The Legacy of King Abdullah

The Saudi king’s recent death has sparked debate. Andrew Hammond, author of The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia, gives us his take.

‘Hagiography of the deceased Saudi king Abdullah has piled up at a surprising rate, reflecting the desire – the desperate hope – among Western policy-makers to present Saudi Arabia as on a path to “reform” that justifies their continued investment in the regime. Astoundingly, the UK Hammond TIUgovernment has even ordered flags to be put at half-mast. In reality, the Saudi government’s political repression, economic plunder, improvised regional interventions and cradling of religious obscurantism and zealotry is of a scale arguably unique in modern times and the late King Abdullah did little to improve matters.

The legacy of Abdullah as a “reformer” had dissipated long before his death. Abdullah rose to prominence in the late 1990s at the beginning of his predecessor Fahd’s long incapacitation – a time of collapsing oil prices and high government spending. In 1998 the then crown prince told Saudis, both the population and the ruling family, that they would have to tighten their belts. The catastrophe of 9/11 created a further imperative for domestic reform and an array of political activists spanning reformist clerics, Jeddah liberals, Islamists, leftists, Arab nationalists, Eastern Province Shia and women, came together to formulate those demands in a series of petitions; liberals in particular felt that their time had come. The cult of Abdullah was born.

Both the security and the religious establishment were unhappy. Prince Nayef, now second deputy prime minister, jailed dozens of journalists, and all talk of ditching the religious police, or Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, was checked. Nayef maintained particularly close ties with senior clerics, both those on the state-backed Council of Senior Religious Scholars and independents, who were often beneficiaries of state largesse. Incapable of pushing forward with social reforms that would reduce Wahhabi restrictions, King Abdullah was left only to push ahead with a university project and economic cities as “liberal enclaves” where the rules of gender segregation and all that flows from that (women driving, cinemas, public transport) could be put in abeyance for a putative liberal modernity to unfurl itself unhindered.

The Arab uprisings tore the narrative apart. Abdullah came back from convalescence in Morocco to order King Hamad of Bahrain, waiting obediently on the tarmac, to crush the street mobilisation that took off after Mubarak’s removal in Egypt. Meanwhile, the interior ministry and the senior clerics warned Saudis not to dare get on the streets too; protests and petitions are haram, the senior ulama declared. A campaign of repression was unleashed which saw long prison sentences for rights activists, bloggers, social media users and dissidents, usually tried in improvised state security courts. With the ruling family circling the wagons in fear for their future, the Arab Spring security paradigm set the tone for the foreseeable future, and it’s easy to imagine that the municipal elections held back in 2005 will again be postponed this year.

The discourse on reforming Wahhabism, in effect an attempt to smooth its rougher edges, also ran to ground. In challenging Iran, Hizbullah, post-invasion Iraq and the Assad regime, Salafi Jihadism proved as useful as it had always been; in challenging the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam, the state’s quietist brand of Salafi Islam proved equally useful. International conferences on “interfaith dialogue” went down well in the West, creating a buzz that Abdullah could perhaps get the Nobel Peace Prize, but were never taken seriously back home in Saudi. The reform of the judiciary and legal system, perhaps the boldest of Abdullah’s reform projects in its similarity to the Ottoman Tanzimat, also ran into problems. Codification of Sharia, going beyond Hanbali jurisprudence, training judges in non-Islamic law were all deeply problematic and progress was slow.

If there is to be a long-term result of all this faltering reform, this would perhaps be Abdullah’s true legacy. Yet as it stands, his legacy should be regarded as rehabilitating Saudi Arabia’s tattered reputation after 2001, bringing Saudi Arabia in line with global economic standards via entry into the WTO, and allowing an air of openness to waft through an extremely tense society. The flags are at half-mast and the obituaries are hailing his policies because the West needs to believe that Saudi Arabia’s problems are solvable without real regime change. Given the story so far, this seems a dubious prospect.’


Andrew Hammond is a senior correspondent for a global news agency, currently based in Dubai. He is the author of What The Arabs Think of America (2008) and Popular Culture in the Arab World (2007), and was the agency bureau chief in Saudi Arabia for several years.


The Islamic Utopia: The Illusion of Reform in Saudi Arabia is available to buy from Pluto Press here.


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