rendan Smialowski/ Courtesy Reuters Saudi King Abdullah in 2014.

Abdullah's Real Legacy

Saudi Arabia's Days of Quiet Change

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.

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