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January 27, 2015
The passing of the Saudi monarch has brought out an outpouring of praise for King Abdullah’s many achievements both domestically and internationally. Regional dailies and commentators have been quick to draw attention to King Abdullah’s push to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as well as his efforts to foster interfaith harmony. Some editorials have gone so far as to suggest that the absence of the Saudi king from the world stage presages more instability in the region. For better or worse, it will be up to the new monarch, King Salman, to finish what his predecessor started.
Most editorials portray King Abdullah as a principled ruler and a reformer, who, according to a Gulf Today (UAE) editorial, “ran his affairs with élan and impact and empathy. People, from the elite to the most ordinary, said in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere that he lived out what he believed in. And that belief was rooted in one unbending rule, nothing at the cost of one’s principles. We saw that in what he did, and said....He was a model of simplicity. King Abdullah never appeared comfortable with the trappings of unnecessary authority. King Abdullah acted with laudable forcefulness. At home, he believed in advancing the cause of women and he did realize that wish.”
The Saudi Gazette editorial praised the king, highlighting what they consider are the monarch’s main achievements at home, including economic and educational reform: “The King let none of his ten years of rule go to waste. He proved himself tireless in the face of both economic and social challenges. He had absolutely no doubt that the fast-expanding number of young people in the population had to receive the best educational opportunities possible....Abdullah’s vision, moreover, went far beyond education. He saw that Saudi Arabia needed a modern and vibrant economy that was not dependent on the hydro-carbon sector. He also appreciated that, despite the Kingdom’s own financial resources, we had to attract foreign investment, as much for the technology and management expertise it would bring, as the commitment of funds.”
Another regional daily, The Khaleej Times, praised King Abdullah for having a steady hand in terms of foreign policy, which for the editorial staff was even more remarkable considering that “The nearly decade-long rule of King Abdullah, 90, coincided with a phase when the Arab nation faced several challenges, especially in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the US. America and many other developed nations were involved in deadly combats with militants in Afghanistan and Iraq and the Middle East has been on the boil for much of the 21st century. The Iranian nuclear crisis, the aggressiveness and violence of Israel, which continued with its expansionism in Palestine, the so-called Arab Spring movements in several countries which dislodged long-established regimes and near civil war conditions in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Iraq had made the region one of the most volatile places on earth. King Abdullah, known for his moderation and wisdom, led the Arab nation through these difficult times, interacting closely with other Gulf rulers, cajoling America and European nations to rein in Israel and also initiating a tough line against terrorists in the region.”
Not everyone might share that opinion, but judging from the Daily Star’s (Lebanon) editorial, at least for some in Lebanon, the passing of the Saudi king is considered a great loss: “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia will be remembered as a friend of Lebanon and a champion of moderation in a turbulent region....Saudi Arabia’s support goes beyond the kingdom’s welcoming of thousands of Lebanese expatriates who have made the Gulf country their home and pursued prosperous careers. Under King Abdullah’s leadership, the kingdom made generous donations of financial support that helped keep Lebanon’s economy afloat during difficult days....Lebanese will remember King Abdullah’s rule as one in which the kingdom, time and time again, offered support that went beyond rhetoric – the late king built bridges between Beirut and Riyadh that are certain to endure.”
King Abdullah has also been singled out for his efforts to reach across the religious divide and fostering inter-religious dialogue, as well as putting forward a plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Arab News’ Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is among those who believes the king “was influential in leading intercultural and interfaith dialogue, shaping the international coalition against terrorism, emboldening voices of moderation and standing up to extremism and divisiveness. Regionally, King Abdullah offered a comprehensive plan to resolve the Middle East conflict, which was adopted by the League of Arab States as the Arab Peace Initiative in March 2002, but regrettably not taken up by Israel....King Abdullah led an international movement for intercultural and interfaith dialogue. In July 2008, he presided with King Carlos of Spain over the Interfaith Dialogue Conference in Madrid, Spain. In November, he chaired the UN High-Level Meeting on Interfaith Dialogue in New York, which endorsed a General Assembly declaration on dialogue.”
His interfaith dialogue initiative had earned King Abdullah the support and praise of people like Rabbi March Schneier, who in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth’s Omer Benjakob, commented that “The king was progressive, he wanted to move the kingdom forward, both domestically, but also in terms of religion. Even if it was two steps forward and one back, the movement was always forward. I found him to be a very significant partner and personality in terms of advancing interfaith dialogue — in particular with the Jewish community."
And yet, as The National’s Hussein Ibish points out, the world King Abdullah leaves behind is a frail and less harmonious one, with religious extremism identified as one of the main culprits: “Under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia strove to position itself as the leader of efforts to confront these regional dangers. But at the time of his passing, many of these policies are in a state of disarray. Extremists like ISIL are proliferating and gaining stature. And Iranian influence is now dominant in Damascus, Baghdad, Sanaa and, to some extent, in Beirut....A survey of the wreckage of states strewn throughout the region readily explains, and possibly vindicates, the Saudi abhorrence of revolution as an instrument of change. But without a robust reform agenda, more of these upheavals will surely be inevitable....The Saudi sense of being ‘surrounded and besieged’ is embodied in one of King Abdullah’s last major projects: a 600-mile military barrier along the entire length of the border with Iraq. Saudi Arabia is indeed increasingly encircled, but not by anything that a wall can keep out.”
The instability and sense of crisis in the region means that the new Saudi monarch, King Salman, has not inherited an easy task. Still, the Peninsula’s editorial expresses optimism that, given the new monarch’s experience, he will be able to face the challenges ahead: “King Abdullah was a man on a mission. From the moment he took over in 2005 after the death of King Fahd, the biggest challenge for him was to get the economy back into shape and end the isolation Saudi Arabia had faced in the international world after 9/11. With his drastic measures and bold decisions, he united his people by launching national dialogue....Salman takes over as the ultimate authority amid global and domestic challenges compounded by the plunging oil prices. As the regional heavyweight, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has been playing a significant role in the Middle East politics. We hope the new ruler could rise to the expectations of the people of the region with wise decisions.”
Not least among those challenges is the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the viability of the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by the late King Abdullah. Judging from an op-ed written by Yedioth Ahronoth’s Smadar Perry, there are some on the other side who are rooting for him to succeed: “The Arab peace initiative, which offers ‘a full peace agreement with the Arab world in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal,’ came into the world 13 years ago under odd circumstances. Now, with the changing of the guard in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the upcoming elections in Israel, it is advisable to check whether something can be done with the move which was never started. For 13 years, politicians have been making great efforts to avoid the Arab peace initiative with the excuse that ‘we were never consulted about it.’...The Saudi king is dead, but his initiative still lives. Whoever knows what is happening behind the scenes knows that the partner is waiting for a phone call.”
Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at email@example.com.