The world lost a leader of consequence this past Friday. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia was unique among world leaders.
He was a pious man whose word was his bond. The sixth king of this long-time American ally held the keys to the world’s largest oil reserves but never used this enormous power as a weapon against others. He was the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, but preached moderation, tolerance and interfaith dialogue among peoples of faith. He stood up against religious extremists and called them out for what they are. This past Friday the people of Saudi Arabia lost their father-figure and the world lost one of the main pillars of global stability.
I first met King Abdullah five years ago in Riyadh. Beyond his gentle smile and fatherly presence, what caught my attention was the twinkle in his eyes when he spoke of the love he had for his people. Our meeting was brief but he captured the essence of his vision for Saudi Arabia and the world by quoting from the Koran: “God cannot change a nation unless they change themselves.”
It sums up his approach to what we in the West call nation-building. King Abdullah transformed his nation over the past ten years with a wide range of domestic reform initiatives that created a new climate of dialogue and openness, challenged the obscurantist clerical establishment, created openings for woman and liberated the economy. The King made these gains slowly, methodically, away from headlines but amid an environment where society remains religiously conservative.
The next day I traveled Taif where I met an elderly man who had lived every step of the Kingdom’s rise and its modernization. He told me that he was the same age as King Abdullah. His beard was grey, his eyes watery, and his face weathered and worn by the sun. When I asked him about the King, he said: “I am not a man of education, but I know wisdom when I see it. This man, Abdullah, he has wisdom. I have seen all of the Kings. We have had good ones, but none compare to Abdullah. He is a man of wisdom and a man who loves his people. What more can we ask for?”
Indeed, the true test of leadership rests around three fundamental questions: Has the will of the people been served? Has the leader provided an empowering environment for citizens to prosper in all realms of human life from the economy to the arts while maintaining security, order, and national dignity? Has the political leader contributed to regional and global stability?
There are not many leaders who can unreservedly tick all three boxes. King Abdullah was one of them.
One of his top priorities was what he called “building houses of wisdom.” King Abdullah invested billions of dollars into modernization of the Saudi educational system in order to raise his country’s human capital. For example, he established the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), a coed institution along the same principles as the Caltech and MIT. When he inaugurated KAUST he spoke about institutions of learning as being houses of wisdom. What the King meant was that education must serve noble goals.
The National Dialogue was another of King Abdullah’s initiatives whereby taboo subjects such as the rights of woman, fighting the “cancer of extremism” or empowering the Shia minority were all discussed in an atmosphere of openness. Establishing this national dialogue among various elements of Saudi society and institutions contributed to the development of Saudi society.
But it was on the world stage that King Abdullah made his mark. He anchored Saudi foreign policy on the basis of stability and being a reliable partner. While some leaders such as Vladimir Putin used their energy resources as a weapon, King Abdullah saw oil as an engine of economic growth for the global economy; thus not to be politicized. When state-sponsors of terrorism funded the murder of innocent Lebanese, Israelis, Iraqis and Palestinians, King Abdullah funded philanthropic ventures to help aid these victims. He was the anchor of the arc of stability constantly fighting against those whose chief goal is instability.
The United States needs reliable allies in the Middle East now more than ever before. The rapidly deteriorating situation in Syria, continued instability in countries such as Yemen and the Iranian regime’s support for dangerous elements in the region demonstrate the need to actively strengthen relations with a country that shares our interest in a more stable Middle East – Saudi Arabia.
Indeed, it matters to Washington and to the rest of the world who governs Saudi Arabia. The Saudi king controls the world’s largest reserves of petroleum, is custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites and has been a counterweight to extremist ideologies.
As Washington looks at the next chapter of its relations with Saudi Arabia, engagement with and cultivation of ties to the men who can uphold King Abdullah’s legacy becomes paramount.
S. Rob Sobhani, Ph.D., is author of “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: A Leader of Consequence.”