Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Cautious Captain Who Got the Ship Between the Rock and Hard Place

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud died last Friday (23 January 2015) of old age. The desert monarch had ruled the desert kingdom for a better of a decade and had found himself playing a very unique role in what is one of the most turbulent regions of the world. World leaders like US President Barak Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel paid tribute to him as leader with vision, courage of conviction and a reformer who supported women’s rights. At the other end of the spectrum human rights groups lambasted the man for keeping women’s rights down and there were those who called him an “A Zionist Agent who kept his fellow Muslims poor.” (Didn’t help that one of the tributes came from Israel’s president).

The demise of King Abdullah comes at an “interesting” time for Saudi Arabia. At the time of writing, the price of oil has dropped tremendously and after years of budgetary surplus, the Kingdom now faces a few years of deficit. The world media has made much of the fact that the Kingdome faces the fanatics of ISIS on its northern border with Iraq and a resurgent Al Qaeda in the southern border with Yemen. Youth employment remains stubbornly high. King Abdullah’s legacy will perhaps be judged by the way Saudi Arabia deals with these issues.

I personally hope that Saudi Arabia makes it through and that the new King Salman finds the wisdom and ability to do what needs to be done. For all that it said of Saudi Arabia, it remains the country that gave me my proudest moment as a PR professional when I assisted Dr. Amin Kurdi, the former Saudi Ambassador to Singapore in the smooth running of the visit of the late Prince Sultan to Singapore in 2006.

I remember that job as being one of the most of the most challenging for the very fact that I stood in between a host of conflicting interest. There was a cultural clash between the Saudi and Singapore side. Add to that, there were a host of other conflicts that needed to be managed. The two ministries I had to deal with on the Singapore side had a private turf war. On the Saudi side, you had something similar. The 40 odd journalist who had come along the ride didn’t exactly enjoy the presence of the chaps from the Ministry of Information (“Ministry of Misinformation” – as one of the more prominent Saudi editors called them). Yet, somehow, I managed to get things done and at the end of the day, when I spoke to the words “Insha Allah – we will meet again,” to the departing Saudi Party, I meant it.

You could say that what I faced on that job was merely a microcosm of Saudi society at large. For the most part, Saudi society is conservative and traditional. However, the majority of young people are young. The royal family draws legitimacy from its alliance with the Wahabi Sect, one of the strictest versions of Sunni Islam (the Saudi King’s most important title is “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosque”) and yet, the same royal family understands not only the need to be part of the modern world but enjoys aspects of the modern world. You are talking about a society where women are required to dress from head to toe in black robes to “reduce the lust of men” but at the same time, Saudi women are one of the biggest buyers of lacy underwear.

It takes skill to manage a society with that many contradictions and while Abdullah may not have lived up to the billing he initially received in the Western Media (“reformer”), the man did get things done without disrupting the system.

I guess you could say Abdullah ranks somewhere between Gorbachev and Deng Xiao Peng. I’m old enough to have lived through the Gorbachev era when we hailed him as the reforming visionary who would end the Cold War. The man suddenly opened up the once closed Soviet System and we hailed him as a great hero, a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

However, events proved otherwise. Mr. Gorbachev underestimated a genie that had been bottled up for long. Political openness unleased pent up emotions that Mr. Gorbachev didn’t know how to handle.
By contrast, Mr. Deng knew how to tinker with the system. First a zone here and zone there was given a bit of freedom and slowly but surely parts of China prospered. While China remains a Communist Dictatorship, it’s a very prosperous one. What freedoms that people have come from the fact that the masses have tasted the good life and won’t allow the turning of the clock back to the old days of Maoist absolutes and the Cultural Revolution.

King Abdullah, may well be a milder version of Mr. Deng. Like Mr. Deng, King Abdullah has maneuvered a minefield of special interest.  Like Mr. Deng, the King has shown his ability to be ruthless. Who can forget that it was the “Great Reformer” in Mr. Deng who authorized the killing of Tiananmen Square in 1989? It’s the “reformer” Saudi King Abdullah who sent troops into neighbouring Bahrain to crush an uprising and sent money to back rebel forces against Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad, many of the groups of which formed part of the notorious Islamic State.

However, like Mr. Deng, King Abdullah did take risk that have touched parts of Saudi society. I remember filming women in Al-Faisaliyah Mall in Riyadh in 2006. The assigned tour guide commented on how much things had changed under Abdullah – young Saudi’s worked at Starbucks like coffee joints and women were fairly happy to be filmed.

Doesn’t sound like much to anyone outside Saudi Arabia but if you look at my guide’s comments, the Abdullah reforms had brought about some release for the people. There was some form of progress.
On the economic front, King Abdullah should also be given credit for recognizing that the Saudi economy needs to run on something other than oil. While the economy remains heavily dependent on oil, the Saudi’s have started to court foreign investment in the ‘non-oil’ sector via it’s agency “TheSaudi Arabian General Investment Authority’ or SAGIA, which is staffed by young, bright and Western Educated people like its Asia Pacific Director General, Meshari Al Khaled.

Furthermore, King Abdullah’s reforms have to be seen in the context of his contemporaries. While the Saudi System may not be perfect, many of the comparisons in the region aren’t much better – one only has to think of IS. Saudi Arabia may not be a bastion of women’s rights but Saudi women do go to school. Doesn't happen in the IS run parts of Syria and Iraq.  

Perhaps the most significant initiative that King Abdullah came up with was his 2002 and 2007 plan for peace in the Middle East. The offer was simple – Israel would withdraw to its legally recognized borders of 1967 in return for diplomatic recognition from all 22 members of the Arab league. This was an “Arab” idea made public. The man called for the US or Europeans to support him. Unfortunately, he was effectively screwed by his American ally who proceeded to encourage Israel not to even consider this. I will always remember Dr. Amin Kurdi’s reaction when he was asked by Clement Mesenas who interviewed him for the Today Newspaper what the Arabs felt about Israel’s need for security. He said, “We gave them a way out of their security problem and they rejected it.”

History has a way of judging rulers. Abdullah promised reform but many of his reforms were only delivered at a glacial pace. It should be no surprise that the youth are impatient for change and the more conservative fractions of Saudi Society have not forgiven him for the mild reforms of appointing a woman as deputy minister of education. Some Western papers have called him a “failed reformer.”


I believe that you need to look at the man in the context of his society and what he faced. The fact that he managed to get the few things he got done without a major revolution that is common elsewhere around him should speak volumes of his skills as a leader. Let’s pray that the King Salman, his successor finds the same skill to bring the Kingdom into the new world in the same manner that his predecessor started to do. 

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