King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who has died aged 90, promised much but accomplished little. By the time he came to the throne in 2005, he was 81 years old. And though he had gained considerable experience as acting monarch after his brother King Fahd’s stroke, he was beset by numerous difficulties – dynastic, democratic, religious, ideological, regional and global – and, with only rising oil revenues in his favour, found himself unable to address them to any significant extent.
Abdullah’s succession as Saudi Arabia’s sixth monarch resulted from his father King Abdulaziz ibn Saud’s strategy of marrying the daughters and widows of defeated enemies. It was hoped that Abdullah’s birth in Riyadh would end the enmity between the ousted northern Hail emirate and the newly emerging Saudi kingdom. Abdullah’s mother, Fahda bint Asi al-Shuraim, was the widow of Saud ibn Rashid, who ruled over the emirate before its collapse at the hands of Saudi forces in 1921. Abdullah continued the tradition of his father and included, among his 30 or so wives, daughters of the Shaalan of Aniza, al-Fayz of Bani Sakhr, and al-Jarba of the Shammar tribe.
On the basis of his mother’s background, a plethora of images were cultivated around Abdullah. Images of the monarch as the repository of the tribal bedouin heritage flourished as Saudi Arabia drifted into globalisation and a consumer culture. After a traditional upbringing in the royal court and with no formal modern instruction, the king capitalised on this heritage. His maternal connections and limited education, together with a speech impediment, delayed Abdullah’s rise to pre-eminence among the many sons of the founder of the kingdom.
It was only in 1962 that he secured a permanent position in the kingdom, when he became commander of the national guard, whose task was to protect the royal house. Abdullah became second deputy prime minister in 1975 and first deputy prime minister in 1982. Crown prince under the rule of Fahd (1982-2005), Abdullah became de facto ruler in 1995, following Fahd’s prolonged illness, and king in August 2005. His main challenge was to rule amid an ageing group of powerful princes, each desperate to occupy the throne. Under Abdullah, Saudi Arabia degenerated into multiple fiefdoms with each senior prince striving to exercise authority at the expense of the others.
He had inherited a kingdom torn by ideologically opposed groups, beset by unemployment, corruption, insecurity and terrorism, yet basking in a second oil boom. After a period of deceptive calm following the suppression of the 1979 siege of the Mecca mosque by the radical Islamic cell of Juhayman al-Otaibi, a violent Islamist opposition made its presence felt. Through the 1990s, Saudi Arabia paid a high price for the decision to invite foreign troops to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s occupation. So it was that in 1995, Abdullah’s national guard in Riyadh came face to face with terrorism, when a key building used by Americans providing military training support was blown up. More attacks followed in the oil-rich eastern province in 1996. This was the beginning of a campaign that erupted into further violence after 11 September 2001.
Abdullah was unable to solve other urgent domestic concerns. Restructuring the economy, joining the World Trade Organisation and privatising some sectors all failed to improve the prospects of jobless young Saudis. Women’s employment became a pressing issue. Ethnic, sectarian and regional tensions erupted with the occupation of Iraq and the increasing polarisation of Sunnis and Shias in the region. The educational system was criticised for failing to produce skilled workers and for fomenting radicalism. Maintaining Wahhabism, a type of Sunni Islam, as the state religion also became an issue, and was questioned by many Saudi citizens, as well as by the US. Abdullah established the national dialogue forum, a platform for his subjects to debate urgent concerns.
Many Saudis had urged Abdullah to initiate change on social, educational, youth and economic issues when he was crown prince, and a minority considered these problems a consequence of the limited opportunities for political participation. Calls came for a radical transformation of the political system from absolute to constitutional monarchy. Reformers demanded that Abdullah should establish an elected consultative assembly to replace the 120-member appointed Shura council. Many observers viewed a wave of human rights petitions in 2003-05 as the new Riyadh spring that would lead to Saudi Arabia becoming a state of institutions rather than of princes.
But the reformers’ hopes were shattered when, in 2004, the minister of the interior, Prince Nayef, arrested many signatories. When Abdullah became king a few months later, he released the detainees and made promises to curb corruption and increase consultation. However, he failed to stop the tide of oppression that his brother had spread on the pretext of the war on terror. The passports of many peaceful activists were confiscated. Corruption went unchecked and the king remained silent over the Al-Yamamah arms deal, exposed in 2003 by the Guardian as a scandal implicating the British military contractor BAE Systems and Prince Sultan, Saudi minister of defence and also the crown prince.
To deal with internal power struggles within the royal circle, in 2006 Abdullah announced the establishment of the allegiance committee, a secretive body consisting of the most senior princes in charge of appointing the future king – but only after Abdullah himself and Crown Prince Sultan had served as kings. This committee was meant to guarantee smooth succession to the throne and to regulate the transfer of power within the Saudi house from one generation to another.
Unable to bring about political reforms at home, Abdullah staked his reputation on influencing regional politics. However, his Arab peace initiative, announced initially in an interview with the New York Times journalist Thomas Friedman, and reannounced during the Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002, failed. Abdullah had proposed peace in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, pressed for the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and called for a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. Israel did not accept.
The initiative’s revival in March 2007 did not bring tangible results. Drawing on Mecca’s symbolic significance in the imagination of Muslims, Abdullah held meetings there to reconcile the warring Palestinian factions, but without lasting success. In April 2003 the American occupation of Iraq removed a regional competitor. Abdullah, together with other Gulf rulers, breathed a sigh of relief over the demise of Saddam’s regime. But it was short-lived. Nobody expected that the promised model democracy in Iraq would pose any threat to other dictators in the region. However, containing the Iraqi sectarian war and combating al-Qaida in Iraq became urgent issues for Abdullah.
Even more so was Iran. With its nuclear programme, it emerged as the new regional power, influencing not only the outcome of the Iraq war but also interfering in the fabric of Arab society and politics through its patronage of Shia communities and Sunni political groups, notably Hamas. With a substantial Shia minority in the Saudi eastern province, Abdullah became nervous about the emerging Shia power.
Together with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan, the Saudi monarch expressed alarm over the so-called emerging Shia crescent. Protecting the interests of Iraqi Sunni co-religionists was problematic given the complexity of the Iraqi scene and the presence of al-Qaida, which also presented itself as a defender of the Sunnis. Abdullah denounced sectarian killings and insisted on the unity of the Iraqi state. Mecca proved to be the right place for a meeting under Saudi patronage and warring Iraqi Sunni and Shia leaders and religious scholars pledged to end Muslim bloodshed. However, neither this meeting nor increased US military presence stopped suicide bombers targeting civilians in Iraqi cities.
Iran’s growing influence needed a counter-force to balance it. The west looked to Saudi Arabia but failed to see how poor Abdullah’s credentials were, even among Sunni Muslims in the region. Although he was sitting on vast oil revenues, neither the wisdom of old age, traditional authority nor charisma gave him special rank among Arab rulers.
The Israeli-Hezbollah 33-day war in the summer of 2006 and the Saudi failure to push for an immediate ceasefire further eroded the king’s credibility. As the Israeli press ran articles praising Abdullah, and the Saudi-owned media referred to Hezbollah’s war with Israel as an adventure, thus echoing official Saudi statements, the king’s reputation at home and in the Arab world was questioned. During that summer, Abdullah fell out with Bashar al-Assad of Syria, who referred to defeated Arab rulers as “half men”, and there were also angry responses in Egypt and Jordan. After that war, the polarisation between the so-called moderates under the leadership of Saudi Arabia, and the radicals under Iran’s patronage, became acute. It was beyond Abdullah’s ability to reconcile the two camps.
In addition to the rift with Syria over Lebanon (and previously with Libya over an alleged attempt to assassinate him), Abdullah could not overcome the animosity of other partners in the Gulf co-operation council. Worsening relations with Qatar over the blunt approach of the Qatari TV channel al-Jazeera and territorial disputes created an uneasy situation. Older Egyptian-Saudi rivalries occasionally surfaced, with both desperate to get credit for cooling Arab troublespots.
Abdullah tried hard to mend fences with the US after 9/11, as Saudi citizens were implicated in the attack on the twin towers. In a meeting with President George Bush in Crawford, Texas, in 2005, he promised religious and educational reforms, and to increase oil production to stabilise prices. He also continued to allow the US to use Saudi bases to launch the war on Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
Later, at the London conference on the future of Afghanistan in 2010, it was agreed that peace overtures would be made to senior Taliban members, with Abdullah’s help.
Both Abdullah and the Americans knew that they were locked in an eternal marriage. After 9/11, the question was how to continue the relationship without antagonising the in-laws on both sides. The US administration occasionally espoused the rhetoric of democratisation to silence an American constituency increasingly critical of the kingdom’s radical interpretation of Islam and its record on human rights.
On the Saudi side, the departure of US troops stationed in the country to neighbouring Qatar was meant to debunk jihadi pledges to “remove infidels from the Arabian peninsula”. Neither measures led to silencing critical voices or bombs. Terrorist attacks not only continued in Saudi Arabia, but increased in frequency and magnitude, while many Americans continued to ask whether Saudi Arabia was friend or foe.
Britain never questioned Abdullah’s domestic policy, his political reforms or lack of them. When he was prime minister, Tony Blair went even further, calling for a halt to the Serious Fraud Office investigation into al-Yamamah arms deal in 2007. British “national interests” required the covering up one of the most scandalous episodes in the history of arms dealing.
Britain welcomed Abdullah during a state visit in October 2007. The royal pomp was mildly disturbed as demonstrators, human rights activists and the families of Britons tortured in Saudi prisons objected to the visit. A last-minute minor diplomatic incident spoiled the atmosphere of co-operation and friendship. Before his arrival, Abdullah declared to the BBC journalist John Simpson that Britain was not doing enough to fight terrorism. Saudi Arabia provided intelligence information before the 7/7 London bombing, Abdullah said, but London failed to act, according to the monarch.
During the last years of his reign, Abdullah ruled over a country with incredible economic resources that failed to guarantee him regional influence. Saudi foreign policy was in fact mostly reactive to events beyond its control. Like many expired authoritarian rulers, he promoted himself as the champion of women’s rights in a desperate attempt to appeal to sceptical audiences at home and abroad. His development projects, new universities and industrial cities generated more controversy than solutions to real economic problems. However, Abdullah was perhaps the first Saudi ruler to seek a new legitimacy, this time emanating from serving the people rather than simply applying divine law.
Like other Arab leaders, Abdullah was surprised by the Arab uprisings of 2011 and feared the power of peaceful protest reaching the quiet kingdom. Within months, the Shias of the eastern province copied the methods of protesters abroad and began to demonstrate in their own neighbourhoods. Under Abdullah, hundreds of Saudi reformers, activists and human rights defenders were rounded up and put in prison, where they are serving long sentences. The reformer king failed to initiate a single item of a political reform agenda.
In January 2011, Abdullah had offered refuge to the deposed Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and together with other Gulf leaders he worked on reversing the democratic tide in Egypt. The oil surplus was deployed to fix Saudi Arabia as a counter-revolutionary force, aiming to overthrow the elected Muslim Brotherhood government and return Egypt to the rule of a single president, loyal to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf patrons. Fear of the domino effect of the uprisings prompted Abdullah to seek Gulf unity, but resistance from Qatar and Oman put the unification project on hold.
Abdullah pushed for the US to increase its involvement in the Syrian uprising, which he saw as a proxy war to defeat Iran, which had supported the Assad regime, and roll back its influence. He felt abandoned by the US as it sought negotiations with Iran over its nuclear weapon programme.
After years of seeking a non-permanent seat at the UN security council, Abdullah refused to take it when it was made available in October 2013, thus reflecting his frustration with US policies – notably Barack Obama’s slow reaction to the crisis in the region, his rapprochement with Iran, his failure to support allies such as the deposed Egyptian president and the stalemate on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. In June 2014 Abdullah joined the anti-Islamic State international coalition to ward off increasing suspicion of Saudi sponsorship of radical jihadi groups in Syria.
Months before his death, Abdullah may have been alarmed by sensational stories about his daughters allegedly imprisoned in the palace. His divorced wife and the mother of the daughters, al-Anoud al-Fayez, brought the story to the attention of British media after several years of silence.
It may be good to be king in a region where the Arab masses rejected their presidents. However, Abdullah will be remembered as someone who survived the wave of change, propped up by “black gold”, in his own kingdom by distributing largesse and repression and helped to reverse the prospect of democracy in the Arab world.
He is believed to have had around 30 wives, 15 sons and 20 daughters.
• Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz, 6th King of Saudi Arabia, born 1 August 1924; died 23 January 2015