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A cautious eulogy for Saudi Arabia's departed king

Updated January 23, 2015

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With the kind of wealth and power vested unto him, it is clear that he could have done far more than what he chose to do.—Reuters/file
With the kind of wealth and power vested unto him, it is clear that he could have done far more than what he chose to do.—Reuters/file

I have taken up the task of penning a eulogy for King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who has passed away at the age of 90. One may have to pardon my insufficient zeal, which is somewhat blunted by the King’s performance in the last 14 years of his reign.

Ascending to the throne in 2005, King Abdullah was hailed as a “reformer”. Some steps were taken to help the Kingdom reach up to the social standard expected of an economically stable country in the 21st century.

Women were allowed to vote – 2015 may be the first time Saudi women get to exercise this right, if all goes as planned. It might not seem like a great deal in the given time period where suffrage is considered rather pedestrian, but for the ultraconservative Saudi system, it finally means that the Kingdom will no longer be a total masculocracy.

Explore: Looking back: The political life of late King Abdullah

Also, disregarding the ire of more conservative sheikhs, King Abdullah took the unprecedented step of inaugurating a ‘co-educational’ university at the staggering cost of $12 billion. This, in addition to him spending lavishly on scholarships programs for young Saudis to study in Western universities, may well be his greatest legacy.

His government also spent $130 billion to provide accommodation to poorer citizens, and increased wages to lower level government officials. He even rebuked senior clergymen for failing to speak out against ISIS with deserved ferocity.

Then there were the darker aspects of the Saudi rule, which I hesitate to discuss in a world where posthumous extolment is the norm.

As a long-time critic of Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policies, it would be disingenuous of me to roll out a sappy ode to the deceased monarch, to whom I’ve dedicated much blog space for negative evaluation.

Also read: King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia obituary

The punishments handed out by Saudi Arabia have recently been compared with those awarded by ISIS, by an infographic circulating on Twitter. These including lashing, stoning, amputations and beheadings for 'crimes' such as blasphemy, homosexual acts, slander, adultery and witchcraft.

Most recently, a Saudi blogger was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for insulting Saudi clerics. A recent video of a screaming woman beheaded by Saudi authorities in full public view, sparked further outrage.

Despite some improvements, Saudi women remain second-class citizens without the freedom to as much as leave their homes independently.

The expanded definition of terrorism in Saudi Arabia now includes 'atheism'.

Immigrants and religious minorities in Saudi Arabia stand at the cusp of abandoning hope entirely.

On a global scale, the Saudi regime has frequently been accused of seeding religious fanaticism. It’s known to have supported the Islamist fighters in Syria against the dictator Bashar Al-Assad, and urged its ally, the United States, to intervene similarly.

Take a look: Federal minister accuses Saudi govt of destabilising Muslim world

The Kingdom is now seen constructing a 600-mile wall to fend off ISIS, whose formation Saudi Arabia may very well have contributed to, even if indirectly so.

According to a leaked US diplomatic cable, King Abdullah encouraged America to attack Iran and “cut off the head of the snake”; a statement consistent with his unwavering anti-shia sentiment and actions.

Furthermore, a Wikileaks cable reveals the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as an unabashed sponsor of terrorist networks around the world, with the US Secretary of State expressing grave concern for the matter in a secret memo.

A controversy also erupted closer to King Abdullah’s home after his daughters, Sahar and Jawaher, accused him of holding them hostage in their own home, to spite his ex-wife.

“If he does that to his own children, how do you think the rest of the country is?” Princess Jawaher cried.

See: European Parliament identifies Wahabi and Salafi roots of global terrorism

Most of the problems I have mentioned could be marked down as systemic failures, having little to do with the ruler personally. But recall that this is not a democracy where blame may be conveniently distributed among influential congressmen, senators and judges attempting to block reform being pushed by the head of state.

The King holds absolute, unquestionable authority.

With the kind of wealth and power vested unto him, it is clear that he could have done far more than what he chose to do.

While His Majesty’s successor, Prince Salman, is not particularly known for his liberal ideals, we dare to hope that he rethinks Saudi Arabia's policy of exporting puritanical ideals in politically volatile countries, and focuses on social failures at home.