Abdullah, King of Saudi Arabia
Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia became the de facto ruler of his country in 1996 when his half-brother, King Fahd, was incapacitated by stroke. In a government portrayed by critics as corrupt, the ascetic-looking crown prince, then 72, carried a reputation for probity.
At the beginning of the 80s, the Saudis offered a peace plan that required the support of fellow Arab leaders: a proposal offering Israel normal relations in exchange for withdrawal from virtually all the territories occupied since 1967. Nearly three decades later, King Abdullah believes the plan has been insufficiently appreciated by Washington and undermined by Israel's subsequent military actions and building projects in the West Bank.
But the king's increasing alarm at the rise of Iran -- a Shiite country, unlike Sunni Saudi Arabia -- was starkly conveyed by some of the thousands of American diplomatic cables released in November 2010. According to one cable, the king repeatedly implored Washington to “cut off the head of the snake” while there was still time.
Because King Abdullah is already into his 80s, the long-term relationship between the Saud family and the Saudi people may not be determined until the mantle passes from the sons of King Abdel Aziz to the grandsons, a shift that is not expected for at least a decade. The royal family is thousands strong, including older brothers and relatives, who feel that by tradition it is their right to ascend to power.
Stability is a bedrock principle in the Middle East, and in particular in Saudi Arabia, whose dynasty was forged in the 18th century through an alliance between a tribal leader, Muhammad bin Saud, and a religious leader, Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab, who preached a puritanical form of Islam that sought to restore Islam from what they saw as heresies, superstition and deviance.
In a country whose leaders draw legitimacy from their role as protectors of the Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina, the king has maintained good relations with the religious establishment. During King Fahd's reign, he and the royal family found a marriage of convenience with Wahhabism, whose more radical forms helped fuel the rise of militancy in far-flung reaches of the Muslim world. But after the emergence of Osama bin Laden in the 1980s and Al Qaeda in the 1990s; the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis; and after a later bombing campaign in the kingdom itself, the Saudi rulers grudgingly admitted that their seeming tolerance of the extremism was beginning to threaten their own grip on power.
Described as more a Bedouin than a city dweller, King Abdullah was born in Riyadh in 1924 to a Bedouin mother and not part of the Sudeiri clan that bonded King Fahd and his full brothers, including Prince Sultan, the defense minister, who is second in line for the throne. He had a formal religious education.
Before ascending the throne, King Abdullah was a committed horseman who has commanded the Saudi National Guard since 1962. The king, who has a stutter and had vacationed in Morocco, brought a very different image to the Saudi throne than the glib King Fahd, who favored European escapes and was seriously overweight.
THE DAUNTING TASK OF REFORM
For King Abdullah, who has fashioned himself as a reformer in a land where conforming to tradition is a virtue, the challenge is to make good on longstanding promises for change. During his nine years as the de facto ruler of the country, he pushed for changes that included the nation's first popular elections, which were held to elect local councils.
He also moved the education of girls from the control of the religious authorities to the Ministry of Education. And he has worked to balance close relations with the United States, which is perceived by many in the royal family as essential for national and regional security, against rising anti-Americanism among many of his nation's citizens.
King Abdullah has invested $12.5 billion in a gargantuan bid to catch up with the West in science and technology by building from scratch a graduate research institution that has one of the 10 largest endowments in the world, worth more than $10 billion. King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or Kaust, is located 50 miles from from the port city of Jidda.
The king has broken taboos, declaring that the Arabs have fallen critically behind much of the modern world in intellectual achievement and that his country depends too much on oil and not enough on creating wealth through innovation. Men and women are to study side by side in an enclave walled off from the rest of Saudi society, the country's notorious religious police are barred and all religious and ethnic groups are welcome in a push for academic freedom and international collaboration sure to test the kingdom's cultural and religious limits. The undertaking is directly at odds with the kingdom's religious establishment, which severely limits women's rights and rejects coeducation and robust liberal inquiry as unthinkable.
Supporters of the new university wonder whether the king is simply building another gated island to be dominated by foreigners, like the compounds for oil industry workers that have existed in the country for decades, or creating an institution that will have a real impact on Saudi society and the rest of the Arab world.
In February 2009, King Abdullah announced a sweeping cabinet reshuffle, putting Saudi liberals in a rare holiday mood. Many hailed the changes -- including the replacement of some major conservative figures and the appointment of the first female deputy minister -- as a "mini-revolution" and proof that the king is at last willing to tame this country's hard-line religious establishment.
But even with all the political will in the world, King Abdullah's cabinet shake-up -- his first prominent attempt to rein in the power of the conservatives since he assumed the throne in 2005 -- will not succeed quickly or easily. And while he appears to be sincere in his desire to bring more moderation and openness, he is an octogenarian who has opponents within the royal family.
Advocates of change concede that the scale and difficulty of the task are daunting, and that the steps may come too late for the current generation of people under 25, who make up 60 percent of the population. Unemployment is high -- especially among the young -- and the schools continue to nourish the same culture of extremism and xenophobia that helped spawn the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Saudi analysts say.
Still, the reformers have some reasons for optimism. King Abdullah fired some major conservative figures who had been obstacles to change, including the chief of the religious police and the country's senior judge. He installed people in influential positions who are known for their loyalty to him, including the new education minister, Prince Faisal bin Abdullah, the king's nephew and son-in-law.
In another landmark change, the king installed more moderate and diverse members in an important committee, the Council of Senior Ulema, that is influential in determining how judges can interpret Islamic law. A broad effort is under way to discipline and modernize the legal system, in which judges are now unrestrained by anything but their own, usually severe, interpretation of Islamic law.
More generally, the reform agenda has drawn momentum from King Abdullah's personal popularity and a growing public dissatisfaction with radical religious figures. The radicals had seemed to pose a real challenge to the royal family after a group of them mounted a deadly attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979. Caught off balance, the kingdom's rulers tried to outflank their Islamist opponents by imposing an even more draconian code of public morals.
Even if King Abdullah succeeds, it would not necessarily advance democracy. In a sense, domesticating a threatening religious establishment would merely continue the al Saud family's march to absolute power.
In fact, one change seems to have been shunted aside. The landmark municipal council elections of 2005 were to be followed by a second round in 2009, in which women were to be allowed to vote. Those appear to have been forgotten, at least for now, with no public mention of any further preparations.
AN ELUSIVE GOAL OF ARAB UNITY
In 2009, with prospects for Israeli- Palestinian peace talks fading, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are increasingly viewed in the region as diminished actors whose influence is on the wane, political experts say. They have been challenged by Iran, opposed by much smaller Arab neighbors, mocked by Syria and defied by influential nonstate groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
King Abdullah decided that Arab unity was the only way to re-establish the kingdom's role and to blunt Iran's growing influence. The king began a diplomatic drive to smooth relations with two Arab leaders who have insulted and admonished him in the past, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya and, more recently, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Syria has close economic and political ties with Iran. It hosts the political leadership of the militant group Hamas. It shares a border with Iraq and has been accused of allowing militants and weapons to cross over. It has a close alliance with Hezbollah. All of these are excellent tools for undermining Saudi efforts to blunt Iran and push for peace with Israel.
The Saudis have hinted at two strategies to persuade Syria to switch from the anti-peace camp to the pro-peace camp. One involves giving the country much needed economic assistance. The other, though not stated directly, involves Lebanon. Syria has made it clear that it views events in Lebanon as central to its national security, as well as its pride. Saudi Arabia has tried in recent years to keep Lebanon in its orbit through proxies and cash infusions. But lately it has suggested that it might not object to Syria reasserting political control there.
Israeli Rabbi, Vatican Official and Saudi King Join Forces for Peaceby Edward Pentin Thursday, November 29, 2012 11:23 AM Comments (2)
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has invited an Israeli rabbi, a Vatican official and other religious leaders to help run his new inter-faith centre in Vienna - an initiative which could pave the way for freedom of worship in the Arab kingdom.
Rabbi David Rosen, an advisor on interreligious affairs to Israel's Chief Rabbinate, will be the only Jewish representative on a nine-member board of directors that will help run the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Centre for Inter-religious and Inter-cultural Dialogue.
The other board members consist of three Christians (Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican), three Muslims (two Shia, one Sunni), a Buddhist and a Hindu. The Catholic representative, Spanish Father Miguel Ayuso, is Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
INAUGURATION CEREMONYRepresentatives of major religions and international organisations, as well as representatives religions, politics and civil society of Austria have attended to the Inauguration Ceremony at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna.
Video message of Juan Carlos I, King of Spain, for the Inauguration Ceremony.
Video message of the Federal President of the Republic of Austria, Heinz Fischer, for the Inauguration Ceremony
The centre, which aims to act “as a hub, facilitating interreligious and intercultural dialogue and understanding” and to “enhance cooperation, respect for diversity, justice and peace,” was inaugurated amid much fanfare this week at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna.
Although founded by Saudi Arabia, Austria and Spain, it will operate as an independent organisation “free of political or economic influence.” The Holy See plays a “founding observer role.”
Speaking with Rabbi Rosen yesterday, he told me he believed the initiative will help to combat religious extremism by raising the profile of moderate voices. “Part of the problem for all of us has been that we have not worked hard enough to strengthen the moderate voices,” he said. “With regards to extremism and especially violent extremism, we have to take all the necessary security and intelligence steps to protect our society, [but] the real way to neutralize extremists is to give a higher profile, regard, respect and power to moderate voices,” he said. “I think that’s exactly what we’re doing here.”
He believes King Abdullah’s motives for founding the centre are threefold: to further a vision which brings religions together in cooperation around global issues; to affirm a positive leadership role of Saudi Arabia internationally, and in the Muslim world (as opposed to Iran); and to help bring internal reform to a country where Christians are forbidden to build churches or worship openly.
The Saudis, he said, are keen that the Vatican participate in the centre because they are aware “they cannot change their society in a revolution overnight.” He said the hope is that by working together with mutual respect, reform will filter through to Saudis on the ground and the country will be able to “change the reality” from within.
The Holy See made it very clear at Monday’s inauguration that it sees the centre as helping to further reform in this area. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, said it “will be the task of the centre” to ensure Christians and other religious minorities are “not deprived of the light and the resources that religion offers for the happiness of every human being.”
For some years, King Abdullah has been trying to loosen the grip of the Wahhabi extremists, and has made modest progress in reducing the power of Saudi’s notorious religious police. “He understands that if Saudi Arabia doesn’t change, the whole royal household is going to be pushed by the way, and so that internal change is a self-interested one,” said Rabbi Rosen.
Some also speculate the Saudi monarch has chosen this route because he views interfaith dialogue as a “safe track” to achieving his country’s goals, away from political and diplomatic exposure. The initiative has also not been without its critics. Some fear it could be just another talking shop or, worse, a vehicle merely to further Saudi interests, despite its promised autonomy.
Rabbi Rosen, however, doesn't see it that way and believes the centre has an over-arching and noble aim: to enlist the resources of religions to help bring peace, especially where religion is abused. “They [religions] need to be able to make a positive contribution,” he said, “and of course it’s my dream that we’ll be able to use this centre to make a contribution here in the Holy Land.”
He sees scepticism as necessary and healthy ("it’s important for us to continually test the waters”) but added: “If somebody, especially with a problematic past, extends to you a hand of friendship, claiming they want to do good things, then surely the responsible thing, especially from a person with a religious commitment, is to at least give the person the benefit of the doubt initially and allow that hand to be received and grasped and given the opportunity to prove itself."
Although an alliance between a Saudi King and an Israeli rabbi is significant, it wasn’t surprising as it had been in the works for over two years. More notable, Rosen said, was that he was first rabbi ever to be invited to meet a Saudi monarch and be received by him. The meeting took place two weeks ago, at the king’s palace in Morocco.
“I was actually surprised [to be invited],” Rosen said. “He was there to thank us for our involvement but we really need to thank him for his courage, because his part in this mission has been criticized by some very arch conservative elements in his own society.”
“It’s not a simple step to include an Israeli rabbi on the board of management,” he added. “That’s quite dramatic, and on that, he deserves credit.”