Kingdom at crossroads

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Riyadh, the royal Saudi Arabian capital, was a hubbub of activity at noon prayers, not long after the pre-dawn death of the ruler of the world’s second largest possessor of hydrocarbon reserves, assuredly the most important petroleum exporter. And, the kingdom is home to Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, that led assuredly to the traditional official title of the absolute monarch as “Custodian of the Two Sacred Shrines”. The late monarch’s reign had been a resounding success by any measure, one that secured Saudi pre-eminence among the nations of the Muslim world.

The Seventh monarch of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the 25th son of the founder of the state King Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, Salman was sworn in (the traditional Islamic bayah) as king of one of the wealthiest nations on earth on 23 January 2015 following the death of his brother King Abdullah. King Salman’s mother was the celebrated Hafsa bint Ahmed Al-Sudairi of the noble Arabian Dawasir tribe of Najd, central contemporary Saudi Arabia, and she bore the founder of the kingdom many daughters and sons, seven sons to be precise, including the late King Fahd.

King Abdullah’s funeral pinpointed the real significance of Saudi Arabia. The onus of Islam is on simplicity, not ostentation. The historic Masjid Turki bin Abdullah in the Saudi capital Riyadh is the mosque where traditionally Saudi kings are buried. King Abdullah was buried without much fanfare. Death is a beginning and not the end.

Salman ascended the Saudi throne precisely to extend the royal prerogative to accomplish further democratic reforms in the Kingdom. Flamboyant public appearances is eschewed by the Wahhabi Sunni Islam traditions, and so are public demonstrations of mourning such as wailing. The funeral of King Abdullah was an austere affair.

There were, nevertheless, palpable political undercurrents. Some mistakenly presume that Saudi foreign policy is intended to parry a thrust at Iran for meddling in Middle Eastern affairs. Not since the founding of the Kingdom had Saudi Arabia faced more serious regional challenges.

The kingdom is not a stranded naval vessel decked out and moored for acquisition or procurement. Last year, Saudi Arabia refused point blank to become a member of the United Nations Security Council. The incident was an eye-opener. Iran is inching closer to Saudi Arabia on all fronts, in Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and even more ominously in Yemen.

There is the debatable question of whether the West considers Saudi Arabia a key ally in the war on terrorism. Saudi Arabia under King Abdullah’s leadership was instrumental in bailing out the Egyptian economy after President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi came to power, and he in turn cut short his visit to Switzerland where he attended the World Economic Forum in Davos to pay his condolences to the Saudis.

Islam is the religion of moderation, “Al-Wasatiya” in Arabic, and the late King fostered culture and intellectual debate within the purview of Wahhabi Islam. The Kingdom has come a long way, but it still stresses its conservatism and does not disregard its roots. By the age of ten, King Salman had learned the Quran by heart. The bayah, literally a “sale” or a “commercial transaction”, in Islamic terminology, is an oath of allegiance, to sell oneself to a spiritual master and can be traced back to the tradition of Prophet Mohamed.

He was the first king so to speak. The wordings of the oath differ, but in Saudi Arabia it is precise. The Kingdom, after all, is the only country in the world named after a single family, Al-Saud.

Struggling to decipher the welter of centuries-old traditions, an observer of the Kingdom may ponder on why Islam has outrun secularism in this particular part of the world. King Abdullah’s legacy included a Herculean effort to improve education. Women were unprecedentedly permitted to participate in the Shoura Council, the advisory parliamentary body. His successor Salman would continue his brother’s legacy.

An adept equestrian, the late Saudi King had a knack for doing the right thing. The late King’s emphasis on educational “Tatweer“, or reform, with a budget of approximately $2 billion did not preclude the memorisation by rote of large parts of the Quran, nor “Tafsir” (interpretation and understanding) of Islam’s holy book according to the Wahhabi-controlled school curriculum.

The late King likewise implemented a government scholarship program to send young Saudi men and women to study abroad. The Kingdom is suspicious of secular and Shia Muslim covert activities and propaganda, but King Abdullah fostered the “Interfaith Dialogue” project after he paid a visit to Pope Bendict XVI in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican. What is especially significant is that the Interfaith Dialogue extended not only to “People of the Books”, Jews and Christians, but reached out to Asia’s non-monotheistic religions such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Sikhism.

Saudi Arabia was no longer a dangerous place for a Christian to show his face. King Abdullah lost no time in exploiting his nation’s advantage. He implemented a $37-billion programme of new spending including new jobless benefits and he had striven to end unemployment thereby indirectly making education more relevant to employment opportunities.

The year 2015 marks the commemoration of two signal events in the history of the Arab and Muslim worlds. In a novel, unprecedented ruling, Abdullah embarked on the restructuring of Saudi Arabia’s courts to introduce, among other things, review of judicial decisions and the professional training of Islamic Sharia judges.

Looking back on the late monarch’s legacy, philanthropy and Saudi benevolence was his hallmark. He donated $500 million to the United Nations in 2008. He donated over $300,000 to furnish a New Orleans high school rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. In the same year, King Abdullah, while still Crown Prince, paid for the separation surgery of a pair of Polish conjoined twins. He donated $50 million in cash and $10 million worth of relief materials for the Sichuan earthquake in China in 2008.

As far as contemporary Saudi Arabia is concerned, King Abdullah transformed the “Bayah Institution” in 2007 in order to regulate succession to the Saudi throne. His interaction with civil society organisations in the country set a precedent.

The late King Abdullah was born in 2005, the new monarch was born in 1935. The late King was commander of the Saudi National Guard. The new King was Emir of Riyadh, first from 1954 to 1960, overseeing the transformation of the tiny outpost to a city of some seven million people. And, then the artful Emir returned to run the Saudi capital again from 1963.

The prospects for Saudi Arabia look good in spite of plummeting petroleum prices. King Salman is a man of the people. In Riyadh he interacted with the citizens and everyone was welcome to state his case, issue a complaint or solicit council.

King Abdullah’s was a hard act to follow, but King Salman demonstrated that he showed genuine concern for his people’s welfare, too. Like his late brother, he takes great satisfaction in serving his subjects.

Gamal Nkrumah is a Cairo-based African and international affairs expert.