When the recently deceased Saudi king, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, was crown prince, Western capitals worried that, when he eventually assumed the throne, Abdullah would be focused on internal Arab identity issues and would be less friendly or flexible when it came to outside powers’ priorities, such as regional security. His legacy will turn out to be more textured than any could have imagined.

It is certainly true that Abdullah cared less than his predecessor, King Fahd, about pleasing the West, and that he was more driven by ambitions to ensure a stable and prosperous future for the Kingdom. He did not always agree with his security partners about how to handle the various sources of regional instability. He took strong positions on the Arab-Israeli dispute that, in hindsight, look pretty good. His deep-seated antipathy for the Shia world worked to the West’s disadvantage in the case of Iraq, but in others, as in the case of Iran, worked tactically. 

His real legacy, though, will come from his handling of domestic issues. Like his predecessors, he had to balance two polar opposite constituencies: conservative clerics and educated urban modernizers. He also had manage a professionalized elite class whose confidence in economic matters began to spill over to demands for more open political and social spaces as well. Indeed, when Abdullah came to the throne in 2005, Saudi confidence and ambition were high, despite the relentless sense of insecurity from regional problems. Abdullah saw an opportunity to shape Saudi Arabia’s future. He launched a civilian nuclear energy program, diversified Saudi Arabia’s economy to ease the country’s over-reliance on oil exports, and asserted the country's primacy among the Gulf Cooperation Council states, demonstrating its capacity to influence or constrain the policies of Qatar and Bahrain, among others.

He also created new institutions such as the King AbdulAziz University for Science and Technology (KAUST), and his vision for educational reform may be the strongest and most enduring part of his legacy. His decision to fund 100,000 Saudi students, many of them women, for overseas undergraduate degrees (80 percent to the United States) will have a long-term impact on Saudi society. Former National Defense University professor Janet Breslin Smith engaged with Saudi women students and professors when she lived in the Kingdom during her husband’s tenure as the U.S. Ambassador. She reports that, “unless you have had the chance to visit Saudi Arabia, and feel the deep, constrained conservatism of the culture, it is hard to appreciate the strategic vision of King Abdullah. He opened the door to higher education, providing new colleges and global scholarships, not based on connections or influence, and not for men only. Saudi young women embraced the opportunity and a new generation of young women professionals will change the Kingdom forever.”

Indeed, it is these very women who may upend the country’s social order down the road. The women who are so appreciative of their opportunities today may face formidable barriers to enter the work force when they return to the Kingdom, and, like a generation of newly liberated Japanese women before them, delay marriage or refuse family-arranged marriages. The late king’s legacy on this issue may turn out to be more radical than many expect.

On succession within the royal family, he was also a quiet agent of change. A loner as half-brother of the powerful Sudeiri seven (his predecessor Fahd and successor Salman were both sons of the favorite wife of the Kingdom’s founder, Hassa al-Sudeiri), Abdullah was more willing than other royals to tweak the system and provide more transparency and predictability. He created the Allegiance Council to facilitate the selection of future kings and crown princes, and created the post of Deputy Crown Prince, to remove the mystery about whom a new king might name as his successor. In turn, Saudi Arabia’s new king, Salman, has inherited Prince Muqrin, the youngest remaining son of the founder, as his crown prince.

Abdullah was certainly not liberal by Western standards, and he was resolutely convinced that democratic models and ideals were not suited to the Arab landscape. He was passionate in his defense of the Saudi way of managing state-society relations, and may not have cared when domestic practices of a decidedly illiberal quality were criticized abroad. One sensed his priority was stability, not piety. He had to manage the conservative establishment but clearly did not agree with all their positions on women and other social issues.

History may show that he did more than his predecessors to help Saudi Arabia adapt to changing expectations of Saudi citizens, but there was nothing transformative in the short run, and nothing profoundly disruptive or destabilizing either. That may have been his special talent, and a worthy legacy.

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