King Abdullah: Reformer or Tyrant?




King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, the King of Saudi Arabia, died on January 23rd. The BBC called Abdullah a "slow but steady" reformer and a "vocal advocate for peace," while the New York Times called him a "cautious reformer" and a "force for moderation." Secretary of State John Kerry said that the world had lost a "man of wisdom and vision...a revered leader." 

The rhetoric coming from the media sharply contrasts with coverage preceding Abdullah's death. The Washington Post had just one day earlier ran a story on a renewed crackdown on Saudi dissidents. There had also been a focus on the Saudi state's reluctance to allow women to drive. The contrast is a symptom of a contradiction between the identity of the United States and its methods for maintaining it, where the US "supports freedom and democracy," yet needs authoritarian Saudi Arabia as an ally in the fight to "support freedom and democracy." Saudi Arabia is both the Western media's symbol of the barbarity and otherness of Islam and a source of stability for the forces of the freed world. 

What else but an attempt to remedy contradiction could explain the dubious claim that Abdullah was a reformer? One cannot read the NYT's obituary and make any sense of it otherwise: 

Still Abdullah became, in some ways, a force for moderation. He contested Al Qaeda's militant interpretations of faith as justifying, even compelling, terrorist acts. He ordered that textbooks be purged of their most extreme language and sent 900 imams to re-education sessions. He had hundreds of militants arrested and some beheaded. 

Apparently execution by beheading has become moderate. 

The empirical evidence shows that Abdullah was no reformer, in fact, quite the opposite. Yousef Munayyer conducted a brief analysis on physical integrity rights during Abdullah's reign and found that they declined sharply. Looking at the Amnesty International Political Terror Scale (torture, imprisonment, extrajudicial killing etc.) one finds that the start of Abdullah's reign coincides with noticeable increase in state violence. There has been a slow and steady decline in press freedom in Saudi Arabia since the start of Abdullah's rule, with 2014 being the most repressive year on record. According to the Global Gender Gap Report, only in the area of women's rights has there been any recent improvement in Saudi Arabia, and this improvement is very marginal. 2015 will be the first year women can vote in municipal elections. Women still need the permission of a guardian (usually a father, brother, or husband) to travel, open bank accounts, enroll in college, or get elective surgery.

The idea that King Abdullah was a "voice for peace" is also laughable. Saudi Arabia has taken a hawkish stance on Iran and has pushed for an end to negotiations. In 2008 King Abdullah asked the US to take military action against Iran to "cut off the head of the snake." In 2013 it was Saudi Arabia that urged the US to involve itself in the Syrian civil war, no doubt another attempt to counter growing Iranian influence. Of course there was also the response to the Arab Spring, when Abdullah sent soldiers to kill and torture demonstrators in Bahrain and later sent billions of dollars to the murderous military junta in Egypt. 

King Abdullah was not a reformer and he was not a man of peace. He was, as John Kerry said, a "man of vision." It was a vision where dissent is crushed, armies are deployed, and resistors are eliminated for the sake of a secure and thriving Saudi state. The US was happy to allow this terrifying vision to play out, all in the name of freedom and democracy.