King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (1924-2015)

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King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (1924-2015)

The death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (August 1, 1924-January 23, 2015) was a moment of the highest significance for Saudi Arabia, its Middle Eastern neighbours and its allies around the world. The ninety year-old monarch’s health had been declining for sometime and it was reportedly a bout of pneumonia that proved fatal. As was fitting on the death of an allied head of state, Queen Elizabeth II paid tribute: “I am saddened to learn of the death of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, HM King Abdullah bin Abd Al Aziz . . . He will be long remembered by all who work for peace and understanding between nations and between faiths. I offer Your Majesty [King Salman] my sincere condolences and I offer my sympathy to the Saudi people.”

Since King Abdullah’s passing his reign and legacy has been widely discussed. Although Saudi Arabia is an absolutist monarchy, King Abdullah wanted to be seen as a reformer. For example as one who had taken steps to extend the rights of women. In September 2011 His Majesty announced women’s right to vote in the 2015 municipal council elections and that women would become eligible to take part in the unelected shura (Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia). Which was nonetheless a long way from the equal rights women have, for example, legally in Europe or the USA. And there are many restrictions on women, such as the ban on driving or travelling without their husband’s consent. Nonethelesss, some view Abdullah’s reforms as significant. Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, said: “In a very discreet way, he was a strong advocate of women. It was very gradual, appropriately so probably for the country. I discussed that issue with him several times and he was a strong believer.” King Abdullah’s reforms were also seen in education, which for a country cited as anti-egalitarian, now has more women in higher education than men: 60% of university students in Saudi Arabia are women. A striking statistic which suggests that the real impact of King Abdullah’s reforms may be felt in the coming years.

If tentative reforms at home delivered on some of the promise, King Abdullah’s attempts to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks failed. Whilst relations with the Persian Gulf’s other power, Iran, remained tense. Most of the British media took a critical view of King Abdullah’s reign. Amongst them The Guardian, which nonetheless noted: “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.” King Abdullah is succeeded by his half-brother, King Salman. The new ruler marked his succession by reshuffling the top level of government officials. It is an early indication that King Salman plans to continue with at least some of his predecessor’s reforms, although the opaque nature of Saudi Arabian politics makes predictions difficult.