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 government 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.