US President Barack Obama, leading a heavyweight US delegation to one of its most important Gulf allies, went to Saudi Arabia in a show of support for the country’s new King and mourn for dead king. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who assumed the throne of the oil-rich country after the death of long-time leader King Abdullah. The US and Saudi Arabia have longstanding ties and remain bound by shared interests in regional stability and oil.
Abdullah was born as the tenth son of King Abdulaziz. Abdullah, like Fahd, was one of the many sons of Ibn Saud. King Abdullah had about 30 wives, and fathered about 35 odd children, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. Abdullah held important political posts throughout most of his adult life. In 1961, he became the mayor of Mecca, which was his first public office, and in 1962, he was appointed commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard, a post he was still holding when he became king. Abdullah became the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia until ascending the throne a decade later. Most of this criticism stems from the fact that most of Saudi citizens live under a strict Wahhabist interpretation of Sharia law, which mandates the amputation of hands as a punishment for theft and floggings for crimes like drunkenness. Execution by public beheading is common for murder, rape, drug trafficking and witchcraft, and Abdullah’s policies towards the rights of women have also been criticised.
King Abdullah has also been criticised for his policies on religious freedom and the Saudi government allegedly had arrested Shiite pilgrims on the Haj. On 30 October 2007, during a state visit to the United Kingdom, King Abdullah was accused by protestors of being a “murderer” and a “torturer”. Concerns were raised in the UK about the treatment of women and homosexuals by the Saudi kingdom and over alleged bribes involving arms deals between Saudi Arabia and the UK.
During his reign, he maintained close relations with United States and Britain and bought billions of dollars worth of defense equipment from both states. He also gave women the right to vote and to compete in the Olympics. Furthermore, Abdullah maintained the status quo during the waves of protest in the kingdom during the Arab Spring. In November 2013, a BBC report claimed that Saudi Arabia could obtain nuclear weapons at will from Pakistan due to a longstanding relationship.
World leaders have showered the Saudi Arabian king with praises upon his death on January 23, but these drench out other voices which sought to set the record straight on whether the man really was the peace-loving man he was said to be. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud has been glorified by world leaders and media has been portraying him as a reformer who welcomed advancement. On the other hand, there are criticisms to this glorification citing King Abdullah’s dictatorship and chauvinism.
Tharoor criticises Christine Lagarde, the female head of the International Monetary Fund, who proclaimed the king as “a strong advocate for women” and called the king as the advocate of draconian religious laws. Abdullah, had numerous wives – at least seven, and perhaps as many as 30. He has 15 daughters and four among them, according to news reports, live under house arrest. The house arrest of Princesses Jawaher 38, Sahar 42, Hala 39 and Maha 41 had gained media attention last year. Their mother Alanoud Al-Fayez, who lives in Britain for last 15 years, had been divorced by her husband several times. Fayaz had told media earlier that her four daughters have been locked away for more than a decade, subject to abuse and deprivation.
Look at the irony; the King who was applauded by world leaders for his liberal views and woman empowerment, has abused and harassed his own daughters. Princesses told media that they were being punished for backing women’s rights and resisting the kingdom’s strict rules mandating male custody over women. Abdulla’s wife Fayaz had started an online media campaign through the twitter page Free The 4 Women, seeking her daughters’ freedom. She has also said that her daughters have been starving for last 10 months. Meanwhile, recently Amnesty International has released a statement seeking liberation of these princesses and assuring that necessary steps will be taken for their release. The organisation also urged that they be granted immediate access to appropriate medical treatment and adequate food.
There is no legal code in Saudi Arabia, leaving it to individual judges to set the punishment for a crime in accordance with their interpretation of Islamic scriptures. This gives them unlimited power, creating arguably one of the most inconsistent justice systems in the world, in which crimes and punishments are simply made up, leaving the convicts no obvious way to appeal. It may have become almost an online cliché to compare the legal systems of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State, but the links between the two are fundamental. Among the punishments distributed is anything from hands and feet being chopped off for theft, lashes for adultery and other “social” misdemeanors, to beheading, which can be handed down for crimes as varied as sedition, carjacking, sorcery and drug smuggling. Eighty-seven people are thought to have been beheaded in 2014, which is in line with the national average over the past five years, despite ever-growing external pressure on Saudi Arabia.
The Gulf monarchy is the last country in the world, where women are still not allowed to drive. King Abdullah encouraged more women to go into education, and allocated them a fifth of the seats in his advisory chamber, also allowing them to vote and run in the 2015 municipal elections. As with other reform areas, these are top-down symbolic gestures that have done little to affect most Saudi women, who outside of warzones remain some of the most disadvantaged anywhere in the world. Still, Abdullah’s admirers can hope that his first steps will lay the foundation to profound change, not patronising concessions.
Today it is a disgrace to the Muslim world whose holy sites it administers. It is partly because of Saudi Arabia, that much of the Middle East is in the grips of extremism, not in spite of it. Saudi exported extremist Wahhabi Islam, that many Muslims once correctly deemed blasphemy, throughout the region. Instead of using oil wealth to help the poor in the region and set an example of a place of coexistence and modernism, and encourage the education of women and the enlightenment of people within a modern Islamic context, it chose to turn back time and create a museum of modern injustice.