King Abdullah in 2014.
King Abdullah in 2014. Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

King Abdullah Wanted To Advance the Kingdom Into the Global Age

Jan 23, 2015
Ideas
James B. Smith is former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and the current president of C&M International.

There may be no more conservative society in the world. Cautious, closed, careful, Saudi Arabia now mourns the loss of its King, a man who came from the desert but wanted to advance the Kingdom into the global age.

To say he pushed Saudi Arabia toward modernization is an understatement. He aggressively pursued commercial and economic development, spending billions of dollars on modern rail, metro, and infrastructure projects. He invested not just in the three major cities — Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam — but also in smaller cities across the country, building universities, hospitals, and establishing new economic zones. He was open and welcoming to American businesses, and worked to expand the private sector beyond petroleum-based enterprises. He advanced the opportunities for women in many areas, though for most in the West, the issue of women driving continues to be a lasting symbol.

Perhaps his most enduring undertaking was his embrace of education. His King Abdullah Scholarship program provides full scholarships to almost 120,000 Saudi students studying in the United States — scholarships based solely on merit, not family connections or gender. I can think of no other program of similar magnitude other than the GI Bill in the United States after World War II. A generation of Saudi students, are gaining access to advanced science, technology, and critical thinking programs that will be lasting tribute to the King’s vision for his country.

King Abdullah prized his country’s relationship with the United States, and he had a close working relationship with every American president. In my service as Ambassador, I saw his deep affection for both Secretary Clinton and Secretary Kerry. He was a close ally in the fight against extremism, and under his leadership, the U.S.-Saudi military and intelligence cooperation could not have been stronger. He felt a deeply personal reaction against the violence in the region, especially the suffering in Syria, which troubled him as early as May 2011. Even in his final months, he continued to look for ways to end the fighting there. He was the architect of the Arab Peace Initiative, which laid out a path that would support peace between Israel and Palestine through Arab state recognition of Israel and economic support to secure the peace.

As the elder statesman of the Arab and Islamic world, he was legendary in his support for Muslims worldwide. He brokered the first Religious Dialogue in Madrid then established the Religious Dialogue Center in Vienna. It was King Abdullah who called together in 2012 the leaders of all Muslim majority countries to begin a discussion on how to end the violence of Muslims against Muslims.

Some suggest that he could and should have done more. After all, he was an absolute monarch, one of the few remaining in the world. As everyone who has spent time in Saudi Arabia knows, however, there are competing constituencies, and resilient traditions, that make consensus-building difficult. But even within this most distinct and constrained culture, he opened the door to the world for a new generation of Saudi youth. He redefined the monarchy, from an austere and remote detachment to a caring and smiling face of optimism. It is an optimism that may seem a distant memory in the troubled times ahead.

I had the rare privilege to represent my country in Saudi Arabia, and for that reason I add a personal note. King Abdullah was a kind man, someone who welcomed guests and treated everyone around him with respect. One of my most memorable visits was by Rep Nita Lowey; she and King Abdullah talked about grandchildren for a full 30 minutes. He certainly was at ease on the throne, but I often felt he was most comfortable with real people. He was truly a man of the desert, and his nation mourns for him today.

Rich Nation, Poor People: Saudi Arabia by Lynsey Addario

Fatima Hazazi stands in front of boxes of medicine she requires monthly to treat her kidney problem at home in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 2, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, Fatima and her family rely on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Fatima Hazazi stands in front of boxes of medicine she requires monthly to treat her kidney problem at home in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Despite the extremely wealthy sector of society in Saudi Arabia, and the the veneer of widespread affluence projected outside the Kingdom, severe poverty is as much a part of life in Riyadh as wealth.Lynsey Addario—Getty Images Reportage for TIME
Fatima Hazazi stands in front of boxes of medicine she requires monthly to treat her kidney problem at home in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 2, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, Fatima and her family rely on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Saudi children play on old furniture outside of the home where they live in squalor in a neighborhood in South Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,  March 1, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, this family relies on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
One of twelve children living in a house where Yayeh Mussawa rents with his family plays in squalor in a neighborhood in South Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,  March 1, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, this family relies on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Saudis beg in a line on a street known to locals as 'the beggers' street,' in a neighborhood in South Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,  March 1, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, many poor Saudis rely on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Saudi children do dishes and live in squalor in a neighborhood in South Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,  March 1, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, this family relies on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Selma Saleh, a poor Saudi woman, sits on her bed in squalor in a neighborhood in South Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,  March 1, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, this family relies on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Matara stands with her two boys next to a sink without water, where she lives in squalor in a neighborhood in South Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,  March 1, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, this family relies on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
A young man begs on the streets in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 3, 2013.   Despite an extremely wealthy sector of society in Saudi Arabia, and the the veneer of widespread affluence projected outside the Kingdom, severe poverty is as much an aspect of life in Riyadh as wealth. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Saudi citizens rest after presenting Saudi Billionaire HRH Prince al Waleed bin Talal with petitions for his help at a desert camp outside of Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia, February 27, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, many poor Saudis rely on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Billionaire HRH Prince Waleed bin Talal, greets Saudi citizens at a desert camp outside of Riyadh to accept their petitions for his help, in Saudi Arabia, February 27, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, many poor Saudis rely on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Billionaire HRH Prince Waleed bin Talal, greets Saudi citizens at a desert camp outside of Riyadh to accept their petitions for his help, in Saudi Arabia, February 27, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, many poor Saudis rely on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Billionaire HRH Prince Waleed bin Talal, greets Saudi citizens at a desert camp outside of Riyadh to accept their petitions for his help, in Saudi Arabia, February 27, 2013.   Like many families across Saudi Arabia who are barely scraping above the poverty line each month, many poor Saudis rely on the hope of the charity of others to survive. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Young Saudi women pray in a friend's home before going out to dinner in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 25, 2013.  Though statistics are difficult to confirm, youth unemployment and poverty are on the rise in Saudi Arabia.  While society is increasingly open to women in the workforce, there are still limited jobs in which women and men can work side by side.  There are a great number of highly educated Saudis who can not find work suitable for their qualifications.  (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
A Saudi woman bids on an Arabian Horse at an auction outside of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 3, 2013.   Despite an extremely wealthy sector of society in Saudi Arabia, and the the veneer of widespread affluence projected outside the Kingdom, severe poverty is as much an aspect of life in Riyadh as wealth. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Saudi men pray at dusk at a camel market outside of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 3, 2013.   Despite an extremely wealthy sector of society in Saudi Arabia, and the the veneer of widespread affluence projected outside the Kingdom, severe poverty is as much an aspect of life in Riyadh as wealth. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Saudis stand around after an auction for Arabian Horses at a club outside of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 3, 2013.   Despite an extremely wealthy sector of society in Saudi Arabia, and the the veneer of widespread affluence projected outside the Kingdom, severe poverty is as much an aspect of life in Riyadh as wealth. (Credit: Lynsey Addario/ VII)
Fatima Hazazi stands in front of boxes of medicine she requires monthly to treat her kidney problem at home in Riyadh, S
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