The reformer who didn’t really reform anything

There seems to be a theme in the early eulogizing of Saudi King Abdullah b. Abdulaziz, who died yesterday at the age of 90, give or take. See if you can pick out what it is:

abdullah reuters
abdullah reformer GM
abdullah cnn

Yes, Abdullah was a reformer, which may come as a surprise to some of you at home, but not nearly as big a surprise as it probably comes to the bloggers he’s had lashed or the many, many prisoners who were beheaded on his watch. NPR was on the “reformer” bandwagon last night:

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before going in a totally new direction a few hours later:

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It’s the complex legacy of a man who said the word “reform” a few times without actually doing anything to bring it about. Abdullah had been king since 2005, but he’d been de facto ruling the kingdom since 1995, when his brother, then-King Fahd, suffered a stroke that would incapacitate him for the rest of his life. In the 2 decades during which Abdullah either formally or practically ruled Saudi Arabia, did anything change? Do Saudi citizens have a voice in their own government now? No. Apart from instituting elections for powerless town councils, Abdullah took no steps toward democratizing the kingdom. His response to the Arab Spring movement was to buy off most of the potential unrest with a $110 billion package of new welfare programs, and to arrest whomever that money couldn’t buy.

Barack Obama and King Abdullah in 2014 (Wikimedia Commons)

How did Abdullah treat his minority Shiʿa subjects? Not very well, as it turns out, and he preferred to arrest any of them who complained about it. It was Abdullah’s judiciary that railroaded Ayatollah Nimr al-Nimr into a death sentence in October for the crime of protesting the way his community has been brutalized by Riyadh. What about women’s rights? IMF head Christine Lagarde says that “in a very discreet way, he was a strong advocate of women.” So discreet was his advocacy, in fact, that apart from a handful of token gestures (appointing a female deputy minister, opening one university where women were allowed to study alongside men), he did nothing to reduce the kingdom’s systemic discrimination against women.

CNN helpfully explains that Abdullah’s reformist instincts were “hindered” by conservatives, which I suppose is fair even in an absolute monarchy, but it sure does seem like these media outlets are trying real hard to read Abdullah’s mind so that they can say nicer things about him than his actual record would permit. The NYT tells me that Abdullah “reshaped Saudi Arabia,” which is different from “reforming” it, I guess, and probably more accurate. He did try to reign in extremist Wahhabi preachers, though the idea that he did so in direct response to 9/11 is side-splitting–it wasn’t until after al-Qaeda started hitting targets inside Saudi Arabia that Abdullah actually decided to try to do something about the extremism his country was exporting to the rest of the world.

We’re told that Abdullah was helping to lead the fight against ISIS, but it was Saudi money that funded both the spread of ISIS’s Wahhabi ideology and the extreme wing of the Syrian rebellion that has nurtured ISIS’s development. Meanwhile, Abdullah sent his army into Bahrain to lead a brutal crackdown on that country’s popular Shiʿa uprising. He’s tried to squash the Muslim Brotherhood, the one political outlet for Islamic opposition throughout the Middle East, thereby driving those who were attracted to the Brotherhood’s message of political reform in more extremist, militant directions. As part of that effort, he’s been propping up Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government in Egypt despite the fact that Sisi has the blood of thousands of protesters on his hands. This is not a reformer, much less a “man of peace” as he’s being laughably called today.

What happens to Saudi Arabia now? Well, former Crown Prince Salman, Abdullah’s younger brother, has already become King Salman, and he’s talking about “staying the course.” Salman has considerable governing experience, but he’s also 79 and there are rumors that he’s suffering from some kind of dementia. That leaves the possibility that the real authority in the kingdom will be the new Crown Prince, Salman’s younger brother Muqrin, but Muqrin is a bit of a wild card himself–Abdullah canned him as the kingdom’s intelligence chief in 2012, probably for screwing up the initial response to the Syrian uprising.

After Muqrin is where things get interesting. The Saudi crown has been held for over 60 years by the sons of the kingdom’s first ruler, Abd al-Aziz b. Saud, who died in 1953. Several of his sons are still alive, but most are out of the running for the succession either because of age/health or personal circumstances (either scandal or undesirable political leanings). Muqrin, at 69, is the youngest of Abd al-Aziz’s sons, so it stands to reason that after him the crown has to fall to the next generation. That leaves a whole bunch of Ibn Saud’s grandsons jockeying to be first in line for the next generation.

Muqrin was placed in the newly created post of “deputy crown prince” last March because of concerns over Salman’s health and the succession, and the new “deputy crown prince” is one of those grandsons, Muhammad b. Nayef, who’s been Interior Minister since 2012. His father, Nayef b. Abd al-Aziz, was Abdullah’s crown prince from 2011 until his death in 2012, and (given his counter-terrorism background) his appointment likely reflects the Saud family’s continued emphasis on dealing with ISIS and al-Qaeda. ISIS has already made threatening moves in Saudi Arabia’s direction, and may try to take advantage of the succession to launch further attacks, and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is about to benefit from the total breakdown of Yemen’s political order.

Domestically, the kingdom is on the precipice of a real generational problem, as its large youth population may strain its job market to breaking (and the Saudi decision to drive oil prices down isn’t helping their economy). Economic struggles lead to a disaffected populace, and a disaffected populace is going to start demanding change, either via peaceful protest or by joining up with extremists. One of these Saudi princes, and it may not be Salman given his age, is going to have to reckon with that.

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