Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

No, King Abdullah Was Not a ‘Reformer’

Ignore the obituaries and eulogies of the past week. Saudi activists like me know the truth about the late king.

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud speaks with the US Secretary of State during a meeting at the King's desert encampment on January 5, 2014 in Rawdat al-Khuraim. US Secretary of State John Kerry rejected Israeli and Palestinian claims the US was biased as he made a whistlestop tour of allies Jordan and Saudi Arabia to woo support for his peace plan. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI        (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud speaks with the US Secretary of State during a meeting at the King's desert encampment on January 5, 2014 in Rawdat al-Khuraim. US Secretary of State John Kerry rejected Israeli and Palestinian claims the US was biased as he made a whistlestop tour of allies Jordan and Saudi Arabia to woo support for his peace plan. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud speaks with the US Secretary of State during a meeting at the King's desert encampment on January 5, 2014 in Rawdat al-Khuraim. US Secretary of State John Kerry rejected Israeli and Palestinian claims the US was biased as he made a whistlestop tour of allies Jordan and Saudi Arabia to woo support for his peace plan. AFP PHOTO/POOL/BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

On Jan. 23, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was buried in an unmarked grave in a public cemetery in Riyadh. If the trappings were designed to show humility, the guest list betrayed his influence: Leaders from around the world came to the late king’s gravesite to pay respects to one of the most powerful men in the Middle East during his 19 years running the country.

From all corners of the globe came praise for Abdullah: “The Arab people have lost a great leader who offered a lot to his nation and its people,” said Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who “knew him well and admired him greatly,” called Abdullah a “patient and skillful modernizer.” President Barack Obama eulogized him for taking “bold steps in advancing the Arab Peace Initiative, an endeavor that will outlive him as an enduring contribution to the search for peace in the region.” Obituaries around the world, from the New York Times to the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat, heaped praise on the recently deceased.

But the legacy that King Abdullah leaves behind is one of neither regional peace nor domestic progress. And while modest social reforms may have been achieved, such as his foreign-education scholarship program, the monarchy remains in bed with a repressive religious establishment and continues to crack down on any type of dissent. A quick examination of human rights in Saudi Arabia during King Abdullah’s rule quickly refutes the notion of the king as a reformer.

On Jan. 23, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was buried in an unmarked grave in a public cemetery in Riyadh. If the trappings were designed to show humility, the guest list betrayed his influence: Leaders from around the world came to the late king’s gravesite to pay respects to one of the most powerful men in the Middle East during his 19 years running the country.

From all corners of the globe came praise for Abdullah: “The Arab people have lost a great leader who offered a lot to his nation and its people,” said Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who “knew him well and admired him greatly,” called Abdullah a “patient and skillful modernizer.” President Barack Obama eulogized him for taking “bold steps in advancing the Arab Peace Initiative, an endeavor that will outlive him as an enduring contribution to the search for peace in the region.” Obituaries around the world, from the New York Times to the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat, heaped praise on the recently deceased.

But the legacy that King Abdullah leaves behind is one of neither regional peace nor domestic progress. And while modest social reforms may have been achieved, such as his foreign-education scholarship program, the monarchy remains in bed with a repressive religious establishment and continues to crack down on any type of dissent. A quick examination of human rights in Saudi Arabia during King Abdullah’s rule quickly refutes the notion of the king as a reformer.

In an interview with Barbara Walters in 2005, King Abdullah claimed, “I believe strongly in the rights of women … my mother is a woman, my sister is a woman, my daughter is a woman, my wife is a woman.” He also said that women’s right to drive — an issue that Saudi feminists had been pushing for since 1990 — would be granted. “I believe the day will come when women drive. In fact, if you look at the areas in Saudi Arabia, the deserts and in the rural areas, you will find that women do drive. The issue will require patience. In time, I believe it will be possible.” This kind of rhetoric won the king sympathy from his subjects.

Too bad it was empty. At least four of King Abdullah’s 15 daughters are reportedly locked up under house arrest, and have been so for more than 14 years. They have not been charged with any crimes but, according to an interview with one of the princesses, they are detained because they wanted to highlight the kingdom’s human rights abuses. And when women demanded the right to drive during King Abdullah’s rule, they were arrested, detained, threatened, and finally prosecuted on terrorism charges. Loujain Hathloul and Maysaa Alamoudi, two women who challenged the driving ban, were sentenced just weeks before Abdullah “The Reformer” met his maker.

Terrorism, an issue on which the late king was allegedly a reliable partner for Saudi Arabia’s allies in the West, is also a favorite cudgel with which he beat back his opponents. A new anti-terrorism law was enacted by royal decree in December 2013 with broadly defined articles to silence dissent. The first “terrorist” to be tried and convicted under the law was Waleed Abulkhair, a prominent lawyer and human rights advocate. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “inciting public opinion.” His real crime? Establishing a human rights monitoring group. Abulkhair’s wife, Samar Badawi, was banned from traveling to a European Union-sponsored human rights forum.

On the other hand, real terrorists, such as the Islamic State in its early stages, received financial and logistical support from King Abdullah’s government in Riyadh. The Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was reportedly a key player in the arming of the opposition groups fighting the Syrian regime. And while Saudi Arabia officially banned joining the jihad in Syria, it was not enforced.

So what were King Abdullah’s top priorities? Mostly crushing any attempts at creating moderate and open civil society. Legislation — all of which came in the form of royal decrees — was passed to target activists who aimed to promote human rights. Questioning religious authorities, communicating with international human rights organizations or the media, or even attending conferences critical of the country’s policies are considered acts of terror. In 2013, Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani, who founded the Saudi Political and Civil Rights Association, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

And forget open discourse online. Article 6 of the cybercrime law, passed by a royal decree in 2007, says that a person can be subjected to up to five years in prison or fined up to 3 million riyals (almost $800,000) for producing, preparing, transmitting, or storing materials deemed to impinge on public order, religious values, or public morals. The law is continuously cited in the prosecution of activists and human rights defenders. Even tweeting a controversial opinion regarding the state or the official clergy or organizing an assembly for unemployed citizens can get you locked up, charged with endangering the national peace or defaming the kingdom.

Generating real legal reforms in Saudi Arabia — the kinds of reforms that might actually empower citizens — is not easy. A law that would legalize civil society organizations has been drafted by the Consultative Council (the closest thing Saudi Arabia has to a parliament) for a decade without being enacted. A law that would protect women from abuse at their workplaces was rejected by the council in 2012 on the grounds that it would encourage women to work alongside men.

So let’s agree to disagree over whether King Abdullah’s years in power were the boon for civil rights reforms that his eulogizers seem to remember. But maybe his foreign policy was on the right side of history? Hardly.

During the uprisings that have electrified the Arab world in recent years, Riyadh, under King Abdullah’s guidance, has been a force for reactionary stability. In March 2011, King Abdullah dispatched thousands of troops and armored vehicles to Bahrain to help put down a pro-democracy uprising there. When Tunisia’s dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled his country during the revolution, he found refuge in the Saudi kingdom. When then-Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi launched his coup in Egypt in July 2013, he did so with King Abdullah’s blessing.

Stability in all things was King Abdullah’s mantra. And there was perhaps no pillar he needed to keep more stable than Riyadh’s relationship with Washington. The United States’ main interests, of course, are regional issues like countering the Iranian nuclear threat and fighting Islamist militants, as well as continued access to Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves. Those priorities are unfortunate ones for the Saudi people. They far outweigh any concern for democracy, political reform, or human rights.

Obama’s administration kept quiet when it came to human rights under King Abdullah. Despite some minor gestures — such as Michelle Obama’s decision not to wear a headscarf during her recent visit to Saudi Arabia — the United States’ real priorities are clear. The president has even spoken bluntly about them: “Sometimes we have to balance our need to speak to them about human rights issues with immediate concerns that we have in terms of countering terrorism or dealing with regional stability,” he told CNN just before he went to pay his respects to King Abdullah and check in with his replacement.

Should Saudis hope that any of this will improve with King Abdullah out of the picture? The newly crowned King Salman, King Abdullah’s half brother, looks remarkably similar to the recently departed monarch in all senses. He holds traditional views on domestic governance, regional politics, and relations with United States. When Obama met with King Salman earlier this week, the new king assured him that business will continue as usual.

On Thursday, King Salman announced that he would reshuffle his cabinet. That move solidified his power, but also made clear what his priorities are. King Salman has brought in businessmen and close confidants to powerful ministerial positions, and he appointed his son as the head of an economic and development council with 22 ministers under him. He appointed his nephew, Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, as the head of a new national security council that will enforce King Salman’s excessive security measures. It’s now clear that even if King Abdullah is gone, his legacy lives on. And it is not a legacy of reform.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.