At 84 years old, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia is not a young man, but the rest of the world should hope that he has many years left in him. His desert kingdom, roughly the size of Western Europe, hosts the two holiest Muslim shrines and about a quarter of a trillion barrels of oil, equivalent to 25 per cent of known global oil reserves.
Since officially succeeding his brother three years ago this week, King Abdullah has launched a series of important initiatives that had been stalled since the assassination of King Faisal in 1975. Half a dozen new economic cities have been launched, all with the participation of the private sector to provide jobs for over a million people.
As you are reading these lines 20,000 workers are ploughing up the land 100 kilometres north of Jeddah to build a $3 billion university of science and technology that carries the monarch’s name. KAUST, as it is to be known, will eventually educate 2,000 international students including Saudi men and women studying together for first time.
The university website shows students of both sexes attending a lecture in the same hall, side by side as equals; the instructor in the hi-tech classroom is a woman wearing a skirt; welcome to the Engineering College.
Here is a king of incremental change who has witnessed what revolutions have done to the countries of the Arab world. During his reign, women have been elected as board members of the Chamber of Commerce in Jeddah, the commercial capital of a region housing the Holy shrines of Mecca and Medina. Jeddah also just held its third film festival despite cinemas being outlawed under the previous monarch.
Under King Abdullah’s supervision, too, municipal elections have been held in Saudi Arabia for the very first time since 1963 – although they were very modest and not nearly a complete step.
These minor developments are especially notable if one considers that Saudi Arabia today exists as a result of an 18th century pact between the founder of the first Saudi kingdom and a puritanical cleric by the name of Mohammed Ibn Abdul Wahhab, hence Wahhabism, in which the education and religious affairs of the new state would fall into the hands of the clerics in exchange for them supporting the Al Sauds in establishing a unified state in the Arabian peninsula.
King Abdullah is above all the only Arab ruler who has proactively tried to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat by inviting President Ahmedinejad to the Kingdom and assuring him of Saudi Arabia’s position of solving the stand-off diplomatically. History has shown that when an insecure person with access to dangerous weapons feels that the noose is tightening about them, desperation kicks in and that person can be capable of irrational behaviour.
King Abdullah angered the powerful and notorious Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice during the recent Madrid Inter-Faith Dialogue conference. To the horror of the Commission, not only had he invited Muslims from other sects such as Shias as well as Jews and Christians, he had also invited followers of Buddhism and Hinduism. He personally stood up to meet and greet the 300 conference guests, and in a brief, powerful speech addressed them as “my brothers”, saying “man is capable of vanquishing hatred through love, and bigotry through tolerance”.
Needless to say, members of the Commission did not attend the conference. The significance of the decision to choose Spain as the venue for the three-day event was not lost on observers. Today’s harmonious Spain was also once a land in which intolerance and bigotry were practised against Protestants, Jews and Muslims in the name of a great faith by officials and individuals alike under the banner of the Inquisition.
King Abdullah, the patron of the Arab peace initiative towards Israel, is also the first Saudi monarch to travel to the Vatican and meet the Pope, in addition to advocating the right of women to drive, and introducing a succession committee for future kings.
Due to his advanced years, King Abdullah will likely not live to see the day in which all the projects that he is currently launching will be complete. Furthermore, classes taught by female professors, women behind the steering wheel and film festivals all hardly seem to be major leaps forward in reform. Some advocates of faster progress are no doubt disappointed, but this is not a popularity contest – however popular he is. In fact, these steps might be more successful precisely because they are incremental, as there exists a delicate balance between the thousands of individuals and groups involved in the Saudi establishment. Each clique – from secular princes to the zealots of the Commission – has varying demands and expectations.
After all, a journey of a thousand miles doesn’t begin with a giant leap.
This article first appeared in thenational.ae on Sunday July 27th 2008