Reasons for remembering King Abdullah

DEEPENING TIES: “King Abdullah’s visit to India in 2006 and Manmohan Singh’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2010 catapulted the ties from ‘correct and cordial’ to ‘substantive and strategic’ with Riyadh.” Picture shows the King in New Delhi in 2006. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

DEEPENING TIES: “King Abdullah’s visit to India in 2006 and Manmohan Singh’s visit to Saudi Arabia in 2010 catapulted the ties from ‘correct and cordial’ to ‘substantive and strategic’ with Riyadh.” Picture shows the King in New Delhi in 2006. Photo: V.V. Krishnan   | Photo Credit: — Photo: V.V. Krishnan


His state visit to India as chief guest on Republic Day in 2006 paved the way for improved bilateral relations

“Has he looked after you well? I suspect he is a bit deficient in this matter,” the host enquired in deliberative baritone Arabic from the guest, a hint of humour being discernible. The guest assured him that he had been taken care of well. The 1994 conversation at royal palace in Riyadh would have qualified as easy banter, but for the participants being Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and visiting Indian Finance Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh. Under discussion was the hospitality acumen of Dr Abdulaziz al-Zamil, Saudi Minister of Industry and Co-Chair of the bilateral Joint Commission.

King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, 90, who passed away on January 23, was indeed a thoughtful leader, also capable of surprises. The conventional wisdom of the Saudi watchers put him among the “conservative faction” of the House of Al-Saud, the royal family. His mother, who was from the Al-Rashid clan (long-standing rivals of Al-Saud), made him stand out. He was taciturn, closer to the country’s Bedouins, and a long-standing personal friend of Arab nationalist leaders, in contrast to the mainstream liberal faction, which is headed by the “Sudairi Seven.”

Stability and security

History is, however, likely to judge his two decades at the Kingdom’s helm (1995 to 2005 as regent and 2005-2015 as the King) in a more balanced and benign manner. There were many markers that stood out. King Abdullah steered the ship of Saudi Arabia with a consummate hand through various storms such as the 9/11 tragedy, which was perpetrated by 19 terrorists, 15 of them Saudis. For the next five years, as the world held its breath, the al-Qaeda led by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden waged a no-holds terror campaign aimed at overthrowing the establishment in Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter and host of Islam’s two holiest shrines.

However, under King Abdullah’s watch, the Kingdom’s response to this existential challenge was firm, efficient and nuanced. The threat was overcome without disproportionate collateral damage or a schism between the enduring alliance among Al-Saud and the Wahhabi clergy. Later, when the “Arab Spring” contagion posed a different genre of threat, King Abdullah’s sagacious package of financial concessions and socio-political liberalisation avoided a catastrophe.

Wide-ranging reforms

King Abdullah would also be remembered for initiating some of the most far-reaching reforms in the country. These included curbing the excesses of the feared religious police, prioritising education, appointing women ministers and legislators, and planning to hold first direct elections for the local bodies. He became the first Saudi monarch to visit the Vatican and sponsor an international interfaith dialogue. These measures often did not go far enough, but were significant as the first steps towards modernising a deeply conservative Saudi society.

The 9/11 attacks precipitated the U.S.-led “global war against terror” and the “Arab Spring” — both causing widespread mayhem and ideological confusion. It can be argued that with the al-Qaeda and its derivatives, the Islamic State, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban, all jostling for Arab-Islamic centre-stage, Riyadh under King Abdullah managed to remain an influential player in maintaining stability and equilibrium.

The sharp swings in oil prices in 2008-09 and 2014-15 epitomise both Saudi’s role as OPEC’s largest exporter and its determination to protect its market share. During the past two decades under King Abdullah, the Saudi economy, nevertheless, came some way from its reliance on oil exports through diversifying measures such as incremental indigenisation through skilling of the labour force, establishing new industrial cities, deepening the share market, promulgating investment laws and joining the WTO.

In 2002, King Abdullah personally pushed for a plan to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict based on realism and mutual concessions. He also became the first Saudi leader to exchange state visits with China and Russia. Given Saudi diplomacy’s penchant for caution and discretion, these were tectonic shifts. Even as King Abdullah’s foreign policy evolved under various impetuses, a pro-West tilt and suspicion towards Iran persisted.

As per the Al-Saud tradition, Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, 79, was proclaimed the successor to the late King Abdullah. He in turn appointed Prince Mukrin as the new Crown Prince and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as the Deputy Crown Prince. In his inaugural address, King Salman stressed continuity and indicated that many of the important functionaries are likely to be retained. With King Salman and Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the “Sudairi Seven” appears to be back and the inevitable reordering of political echelons over the time would bear watching. Moreover, with regional turbulence and the oil prices on a roller coaster, the new team needs to hit the ground running.

Bilateral relations

In the bilateral context, King Abdullah’s State visit to India as chief guest on our Republic Day in 2006 was a defining event. It paved the way for former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Saudi Arabia in February 2010. These two summits catapulted the ties from “correct and cordial” to “substantive and strategic” with Riyadh abandoning its hyphenation with Pakistan. The bilateral trade for the year ending on November 30, 2014 was over 46 billion dollars, making Saudi Arabia one of India’s top five trading partners and the largest source of its oil imports. Indian expatriates in Saudi Arabia number three million, the largest foreign community in that country. The Saudi embassy in India issued 1.2 million visas to Indians in 2014 — a record for a Saudi mission anywhere. These figures illustrate the surge in people-to-people ties. Mutual investments and business-to-business ties have also been picking up from a relatively smaller base. Discreet cooperation in security and anti-terror domains have been intensified.

India has reasons to be grateful to King Abdullah for ensuring that bilateral ties have realised much of their potential on the basis of shared interests and perceptions. King Salman, who visited India in 2010 and 2014, is expected to carry forward this momentum.

(Mahesh Sachdev is a retired Indian ambassador and an Arabist. He served in Saudi Arabia and was Director (Gulf).)

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 12:40:38 AM |

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