The Legacy of King Abdullah: A Conversation with Gen. Anthony Zinni

Published: March 6, 2015

Editor’s Note:

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 offer for your consideration our conversation with General Anthony Zinni, USMC (Ret), Honorary Chairman, Middle East Institute on the legacy of King Abdullah. His distinguished 40-year military career was capped by assignment as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Central Command from 1997-2000. As such he was responsible as a “Combatant Commander” for American military relations and responses in a broad swath of countries — friends and foes — extending from northeast Africa, across the Arabian Peninsula, to Afghanistan and Central Asia. Saudi Arabia was a frequent destination for his official travels as “CINC” to the region and Abdullah was a frequent interlocutor.

Zinni, who retired as a four-star U.S. Marine general in 2000, continued to serve in numerous diplomatic roles. In 2001 President George Bush appointed him as U.S. special envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority where he worked to advance the Middle East peace process. He later served in missions to Pakistan, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. General Zinni has written and contributed to numerous books including: “Before the First Shots are Fired: How America Can Win or Lose Off the Battlefield” (September 2014); “The Battle for Peace: A Frontline Vision of America’s Power and Purpose”; and “Battle Ready: A Study in Command” with Tom Clancy.

SUSRIS spoke with General Zinni by phone on February 28, 2015. We thank him for sharing his insights with you here.



The Legacy of King Abdullah: A Conversation with General Anthony Zinni.

Second in a series

zinni-official-portrait-1[SUSRIS] General Zinni, thank you for your time today to talk about the legacy of King Abdullah. He was a figure whose impact on Saudi Arabia and its place on the world’s stage would be difficult to overstate. He led the Saudi Arabian National Guard starting in 1963, became Crown Prince in 1982 and assumed the role of regent in 1995 when King Fahd became incapacitated. He was defacto ruler for ten years before becoming King and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in 2005 when King Fahd died. In those decades Saudi Arabia has seen a remarkable transformation. How would you describe his affect on developments inside the Kingdom?

[Gen. Anthony Zinni] King Abdullah will go down in history as a visionary. When I was CENTCOM Commander and he was Regent I visited Saudi Arabia and called on him a number of times and thereafter as well. So over the past 20 years I’ve observed him closely and he was gracious enough to meet with me any time I was there.

A number of things stand out. He instituted a number of changes. One, in terms of the changes, and some people would say reforms, was he felt strongly that they had to diversify the economy and not be oil-centric. Of course he built King Abdullah Economic City and a range of mega projects and he was interested in developing the mineral potential and improving the infrastructure. So that was one aspect, the way he dealt with economic issues – diversifying and modernizing the economy.

King Abdullah Cabinet Meeting

Two, King Abdullah put a high value on education. He sought scholarships abroad for young Saudis especially here in the U.S. His emphasis on education was tied to the Saudization program where he didn’t want to be dependent on ex-pats doing everything. He wanted young Saudis to gain more education, more ambition, and step up to these roles and be able to fill them. I think that’s another thing he’ll be noted for – dealing with the youth bulge and employment challenges. He also made changes inside the Kingdom that really embraced modernity, and obviously it was tough to do but he started them.

The last time I saw him he invited me to go with him to a Majlis that was scheduled that afternoon. This was an informal gathering for consultations. I was the only non-Saudi present. It was a Majlis for tribal leaders. He had a member of the Royal Court escorting me tell me about an earlier session when he told tribal leaders he wanted to put girls schools in their areas. About half had objected. So he said look, I’ll put them where the tribal leaders accept them. This time the other half was coming back saying they wanted them now. They saw the benefit.

That’s an anecdote that reflects his desire to move forward but he understood that he had to convince people. He did it in a very measured way.

In my time there I talked with various ministers and the military and everyone I knew was very excited about these changes. I think they saw him as starting a process that they hoped would continue across generations as the country moves forward. So I think that’s going to be his legacy.

He was a visionary. He began some changes and reforms. He tightened discipline on the Royal Family and everybody else to make sure that they were models for the Kingdom. And those were the kinds of things that were most impressive.

From a military point of view, I called on him when he was Regent and head of the National Guard. Whenever I visited the Kingdom he saw me. Every time. I can’t think of a time I went that he didn’t invite me to talk. He didn’t have to, obviously as a Regent and then as King, but he really felt it was important for him to stay connected to the mil-to-mil relationships. He really valued the U.S.-Saudi relationship. He went through some tough times during this period but he tried his best to make sure that that relationship didn’t break. It probably was strained but he realized its importance and he worked hard to maintain it.


Another area where he worked hard and produced a milestone that didn’t get much attention was in Middle East peace. It was at a time when I was still involved in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He went to the Arab League meeting in Beirut in 2002 and he announced that the Arab countries following his leadership would recognize the state of Israel if they had a resolution based on a two-state structure and borders generally along the lines of ’67. [Arab Peace Initiative]

The conditions weren’t important. It was the fact that he was able to take that leadership role in the region and announce something that was almost unheard of. Unfortunately I think it was a moment that we all lost at that time. The significance of it got lost because of events that occurred on the ground inside Israel-Palestine.

[SUSRIS] Right. I recall it was a Hamas bombing at a hotel in Netanya.

[Zinni] Yes, it was a suicide bombing at Passover. We just had an agreement that day on the implementation of the Tenet Plan, which addressed security issues. Everybody was excited about it.

Sharon [Israeli Prime Minister] wouldn’t let Arafat [PLO Chairman] go to the meeting in Beirut. There was a lot of back and forth over that. Arafat got into a video teleconference. And many people were upset that maybe this was stealing the importance of what King Abdullah was announcing there and what he brought to the table.

You may recall he had discussed this earlier with Tom Friedman and others and then it became the Beirut Declaration. Really it was news that never got the importance attached to it that it should have had because of these other events.

People King Abdullah 2002 Summit

[SUSRIS] King Abdullah continued to press forward with his plan over the years and in fact had it reaffirmed at Arab League summits. It is probably one initiative he regrets not having been able to see through.

[Zinni] Yes. But just look at the sum total of things King Abdullah did – internally in terms of the economy; in terms of making sure all the Royal Family members were doing the right things, setting the example; what he did in terms of his emphasis on education, on Saudization, and then externally on what we just talked about. He made bold moves that certainly could help that process and hopefully will in the future. He worked hard to try keep the U.S.-Saudi relationship intact through some very tough times. Then there were a number of security challenges, regional challenges with Iraq and a number of other issues that he faced.

[SUSRIS] King Abdullah wore the mantle of reformer but many outsiders think a king can just wave his hand and his will shall be done. You mentioned the anecdote about the girls schools being discussed at the Majlis you attended, which is a great example of the need to build consensus in the process of making changes. Can you talk about the need to bring everybody on board and concern that a king can’t get too far ahead of society?

[Zinni] Right, and I think the Majlis is a good example. I always tell people — I’ve been to others with him — this is the closest thing that they have to our town hall meeting. You may be the King but you sit there in the center of the crowd and people come up with petitions and complaints. And they’re pretty straightforward in how they deliver them. The King has to sit there and accept them, take their petitions, give them to the appropriate ministers, and ensure there’s a response.

King Abdullah

If you watch that process you would say this is a king not in the way we think about European Royalty which stays above all this and doesn’t get down and do this sort of thing. There is a requirement to have consensus. He isn’t free to just proclaim edicts and have them enforced. He has the issue of tradition and how the society sees itself even if he has a vision of something different. Change has to be brought forward in a measured way in that kind of environment.

I think that’s lost on a lot of people looking at it from the outside. They ask why doesn’t he move faster? Why doesn’t he move faster? If you move too fast you’re going to have blowback that’s going to be more destabilizing.

King Abdullah was always looking for that measured way to keep moving forward but carefully bring the traditions and the feelings of society along with it. He sought to make the changes in a way that the people can be comfortable with them, and test them if they want. I thought that was the right approach and one I hope that the rulers continue to follow because it was the pace that was necessary for that kind of environment and that kind of society.

[SUSRIS] Saudi Arabia under King Abdullah moved firmly into a major role in regional and global affairs. It became the largest economy in the region – acceding to the WTO and becoming a Group of 20 member; it became a political leader in Arab and Islamic affairs; and it appeared to become more confident in expressing its positions in foreign affairs. How would you describe King Abdullah’s influence in the region and on the world stage?

[Zinni] He truly was an internationalist. I think he saw the importance of Saudi Arabia playing a role on the international stage whether it was trade and economics or whether it was in terms of defense and security.

People Obama Saudi Visit King Abdullah

He saw the importance of healing interfaith friction and problems especially in the region. There’s no doubt he was a regional leader, traditionally a role of Saudi rulers. But I think he commanded a lot of respect from those in the region. It was more than would normally have been given by virtue of Saudi Arabia’s size and importance and as his position as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. Many people in the region certainly saw him as someone who was out in front and very much regarded him as the leader. He stood up to Persian issues and problems and was seen as sort of the core of the Arab world in those terms.

So I think his leadership both regionally and internationally definitely went beyond what we have seen in the past.

[SUSRIS] You mention Persian issues, but he also sought some accommodation with Iran.

[Zinni] Yes, and we all did. President Clinton was looking for that moment. Going back to Khatami’s time and others I think that the Kingdom was very willing to look at that opportunity. Later, though, King Abdullah was very much disappointed in relations with Iran, especially with the attempt on Ambassador al-Jubeir’s life here in the U.S. I think that put him in a position where he could no longer reach a hand out to try to bring the Iranians in.


[SUSRIS] In 1995 when King Abdullah, then Crown Prince, became Regent upon the incapacitation of King Fahd, there were assessments that his leadership would be less helpful to U.S. interests than was his brother’s rule. Can you comment?

[Zinni] Yes, I think that was true. No one really knew him. He wasn’t one of the Sudairi brothers. People weren’t sure whether or not he might be coming from a more conservative background. I’d heard that too.

Ambassador Wyche Fowler, however, had been out there, had built a tremendous relationship and friendship with him. He reassured us that that would not be the case. Abdullah very much saw the importance of the relationship, and as I said, in terms of the military-to-military relationship he was really involved in it.

Every time I went to the Kingdom I saw him and we discussed the mil-to-mil piece. We talked about the things we had to do during that period. The containment of both Iran and Iraq really required Saudi participation. They were supporting us in terms of “in kind” provisions – food, fuel, water, everything that we needed. They built Prince Sultan Air Base, which was state of the art in terms of quality of life for the troops and it was designated for our use.

Unfortunately, later on, the way Iraq unfolded — how they were really kept in the dark — that damaged all that had been built up through a lot of his effort. But we clumsily handled the whole Iraq business and I think we were in danger of damaging that relationship in a severe way. Abdullah was instrumental in making sure that didn’t happen.

[SUSRIS] One of the key challenges in the relationship was the 9/11 aftermath. Tell us your perspective on what he faced and how he handled it?

[Zinni] I think there were a couple of things in the aftermath that were important. One, internally they cleaned up a lot of problems. There was some violence inside the Kingdom and they were credited, certainly he was credited, for the way Saudi Arabia handled their own internal issues and cleaned up what were or could have been emerging problems.

There were some inside Saudi Arabia such as disenchanted youth and others who were beginning to act out inside the country. There were, starting in 2003, attacks on compounds that the U.S. and other ex-pats lived in, but that was quickly countered very effectively.

rice bush abdullah

I think the appointment of Prince Turki al Faisal to be Ambassador to the U.S. was an important development. He became very popular. I think he openly addressed the issue of the participation of Saudi citizens in 9/11 extremely well. There were no excuses. He said words to the effect it will be an eternal shame that this happened and that Saudis were involved. It went a long way in healing the aftermath.

So I think the King’s approach helped in the longer term to get beyond it.

[SUSRIS] King Abdullah gets credit for his scholarship program, which now numbers 100,000-plus students in the United States as going a long way in building bridges.

[Zinni] Yes. He had a very strong sense of the importance of education. He valued U.S. schools and universities. He sought those numbers of scholarships and worked hard to make sure that the students that came to fill those seats met the qualifications. The back end of the program is to put them in positions back in the Kingdom that are important — in the economy and the government and elsewhere. So it was an investment. Certainly from our point of view, from the U.S., It’s the kind of investment you want to see in those kinds of positions to, as you say, build bridges.

[SUSRIS] What do you recall about him from your meetings?

[Zinni] What impressed me is these weren’t just sort of perfunctory protocol calls — I see you because you’re the senior military guy for the region. These sessions were substantive. I had a number with him. Certainly when I was at CENTCOM, Ambassador Fowler and I would go over frequently. Every time we met it wasn’t simply niceties – certainly the meetings were pleasant and the relationship was great – but he was very frank and honest and substantive in the discussions. That was impressive.

It wasn’t a matter of well you’re going to be foisted off on some second tier minister to discuss this. He had the issues down. He knew what they were, and he discussed them in detail. So it was always impressive to work with him because he truly took his leadership role seriously and invested the time and interest to know what was going on. That was always very impressive.

Outside the military aspect, when I would talk to Ambassador Fowler he would say that these conversations carried over to other areas in our relationship – the economy and other issues. So he built that reputation of being a hands-on leader and understanding all the issues, regardless of what the subject was.


[SUSRIS] How would you describe him?

[Zinni] The word I would use is visionary. I think he’ll go down in history as a visionary leader if his successors follow on with what he started. He’ll be seen as the beginning of change and adaptation towards what modernity can bring, but at the same time carrying on the traditions. So I would say he was a visionary that began to change the Kingdom.

[SUSRIS] Do you have any last thoughts on his legacy and how Saudis and Americans should remember him?

[Zinni] One thing that impressed me the last time I visited was actually from others I talked to. I had gone around to the different ministries, talked to the ministers, talked to many Saudis. I spent a week there and everybody I talked to was excited. He had ignited a sense or feeling among people about the future. I didn’t hear any reservations from anybody about what he was doing.

There was an excitement that I hadn’t seen before his time in there. His ideas were universally accepted with everybody that I ran into in the Kingdom. I think they also appreciated – again, going back to what I said before – the pace of implementation, not to be destabilizing but to push it forward, to continue, but at a pace the society could handle.

[SUSRIS] General Zinni, thanks so much for your time and your insights into what clearly has been a historic figure and time in the relationship and in Saudi Arabia.

General Zinni was interviewed by phone on February 28, 2015.


About General Anthony Zinni

People Gen Anthony ZinniThe Middle East Institute’s Honorary Chairman, Anthony (Tony) C. Zinni, is a retired four star United States Marine Corps general. He served his country in numerous diplomatic roles, as the U.S. special envoy to Israel and the Palestinian Authority and in missions to Pakistan, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. General Zinni retired from the U.S. Marine Corps in 2000, after a distinguished 39-year career that took him to over 70 countries in many command assignments. In his final tour of duty, from 1997 to 2000, he was commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command. In his military career General Zinni earned 23 personal awards and 37 unit, service, and campaign awards.

General Zinni joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1961 and was commissioned an infantry second lieutenant in 1965, after completing his undergraduate degree in economics at Villanova University. He earned graduate degrees in international relations from Salve Regina University and in management and supervision from Central Michigan University. General Zinni has been awarded honorary doctorates from Villanova University; the College of William and Mary and the Maine Maritime Academy.


He has held academic positions that include the Stanley Chair in Ethics at the Virginia Military Institute, the Nimitz Chair at the University of California, Berkeley, the Hofheimer Chair at the Joint Forces Staff College, and the Harriman Professorship of Government at the Reves Center for International Studies at the College of William and Mary. He has worked with the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation and the Henry Dunant Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva.

He was Chairman of the Board of BAE Systems Inc., and a member of the board of Dyncorp International before being appointed an executive vice president. He also served as president of International Operations for M.I.C. Industries, Inc. General Zinni is the author of two best-selling books on his military career and foreign affairs: Battle Ready and The Battle for Peace. His most recent book, Leading the Charge, was published in 2009.

Source: Middle East Institute


Read more on this topic:

Logo SUSRIS 300