King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who died January 23 at age 90, leaves behind a legacy of monumental proportions for his kingdom, the region and the global economy. For that reason, his death leaves a cloud of uncertainty over all three realms. He leaves the country in the hands of an elderly successor, his half-brother Salman, who’s said to suffer health limitations.
Salman is expected to continue Abdullah’s gradualist reformism, though some who know him say he lacks the folksy charm that allowed Abdullah to move faster than anyone had expected.
Abdullah was the sixth monarch of the kingdom created in 1932 by his father, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. In a way, though, Abdullah can be seen as the first ruler of a new Saudi Arabia that began to emerge under his leadership. King since 2005 and effective ruler for a decade before that, he oversaw the desert kingdom’s transformation from an oversized feudal oil sheikhdom into a leading force in global politics and diplomacy.
In the process he became one of the world’s most influential heads of state. The country that was once a leading voice of Islamist extremism and opposition to Israel became the effective leader of the Arab moderate camp and an advocate of Arab-Israeli peace.
Despite its enormous wealth as the world’s largest oil producer, and its symbolic importance as the birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia before Abdullah was famously reclusive and conservative in its international dealings. The monarchy was allied with the United States, but members of the sprawling royal family conducted their own virtual foreign policies, from sponsoring radical Islamist movements to funding international terrorism.
Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, Abdullah’s father, was born in 1876 to a clan that had ruled the oasis town of Riyadh in the Nejd desert of central Arabia on and off for a century. Driven out of Riyadh by a rival clan in 1890, ibn Saud retook the town with 40 followers in 1902 and went on to conquer the rest of the Arabian peninsula over the next three decades and established the deeply conservative theocracy.
The discovery of oil in the 1930s made the kingdom and the royal family fabulously wealthy. Ibn Saud died in 1953 and was succeeded by a series of his sons, who ruled erratically. Saud, the first, was best known as a spendthrift playboy. Forced to abdicate in 1965, he was succeeded by the harsh and austere Feisal, who was assassinated in 1975. He was succeeded by two popular but ineffectual rulers, Khalid and then Fahd. When Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995, Abdullah took over as regent. He became king after Fahd’s death in 2005.
Few would claim that Abdullah was a crusading liberal. Saudi Arabia is still one of the world’s strictest absolute monarchies. It still spends millions each year promoting its ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of Islam around the world. Representative democracy is practically nonexistent. Women still can’t drive. Dissenters are publicly flogged. Public beheadings are relatively commonplace, occurring almost weekly. The country is among the world’s five leading practitioners of capital punishment, along with China, Iran, Iraq and (ahem) the United States of America.
In his own cautious way, though, the late king took significant strides. He gave women the right to vote, many now attend college, considerable numbers have entered the workforce and starting this year they can run for local office.
Before his accession, restrictions on Jewish entry were so extreme that the first visit by then-secretary of state Henry Kissinger in 1973 was considered a historic moment. Restrictions on Jewish employees of U.S. companies working in the country continued long afterward
In November 1995, the same month that Abdullah became the kingdom’s acting ruler, in a little-noticed but historic move, a 10-member delegation from the Anti-Defamation League in New York was invited to Saudi Arabia for an official visit. It was the first of several ADL delegations that have visited, met with government officials including ranking ministers and on several occasions carried messages to Israeli leaders in Jerusalem.
Israeli and Saudi ex-spy chiefs Amos Yadlin (left), Prince Turki al-Faisal (center) dialogue in Brussels, May 26. Moderator David Ignatius at right. / German Marshall Fund-YouTube screen grab
One of the most influential members of the Saudi royal family, former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal, sat down today with former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin for an unprecedented one-on-one public dialogue at a think tank in Belgium. Such direct, public contact between high-ranking Saudis and Israelis is virtually unknown.
It was a mostly amiable, hour-long conversation, marked by more agreement than disagreement as they discussed Iran, Syria, Islamic radicalism and the regional arms race (watch the full video below). On their main topic, Israeli-Arab peace efforts and the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (text), Turki offered what could be the most explicit public Saudi declaration to date of Saudi willingness to make peace and end the conflict, repeatedly insisting the Arab states have “crossed the Rubicon” and “don’t want to fight Israel anymore.”
The closest they came to acrimony was when Yadlin, noting that three-fourths of Israelis had never heard of the 2002 peace plan, asked the prince to come to Jerusalem and address the Knesset. Turki replied that it was the Israeli leadership’s job to “explain to their people what the Arab Peace Initiative is” and urged Israel to agree to enter discussions based on it. So here’s how the Israeli press led its coverage of the event:
“Saudi royal snubs invite to Jerusalem by Israeli ex-intel boss” (Jerusalem Post); “Saudi royal turns down ex-IDF intel chief’s invite to the Knesset” (Times of Israel); “Saudi prince declines invite to Jerusalem by Israeli ex-intel chief” (Haaretz). The Hebrew press had no mention of it.
Turki, the youngest son of the late King Faisal, was Saudi intelligence chief from 1977 to 2001. He later served as Saudi ambassador to London and then Washington. Yadlin, a retired major general, was chief of the IDF intelligence directorate from 2006 to 2010. He previously served as deputy commander of the Israeli air force, commander of the military staff colleges and Israeli military attache in Washington.
Both men currently head their respective countries’ main national security think tanks.
The dialogue was hosted by the Brussels-based German Marshall Fund and moderated by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.
Amos Yadlin-Turki al-Faisal dialogue, Brussels, May 26, Part 1:
Amos Yadlin-Turki al-Faisal dialogue, Brussels, May 26, Part 2: