to foreign diplomats as devout with strong ties to the kingdom’s Bedouin tribes.

 That reputation was soon changed by the then-crown prince’s reforming zeal as he tried to curb the indulgent habits of his large ruling family and address the alarming problem of youth unemployment by liberalising the economy to stimulate private sector growth.

After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, and an Al Qaeda bombing campaign against Westerners inside the kingdom, he took on the clergy who had promulgated an intolerant message in schools.

“The state is proceeding, with the help of God, in its gradual and studied course of reform,” he said, vowing to ignore both traditionalists calling for “stagnation and immobility” and liberals seeking a “leap into darkness and reckless adventure”.

The reforms were slow and only partly successful, but they skewed the dynamic of Saudi policy towards gradual change and made King Abdullah a popular leader among an increasingly young population where 60 per cent of Saudis are under the age of 30. King Abdullah left the kingdom’s political system largely untouched, however.

Apart from introducing elections for town councils, his only major political reform was to set up a council of the ruling family to make the royal succession more orderly.

King Abdullah’s order to spend $110 billion on social benefits, new housing and new jobs helped to avert any significant unrest in Saudi Arabia.

Among those Saudis who called for a “day of rage”, the king appeared to remain popular. Critics of the ruling family said that was because of his government’s spending during his reign, a period of historically high oil revenue.

One of his first acts as king was to rein in spending on the royal family, demanding princes start paying for phone bills and air tickets rather than treating state bodies as a personal valet service.

When he visited Saudis living in slum-like conditions shortly after becoming king, he was applauded for a first public recognition by the state that poverty existed.  King Abdullah also aimed to improve the position of women in his country, trying to offer them better education and employment prospects and saying they will be allowed to take part in municipal elections in 2015.

He said women would be selected as members of the next Shoura Council, the appointed body that advises the government on new laws.

Women are still barred from driving and must seek the approval of a male “guardian” to work, travel abroad, open a bank account or undergo surgery in some cases. In recent years, the king’s foreign policy was increasingly focused on efforts to contain Iran’s influence across the Middle East. That policy reached its high point in March 2011 when Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to support the country’s government against an opposition protest.

Riyadh feared that the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 had already altered the regional balance of power, giving Iran more sway from Beirut to Baghdad.

Those concerns were underpinned by Iran’s nuclear programme, which the West suspects is aimed at making nuclear weapons.

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