The Legacy of King Abdullah: A Conversation with Amb. James Smith

Published: March 11, 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 Ambassador James B. Smith, senior counselor at the Cohen Group, who served as America’s top envoy in Riyadh from September 2009 through September 2013. Smith was a participant in the history of Saudi-US relations and an observer of an important portion of King Abdullah’s reign (2005-2015). Prior to his appointment as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia by President Barack Obama, Smith served in a variety of executive positions with Raytheon Company. That followed a distinguished career as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force where he became a general officer.

SUSRIS has been fortunate to have talked with Ambassador Smith on a number of occasions during and after his assignment in Riyadh. Many of those interviews are contained among the links that follow below, including our FocusKSA webcast interview with him on the topic of education in Saudi Arabia. [Link]

SUSRIS spoke with Ambassador Smith by phone on March 7, 2015. We thank him for sharing his insights with you here.



The Legacy of King Abdullah: A Conversation with Ambassador James Smith

Third in a series

[SUSRIS] How would you describe King Abdullah’s impact on the Kingdom?

[Smith] There are so many things we can talk about but let me just mention three that I see as among the most important.

One, a lot of people will talk about this, was his impact on women’s issues. Just about every Saudi woman that I’ve met since his passing has talked about how much he meant to them in terms of education, in terms of opportunity, and in terms of respect.

In the first two or three months I was in Riyadh there was a female doctor, I believe she’s currently a Shura member, Dr. Khawla Al-Kuraya. She was awarded the King Abdulaziz medal for her work in cancer research. It was the first time people could remember seeing a women who was not wearing a niqab, a face covering, with the King. This was in early 2010.

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Dr. Khawla Al-Kuraya received the King Abdulaziz Medal from King Abdullah in 2010. (Arab News)

A few months later there was a wonderful picture after a national dialogue meeting in Najran which focused on women’s issues. There was a group of about forty women who briefed King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan about the meetings. Then they had a group picture. Most of them were not wearing a niqab. It became a front page picture and story in the Saudi newspapers. So in many ways the things that King Abdullah has done for women gave them a voice that they never had before.


King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan following a meeting with delegates to a National Dialogue session on women’s issues. 

Of course we in the west may look at women wearing traditional garb like the niqab and abaya as showing that somehow the society has constrained them. In reality they have a lot more influence in their society than suggested in western conventional wisdom. Abdullah gave them wings and gave them hope about change.

So on the top of the list of things that I admire was King Abdullah’s influence on Saudi women and their futures.

The second area that was obvious to me as I traveled around the country was his focus on development beyond the three key cities – Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam. It was a decision that he made early on, going back to his time as a regent.

There had been a focus on the development in those three key areas. It made sense. Riyadh is the capital; Jeddah is the commercial center; and Dammam with al Khobar is a center for Aramco in the Eastern Province. But there were fourteen or fifteen other smaller cities that were languishing. Abdullah put a focus on development in those places. As I traveled to Abha, Najran, Jizan, al Hasa, Ha’il, and others I saw growth of universities and hospitals and other developments. What that means is a young person can grow up and can go to school and not have to go to the big city in order to have a future.



Click for larger map.

Part of this emphasis was a realization that Riyadh is just getting too big. Part of it is realizing the rest of the country is important too. So the geographic diversity of investment is something that stood out, especially as I traveled around the country.

The third area where King Abdullah was effective and had great impact and which a lot of people have talked about is his emphasis and investment in education. When I arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2009 there were 18,000 Saudi students studying in the United States. Today there are over 90,000. That’s only a part of the story.

Saudi Arabia has gone from eight to thirty-two universities in the last fifteen years. A lot of the students getting their doctorate degrees here will be going back to fill university positions at schools back home.

The only thing that I know that rivals the King Abdullah Scholarship Program is the G.I. Bill in the United States after World War II. It was that investment in education that provided for the economic boom in America in the fifties and sixties. So that investment in education of Saudi Arabia, it was twenty-six percent of the national budget when I was there, has the potential for doing the same for Saudi Arabia.

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King Abdullah Scholarship Program graduates celebrating at national ceremony in Washington, May 2014. (SUSRIS Photo)

Saudi Arabia is going to have to move away from the state-run aspects of the economy, away from the bloated public sector, and do the kinds of things that will enable the private sector to flourish. If they can do that then you will have tens of thousands of highly educated Saudis that can take advantage as entrepreneurs who will be creating small and medium businesses. You can really see the potential for the economy growing outside of the upstream petroleum.

When I look at King Abdullah’s record in those areas and more it’s pretty clear he’s had a huge impact.

[SUSRIS] What was his profile on the global stage?

[Smith] As far as the international scene, I recall in Ramadan 2012 when Abdullah was agonizing over the conflicts in the region he called for a meeting of the heads of state of all the Muslim majority countries about a month ahead of a regular meeting. There were about forty-six countries with over forty heads of state who came to Jeddah for this meeting.

I don’t know anybody, not even the President of the United States, who would have the influence and the respect that would lead so many heads of state to show up on short notice. His focus was on starting a conversation about Muslims killing other Muslims – that was the issue – with the focus primarily on Syria.

If you want one example of how he is respected in the international community, especially in the Islamic world, well that certainly was it.

He had important relationships with the leaders of the region, be it the GCC or others. For a long time that included Bashar al Assad until that relationship broke down starting about May 2011. It went south after that. It was strong with King Abdullah in Jordan and the leaders of the Muslim majority countries. So internationally he’s held in high regard.

People King Abdullah 2002 Summit

He went to the G8 Summit in London in 2009 and then Saudi Arabia became part of the G20. By that time his health was such that he was not really able to attend all of those events. So the Finance Minister, Dr. Assaf, generally represented Saudi Arabia along with Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal, who, for example was at the 2009 G20 Summit in Pittsburgh. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia’s role in these global leadership forums demonstrated King Abdullah’s international standing.

[SUSRIS] Can you comment on his longstanding role as Commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard and the relationship with the United States?

[Smith] His relationship with the United States goes back to at least 1962 when he was the head of the National Guard. So there’s a long list of contacts going back fifty years, especially among general officers, in our government who have had excellent relationships with him. That held true after he became crown prince and later King.

For several years I would go at the invitation of Sheik Abdul Mohsen al-Tuwaijari, the deputy commander of the National Guard to events. During Eid after Ramadan all of the different parts of the National Guard would come and offer “bayah” every year. It was Abdullah’s personality and character in the leadership of the National Guard that really held the tribes together. It’s the fabric that holds them together, which is why, in my opinion, Saudi Arabia is not like Yemen.


King Abdullah had a huge role over a very long period of time in being the network, the fiber, that held the various constituencies in the country together so that by the time he became King he was ruling over something that he had been very close to for fifty years. Part of that experience was a very close relationship with our government.

[SUSRIS] Abdullah became crown prince in 1982 when King Khaled died and Fahd became king. Then in 1995 Abdullah, as crown prince, became regent when Fahd was incapacitated as a result of a stroke. At that time observers were concerned he might take different approaches than King Fahd. He was seen as a pious individual, someone who was more conservative. How would you describe that aspect of his leadership?

[Smith] Yes, Abdullah was without question a pious man. There were occasions when we would be in meetings and he would excuse himself for five minutes to go pray and come right back. He was comfortable with that and so was everyone else. He was very definitely of a conservative disposition and very close to the religious community, but that didn’t mean that he didn’t want to modernize his country.


King Fahd had a very warm relationship with the United States. He was perceived in a very positive light by all who dealt with him. If you look at history, however, the country reverted to a more conservative direction in some areas and tribalism gathered steam again. So there were two different perceptions of the personalities with Fahd and Abdullah, but their impact on the society was different than those respective perceptions.

[SUSRIS] That’s an intriguing assessment. King Fahd was clearly working to validate his religious credentials in the 1980s especially after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. In the case of Crown Prince and then King Abdullah he was heralded for his piety. Could it be a case of “only Nixon could go to China” in that only someone with Abdullah’s reputation could press for the reforms in a conservative culture that he did?

[Smith] Yes, it’s really interesting in comparing the two. I don’t know about King Fahd’s motivations but there were a lot of people who thought because Abdullah stuttered and was seen as ultra-conservative that he was never going to rise to the top or going to be close to the west and America. They got it wrong.

[SUSRIS] You were Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2009 through 2013 and saw King Abdullah up close and personal. You were there alongside the President, Secretary of State and a host of other visitors and with him one on one. What can you tell us from those encounters that paint a picture of him?


Amb. Smith, Secretary Clinton, Amb. Al Jubeir, translator, King Abdullah (SPA)

[Smith] I don’t know where to start. I’ve got lots of stories.

He was a very kind man and he was direct.

On one occasion we had a visitor I was to escort for a meeting with the King. Before we went we sat down to review the talking points. What he showed me was way out in left field and I told him that I wasn’t sure I would approach the topic that way. He said that it was what he had to tell the King. I said that it wasn’t correct and I wouldn’t approach it that way. He was insistent on what he wanted to say so off we went.

We met with King Abdullah and he heard the talking points. When the visitor finished with the one that I thought he should have rephrased King Abdullah said just a couple of words. That was followed by his translator who gave about a three-minute translation saying words to the effect that King Abdullah thinks there might be another way of looking at this, that he’s not sure we’ve got all of the correct options, and there are other considerations that we ought to keep in mind. He went on and on – certainly beyond the few words the King had uttered.

It just didn’t register with me. So as I was walking out I asked my translator what did King Abdullah really say. His response, the King said it was “BS.” So in essence he was direct, but even with that never once did he make an emissary feel uncomfortable.


Secretary of State John Kerry and King Abdullah. (SPA)

I recall a visit to Riyadh by Congresswoman Nita Lowey. She is a wonderful lady. She’s Jewish, from New York, and she was not really comfortable at first. She was going into the lion’s den and she had all of these preconceptions of what Saudi Arabia was like. It took me the better part of a day to disabuse her of some of that and she warmed to the visit. So we went to see King Abdullah who was out in his desert encampment. In fifteen seconds he made her feel remarkably comfortable and they spent the first twenty minutes talking about grandchildren.

What was just a say hello session ended up being an hour and a half meeting of two grandparents. It struck me that these two people were polar opposites in most things but they were sitting together having a warm conversation, not just respectful but a warm conversation. It was really intriguing.

King Abdullah loved to hear stories and tell stories. I remember a visit to give Ramadan greetings one year and I told him about my experience the previous Ramadan. I had gone over to the house in Jeddah where King Abdulaziz lived in 1925. It was being restored. I told King Abdullah we were up on the roof during the evening and how fascinating it was to listen to the prayer call across the city. He told me at great length about how they would sleep up there in the summer time because it was so hot.

I said, well King Abdullah, I grew up on a farm in Georgia and we did not have air conditioning when I was growing up. So in the heat of the Georgia summers we would move outside and sleep on the concrete front porch because that would cool off faster than anything else.

He looked at me oddly. I don’t think he’d ever imagined that an American had similar stories about growing up without air conditioning and without the creature comforts that are so associated with America and Americans.

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Ambassador Smith and Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, currently Crown Prince. (SPA)

Perhaps the funniest story had to do with my naivete as a diplomat. I’m not trained as a diplomat so most of the things I did were based on gut reaction. We had five orange trees in front of the Quincy House, the ambassador’s residence. These produced bitter oranges that you couldn’t eat but they made good marmalade. They came in season in December and we would make a great big batch of marmalade. We’d put it in mason jars and hand them out as gifts. So we finished this batch and about a week later somebody coming in for an official visit was to see the king. I thought I would just grab a jar of a marmalade as a gift for King Abdullah. I didn’t think much about it. So I went upstairs to where my wife Janet keeps all these bags and whatnot. I got a gift bag and put some tissue in it; put a jar of marmalade in it and off I go with this bag.

We drove over to the King’s palace. It’s beautifully decorated, an enormous structure with blue Italian marble everywhere. I walked in and the son of the head of royal protocol welcomed me. He asked, “Your Excellency what do you have there?” And I said oh I’ve got a jar of marmalade for King Abdullah. He said Your Excellency you know you don’t give gifts to the King. You pass them to protocol and we take care of it. And I knew that. I knew that you don’t give gifts directly to the king. And I should have said yes you’re right, I forgot. Here, let me give them to you. Instead I blurted out the first thing that came to mind, which was that my wife made it for him.

He ran off and came back about ten minutes later and he said, Your Excellency, it’ll be okay. So I walked off down the long corridor and into King Abdullah’s office and again across a great big, long space. And he was sitting at the other end of the room. Off to the right he had some of the key princes. Prince Saud was there, Mohammed bin Nayef was there, Bandar was there, Muqrin was there. And they were laughing and grinning because here I was walking along with this flowered gift bag in my hand.

So I sat it down in front of the king and I said King Abdullah, as you know I grew up on a farm in Georgia and our tradition was at harvest time to share the harvest with our friends and neighbors. He got up out of his chair – he’s got great big hands – and he put both hands down in the bag and lifted up the jar of marmalade like it was pure gold. His reaction was there was no better gift that I could have received. He didn’t dismiss this simple, silly thing. He accepted it with a kindness and warmth that really goes with being regal as a king. So that was the relationship we had.

I remember Adel [Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. Al-Jubeir] told me before I went to Riyahd there’s only two things you need to remember about King Abdullah. One, never lie to him, and two, never tell him you’re going to do something that you’re not going to do. If you’re not going to do it just tell him. He may be mad for twenty seconds. If you lie to him he’ll be mad at you forever. I took that advice.

Remember again that we had 18,000 Saudi students in the United States when I arrived in Riyadh in September 2009. I recall Jim Jones [National Security Advisor] was over in December of 2009. We were in to see King Abdullah and as we were walking out he tugged on my coat sleeve and wanted to know if he could ask a favor. I said of course and he said would I do everything I could to make sure that Saudi students are successful going back to the United States. I said absolutely. I went back to the embassy and I said we’re going to do two things. One is we’re going to dive into this visa processing issue and figure out how to fix it, which as you know we did. Secondly, I said we never wanted a student to miss class because they could not get a visa appointment. I couldn’t control the review process, but we wanted to move students to the front of our line. Students, as you know, are notorious for waiting until the last minute.

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King Abdullah Scholarship Program students at national graduation ceremony, 2014. (SUSRIS Photo)


I never heard back from King Abdullah on this issue except that starting the next year the number of students going to the United States increased every year.

So clearly he had taken note of the fact that we had fundamentally improved the process for students getting back to the States. As a result there have been more and more students every year. In the last three years I think the percentage of women and men is almost fifty percent. Now there are about 92,000 Saudi students in the U.S. When you send a student here on a King Abdullah scholarship you’re talking about $100,000 per student a year. So with 92,000 students that’s $9.2 billion that he was putting into the American education system every year.

It’s good for them, it’s good for us. So those are just some stories.

[SUSRIS] Did you ever see him angry?

[Smith] Yes. He never got angry at me. He never got angry at anybody I was with. The only time I can say he was close to angry was at Bashar al Assad in May of 2011 at the start of the Syrian crackdown on dissent. He told me about Assad calling him. Abdullah told him these are your people; give them what they need. Instead Assad decided to attack and kill his own people. That is the one time that he spoke with great bitterness.


Syrian President Bashar al Assad and King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.

He would talk about Palestine, talk about Syria. He was somebody who really cared about people and he took offense at the notion of people or governments who did not take care of their people, not just in Syria and Palestine, but in conversations about other places.

[SUSRIS] How was his interaction with the President and the Secretaries of State you saw him with?

[Smith] He had a very warm relationship with President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Secretary Kerry when I was there. There was one meeting with Secretary Clinton that I believe lasted about four hours — between an hour long meeting, then dinner, then another meeting. So they were positive relationships. He was a warm host.

[SUSRIS] In a conversation we had at the Business Opportunities Forum in Los Angeles I asked how did you approach your job every day when there are so many fractious issues. You said that it’s best to focus on the areas where you can achieve something rather than getting bogged down in areas where there’s not likely to be agreement. In the context of talking about issues with King Abdullah would he avoid contentious subjects or would he try to sort through them?

[Smith] He was not undiplomatic. I’ll quote a phrase that he used. He said, “Israel is a fait accompli. We have no objection with the State of Israel, but we think that Palestine is a fait accompli also.” That’s kind of the way he would approach things.

I’ll tell you, when I said that I didn’t mean we just focused on easy things. However, if you engage and you build a relationship then when it comes time to deal with hard issues you have a level of trust that allows you to work through the challenging times.

I had a problem with senior people in our government who would come over only when they wanted something, when there was a problem. The people in the region want to see you and they want to see you for positives as well as negatives. There are an enormous number of issues that we can be talking about and working on. And if you work on the things where you can reach agreement then you can build a level of trust. So when it’s time to deal with something that is really hard you have a basis for a relationship to deal with it. That’s really what I meant by that.

[SUSRIS] You mentioned the words pious and some others in describing King Abdullah. What other words would you use to describe him?

[Smith] Hospitable, direct, visionary — he knew where he wanted to take the country — and kind.

[SUSRIS] What will King Abdullah’s legacy be?

[Smith] Well you know they wrote that song which was a hit in 2011, 2012, called “Baba Abdullah.” That will be his legacy. Baba Abdullah. Father Abdullah.


Saudi youth singing “Baba Abdullah” as a tribute to King Abdullah.


Janet was hosting a get together for a bunch of women students and others from Saudi Arabia – about thirty people in our house here. I was in the study and three Saudi students came in. They looked at my pictures on the wall and one of them asked if I ever met King Abdullah? And I said yes, yes, yes, many times. They wanted me to tell stories which I did for about an hour.

They knew him as being like a grandfather but they never met him. As we talked there were tears on their faces. That reaction to someone talking about King Abdullah in a way that reinforced their very deep affection for him tells the story.


[SUSRIS] Well thank you so much for your stories. I know we’ve gone a little longer than I had asked, but as you saw from those students people want to hear the stories and we want to capture them before they become indistinct memories.

Ambassador Smith was interviewed by phone on March 7, 2015.


About Ambassador James Smith

Senior Counselor, The Cohen Group; Former United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (2009-2013)

James B. Smith was sworn in on September 16, 2009, as the U.S. Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Prior to his appointment, Ambassador Smith had served in a variety of executive positions with Raytheon Company involving corporate strategic planning, aircraft manufacturing, and international business development.

People Amb Al Jubeir Amb Smith AUSPC

Ambassador Smith was a distinguished graduate of the United States Air Force Academy’s Class of 1974 and received the Richard I. Bong award as the Outstanding Cadet in Military History. He received his Masters in History from Indiana University in 1975, and is also a distinguished graduate from the Naval War College, the Air Command and Staff College and the National War College.

Ambassador Smith spent a 28 year career in the United States Air Force. Trained as a fighter pilot, he logged over 4000 hours of flight time in F-15s and T-38s. He served around the world in a variety of operational assignments and flew combat missions from Dhahran AB during Operation Desert Storm. He commanded the 94th Fighter Squadron, the 325th Operations Group and the 18th Fighter Wing (Kadena AB, Okinawa). In addition, he served in a variety of staff assignments involving coalition partners, and served as Air Force Chair and Professor of Military Strategy at the National War College. During his final assignment at U.S. Joint Forces Command, he led Millennium Challenge, the largest transformation experiment in history. He was promoted to Brigadier General in October, 1998, and retired from the Air Force on October 1, 2002.


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