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Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud was proclaimed the King of Saudi Arabia on August 1, 2005 and he served as monarch and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques until his death on January 23, 2015. Abdullah was Crown Prince and heir from 1982 to 2005 and served as regent following the incapacitation of King Fahd in 1995. As such he was responsible for the day to day operations of the government. Abdullah also served as Commander of the Saudi Arabia National Guard from 1962 through 2013. It would be difficult to overstate his impact on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its position in the world.
SUSRIS has compiled a large collection of articles, interviews (including our Feb. 2001 conversation with Crown Prince Abdullah), special reports and other reference material about the life and times of King Abdullah. Much of this is available through a new Special Section titled, “The Legacy of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.”
In an effort to further document his life and times and his influence on Saudi Arabia, the global stage and US-Saudi relations, SUSRIS has launched a series of interviews with officials, diplomats, business people, military officers, scholars and more who have important insights and perspectives on King Abdullah.
Today we are pleased to debut our King Abdullah legacy series with Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. He served as America’s top diplomat in Riyadh from 1989-1992, shepherding America’s relationship with the Kingdom during Operation Desert Storm and its aftermath. In that post and many subsequent interactions he had the opportunity to learn much about King Abdullah, the leader and the individual. We thank Ambassador Freeman for sharing his insights with you here today.
The Legacy of King Abdullah: A Conversation with Amb. Chas W. Freeman, Jr.
First in a series
[SUSRIS] Thank you for taking the time to talk with us about King Abdullah who you came to know well during your diplomatic service especially as U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and thereafter. Your perspectives on his impact on the Kingdom, the global stage and Saudi-US relations will be helpful in understanding developments over the past several decades.
[Amb Chas W. Freeman, Jr.] This is a topic I’m happy to talk about. As you know the current focus on Saudi Arabia has been on the dilemmas confronting the new king, Salman, and the way the succession has been handled, but it is worth thinking about Abdullah and talking about him. I considered him a friend and he treated me as one. I think he was a great king and will be assessed as such with the passage of time.
[SUSRIS] Let’s start with his impact inside the Kingdom. What do you consider to be his contributions to domestic developments in Saudi Arabia?
[Freeman] Abdullah bin Abdulaziz was in effect the ruler of Saudi Arabia for 20 years — ten years as de facto regent during the illness of King Fahd and ten years as King in his own right. His impact on the Kingdom was enormous. However, in the case of Saudi Arabia you only see change in the rear view mirror. You don’t notice it as it is happening but he transformed the Kingdom in a number of important ways.
Over the course of his reign he initiated the National Dialogue, which among many things partially incorporated Shia Saudis into the governing structure. That process is incomplete having been complicated by the rivalry with Iran and the collapse of the government in Iraq as well as the issues in Bahrain. However, it is very much a work in progress launched by him in which significant forward motion was achieved.
King Abdullah greatly enhanced the rights and standing of women in the Kingdom. He restored government control over women’s education, reserved a third of the civil service positions for women, and brought women into the Majlis al Shura, the Saudi equivalent of the parliament. He took other steps to empower women. He was clearly focused on women’s education and new institutions and new universities were created for that purpose during his reign.
I think Abdullah will be remembered for his expansion of the religious community in Saudi Arabia and for his reforms on the issue of gender relationships.
He was of course the man who earlier had transformed the National Guard [SANG] from a loose tribal levy. It more or less resembled the Ikhwan, who had opposed Abdulaziz, and to whom Abdullah’s mother was connected. She was of the al-Rashid family, who were the opponents of the al Saud. Consequently Abdullah became a master of managing tribal politics. He took the National Guard, which was a fairly undisciplined tribal force and turned it into a modern, effective light infantry over the course of his time as its commander. He later appointed his son, Prince Miteb, as its commander and then elevated the position to the rank of minister in his later days.
The expansion of education in the Kingdom included what I think is truly a revolutionary innovation in theological terms. He took the traditions of Saudi Arabia, which derived from Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab and various Salafists, meaning they refer back to the early followers of the Prophet Mohammed, and he demonstrated how those traditions were in fact compatible with a more liberal vision of Islam. He said in effect that all Muslims recognize that this is a morally corrupt age in which there is the requirement for the reaffirmation and renewal of faith. The Salafis are correct that the inspiration and the guidance for that renewal has to be found in the early practices of Islam. But he asserted that they were fundamentally mistaken in their view of the nature of early Islam. It was not intolerant. On the contrary, there were Jewish and Christian ministers in its government. It was not xenophobic. On the contrary, the House of Wisdom, the Bayt al-Hekma, first in Damascus and then in Baghdad, incorporated Hellenistic philosophy into Islam. It was not backward-looking. On the contrary, it was scientifically vigorous and innovative. Much of modern physics, mathematics, chemistry, and astronomy can trace its roots back to that period of Islam. And it was certainly not contemptuous or disdainful or disrespectful of women. The Prophet Mohammed’s wife Khadijah herself ran caravans to Damascus from Mecca. King Abdullah sought to empower women in ways that would be very compatible with the early days of Islam.
So that set of measures to reinvigorate Islam and make its message much more relevant to the modern age is entirely consistent with the reformist tradition of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. And it was really very creative, and it was quite deliberate. It was something the King had thought a great deal about. He knew what he was doing.
In order, in part, to facilitate this redirection of religion, he sponsored both an international interfaith dialogue and the national dialogue to which I referred. There were several conferences in Mecca, international conferences of Muslims talking about the relationship between faith, especially the Islamic faith, and other faiths. He endowed an institution in Vienna that bears his name to carry on this interfaith dialogue and work and he was responsible for an international conference at the United Nations, the “Culture of Peace” conference in 2008. I should also mention that he was the first Saudi king to meet with the Pope, which he did in 2007.
The international activities were, in part, a political justification for a move towards greater tolerance at home, and it’s that tolerance, that expansion of tolerance that I think in retrospect will be seen as one of his most important legacies.
[SUSRIS] We’ve stepped from the domestic arena to the global stage. What will he be remembered for in terms of foreign affairs?
[Freeman] There are many areas where King Abdullah left his mark in the international arena. Let me mention just a few.
He reformulated Saudi policy on the issue of Israel-Palestine peace. He did that in 2002 at the Beirut meeting of the Arab League. Far from the traditional position of Saudi Arabia, which was that the Kingdom would be the last Muslim state to establish relations with Israel, he declared Saudi Arabia would be the first, if Israel had the courage to make peace with the Palestinians. Of course Israel has not had that courage, which was a source of great disappointment to the King and something he discussed frequently in private and occasionally in public.
Abdullah was not just active internationally on spiritual issues and a would-be peacemaker. He also was the architect of the settlement of the long-standing border disputes with Yemen. This was during a period where Yemen, unlike now, was united. So the southern border of Saudi Arabia was settled on his watch – a very, very important development. Similarly maritime claims with Kuwait were settled and the issues of border disputes with Qatar and United Arab Emirates were essentially resolved or set aside in such a way that they are no longer the irritants they once were. These were major achievements from which his successors will benefit.
He also reached out internationally to the rising powers of what we used to call the third world – China, India, Brazil, Russia – and sought to expand the Kingdom’s relationships with non-European, non American partners for the Kingdom. In other words he demonstrated a measure of independence and sought to reduce over-reliance on the United States.
He had a strong partnership with Egypt under President Mubarak. It continued after an interruption with General al-Sisi, the current military dictator of Egypt. He was of course in his last years very active in opposing the government of Syria and the slaughter there and also in supporting the rights of Sunnis in Iraq. He intervened decisively in Bahrain to ensure that the monarchy there survived the challenge that a restive Shia population posed to it.
Egyptian President Mubarak, King Abdullah, Syrian President Assad
Throughout all of this he demonstrated a willingness to engage in dialogue with Iran despite the regional geopolitical and religious rivalry that exists between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran. I would say from my experience that he was one of the most suspicious members of the Royal Family toward Iran. He did not like the Islamic Republic and he made no secret of that dislike. Yet very early on as he became regent he reached out to then Iranian President Rafsanjani and established an effective working relationship with him. He was always open to that dialogue.
I think it was clear as others in the Arab world fell from power or were beleaguered — Saddam Hussein overthrown in Iraq with no clearly empowered replacement to succeed him, Bashar al Assad in Syria being besieged by his own people, the unrest in Egypt beginning in 2011, the Arab uprisings in various countries that destabilized Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen — he was a giant in troubled times.
Saudi Arabia assumed a leadership role, which it had never sought for itself in earlier days. He was in effect the last Arab leader standing and his stature globally as well as in the region reflected that.
Finally, I should say bringing international affairs, domestic affairs together once again, he led the Kingdom into the World Trade Organization. It meant that the Saudis for the first time accepted the global rules of economic engagement rather than asserting peculiar rules of their own formulation. So he brought Saudi Arabia into the normal world of trade and investment in a way that it had never been before. This was a major modernization of the Kingdom’s international relations, but also of its domestic economy. I think that too was transformative.
So, as I say, you don’t see the change so much as it occurs in Saudi Arabia, but looking back on this period, the King tackled some of the main issues in his own society – gender relations, religious issues, the issue of the minority Shia population. He repositioned Saudi Arabia internationally to be more independent and to take a larger leadership role, and he essentially redefined Arab and Islamic policy toward the continuing struggle in the Holy Land to provide incentives for Israel that had not existed for it to make peace with the Palestinians, which it sadly has not done.
So this is a record that is pretty stunning when you look at it as a whole.
[SUSRIS] King Abdullah became the Commander of the National Guard back in 1963, Crown Prince in 1982 and King in 2005. So he’s been an eyewitness to many phases of the history of the Saudi-US relationship from the inside. There was no shortage of remarkable events that shaped the relationship during the half century he spent near the center of power and indeed at the top of the leadership in the Kingdom. Talk about his approach to the relationship and his impact on it.
[Freeman] In his later years I think he was very much disillusioned with the relationship with the United States on several levels. The George W. Bush administration’s inability to rein in the Israeli military occupation particularly the West Bank and later Gaza deeply disturbed him.
King Abdullah and President George W. Bush
The Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq was something he counseled quietly but firmly against, and many of his concerns were borne out in fact. Finally, he was appalled by the vacillation – the erratic behavior of the United States – in the face of challenges to old friends like President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.
So he responded judiciously, I think, by trying to increase Saudi Arabia’s international options without, however, challenging or directly causing friction with the United States.
That reflected something that was very deep in him. He was a man who had been educated in the traditional manner, not abroad. He did not speak English. I remember being appalled, really astonished at the time when he was Crown Prince by the portrayal of him in the American press. I think much of it reflected Israeli views to the effect that he was anti-American. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
He took seriously his father’s advice, deathbed advice, to rely on the United States.
Abdullah handled the modernization of the National Guard, which I mentioned earlier, in partnership with the United States Army. To this day the US Army maintains a training mission at the National Guard headquarters in Riyadh and is sometimes embedded in units of the National Guard down to very low levels. He was always accessible to the American major general who headed that training mission. All of them attested to the fact that he was most reasonable and very well disposed towards the United States.
President Barack Obama and King Abdullah
In fact, in the face of disappointment from the United States, he responded by trying to expand the relationship, or to at least hold it on course. For example, there is the King Abdullah Scholarship Program which has made Saudi students one of the largest presences on American campuses. It is a Saudi government subsidy for a new generation of Saudis to become comfortable with the United States, to learn our ways, and to take whatever they learn here back home and apply it to life in Saudi Arabia. This was his initiative. It was one that reflected his view of the United States.
Despite all of the differences that he had with the administrations he dealt with, which included the Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama Administrations who were in power during his reign or his regency, he was always careful to keep a cordial and good dialogue going with us. But he could be quite tough. I remind you that in 2001 he declined an invitation to visit the White House out of outrage with American policy in Palestine. So he was tough, blunt sometimes, but always an affectionate and loyal friend of the United States.
[SUSRIS] Can you share any personal recollections of your experiences in meeting with him and what was your sense of the human dimension of sitting and talking with him or having some experiences in his presence?
[Freeman] I got to know him at first when he was Crown Prince – when he was essentially powerless. He was not part of the inner circle under King Fahd. He was seldom consulted on matters of policy. When he put forward policy proposals they were often sidetracked, sidelined without much further discussion.
He was at that time therefore not a politically powerful person, although of course he did command the National Guard and he was in line for the throne. Therefore I thought he truly justified attention from me as the American Ambassador. So I used to call on him a fair amount even though he had no great influence on policy.
I found him fascinating. He was, as I said, self-educated or educated only in the traditional manner. That meant that he had an almost biblical style of answering questions with parables. I would ask him a question and he would reply by telling me a story, perhaps one that his father had told him, or perhaps something that he had experienced or that he knew of from Arab or Saudi history. And it would take me sometimes days to figure out what he had said, but he always answered the questions and he did so honestly and he did so vividly.
He was a man who spoke in few words. That was in part because in the earlier days he suffered from a stutter. He had to think about what he was going to say very carefully before he said it, and I think that was a trait that stood him in good stead. In his later years as he gained in confidence, with help from a trainer or two and a medical therapist, he overcame that problem. But he was still a man whose eloquence was terse and was very honest.
After 9/11, which was of course a terrible moment in U.S.-Saudi relations and for both the United States and Saudi Arabia separately, he went to a Gulf Cooperation Council meeting. I believe it was in Muscat. He delivered a speech which was introspective and unflinching in its attribution of the causes of extremism to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Cooperation Council members and the Arabs in general, but it was quite inspiring. It contrasted with the unwillingness of Americans to consider what might have caused 9/11. He found much of the cause in mistakes and misinterpretations that the Arabs themselves had committed.
President Hu of China and King Abdullah
He was a man who was pious but tolerant. I should mention he brought the Muttawah, the commission to promote virtue and to extirpate vice, under very strict control. He restricted the right of the members of the educated elite to issue fatwas, which was a very positive and important move to reduce confusion and ensure that religious authority is not improperly invoked. I never heard him speak ill of other peoples’ faiths. And I think clearly he was inspired by his faith to a level of honesty that he consistently demonstrated.
I should say finally that he was a very private man, as most members of the Saudi Royal Family are. One didn’t see much of his family life, but it was clear that he had the complete devotion of his children. He listened to them. He loved them. They respected him. And he was, by all accounts, a good father.
He had a temper. Most of the time he constrained it, but once or twice it broke out. I think many that knew him in the earlier period of his life were concerned that he would prove to be irate and compulsive. He was not. He was in fact controlled and judicious in his approach to public affairs. And as an example of the rapprochement with Iran that he arranged demonstrates he put the interest of his country above his own feelings.
[SUSRIS] What words beyond pious and judicious would you use to describe him?
[Freeman] I think he was bold and subtle at the same time. He was visionary, but quiet in his expression of that. He was yes, pious, but his piety consisted in trying to ensure that the holy Koran was applied to the modern world and that medieval notions were not substituted for modern thought. He was a kind man, generous and decent. He probably, in recent Saudi history, may well have been the most beloved King for all these reasons.
The Kingdom now has a new and by early evidence very confident leadership. King Salman, who I know well, is off to a very good start. He has spent much of his adult life preparing for the role that he now has as King. He has a reputation for sagacity as well as the ability to conciliate differences between people. He has turned to appropriate junior members of the Royal Family for support, and as I said he’s off to a good start. Of course he doesn’t yet have the level of confidence from the public that Abdullah had.
[SUSRIS] How should history remember King Abdullah?
[Freeman] I’ve said before and I will repeat, I think he will be seen as Abdullah the Great for all the reasons I’ve given. He will be remembered for the subtle and effective course of reforms he carried out, for the assertion of leadership that he made on behalf of the Kingdom, and most of all for the effort that he made to instill tolerance and respect for women in a society which is not famous for that.
Ambassador Chas Freeman was interviewed by phone on February 27, 2015.
About Amb Chas Freeman:
President Emeritus, Middle East Policy Council; Chairman, Projects International; Former Assistant Secretary of Defense; Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Former President, MEPC.
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