King Abdullah: An Outstretched Hand – Prologue

FROM SUSRIS.COM

Editor’s Note:

We recently talked with Dr. Rob Sobhani about his new book, “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: A Leader of Consequence,” who said he took on the project two years ago because, “There was a vacuum of strategic thinking as it concerns U.S.-Saudi relations that needed to be addressed.” He added that he felt, “It was important to highlight the role that King Abdullah could play in this bilateral strategic relationship but also the connections to the broader global issues we face, such as global warming, the war on terrorism, financial instability and so forth. So, the impetus was to fill in that strategic vacuum – between Saudi Arabia and the United States, and globally.”

Dr. Sobhani, a business consultant, with an academic background, is President and founder of Caspian Energy Consulting and specializes in corporate and government relations. In “Leader of Consequence” he has produced an insightful profile of King Abdullah — his times, challenges and accomplishments. It is a large format book, complete with many photographs, that Sobhani calls “an attempt to understand King Abdullah’s thinking and policies and put them in a global, regional and domestic context.”

Today we are pleased to share the prologue from “King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: A Leader of Consequence.” We thank Dr. Sobhani for permission to share it with you.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: A Leader of Consequence
Prologue: An Outstretched Hand

During the October 2007 Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) heads of state summit held in Riyadh, I watched from the audience in an ornate exhibition hall as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia stood on stage to hand out awards to prominent researchers and scholars whose work has contributed to the petroleum industry. One by one, they approached the stage, accepted their awards and shook hands with the King of Saudi Arabia. One award-winner, the respected and aging publisher Walid Khadduri, however, had trouble reaching the stage. Walking gingerly with the help of a cane, he limped toward the stairs leading to the stage. King Abdullah, noticing Khadurri struggle, promptly took action. The King stepped away from the podium, walked down the stairs, and offered his outstretched hand to the aging publisher. Gently, the King took his arm and guided him toward the stage. The audience of gathered delegates from around the world, from Ecuador to Indonesia, erupted in spontaneous applause at the King’s touching gesture of humanity, a trait that has become familiar to long-time observers of King Abdullah.

A few days later, a column in the Saudi newspaper, Al-Watan, suggested that the King’s move was symbolic of his efforts throughout the Arab and Muslim world, the King’s outstretched hand attempting to lift others upward. From the Palestinian territories to Lebanon, from Somalia to Iraq, King Abdullah has offered his hand to quell conflicts and find solutions to problems across the region. In the Muslim world, the King continues to spearhead Saudi Arabia’s extensive aid efforts around the globe – the Kingdom offers an average of 5% of its GDP in aid, one of the highest in the world – and has robustly challenged the “deviancy” of extremism, reclaiming what he calls the “moderate and tolerant and peaceful” soul of Islam.

Meanwhile, he has also offered an outstretched hand to other faiths, engaging in a historic meeting with the Pope in November 2007 at the Vatican and calling for a dialogue of faiths centered on his fundamental belief in peaceful coexistence. King Abdullah’s meeting with the Pope was the first such visit for a Saudi monarch.

The World Conference on Dialogue, sponsored by King Abdullah and hosted by King Juan Carlos of Spain in the summer of 2008, brought together hundreds of faith leaders from the Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and other faiths together in a historic gathering that broke barriers and promoted greater understanding. King Abdullah literally offered an outstretched hand to all of the five hundred or so delegates, shaking hands and listening to their views in a sun-filled Spanish government palace for hours. In a speech to the Madrid delegates, King Abdullah said:

“I come to you from the place dearest to the hearts of all Muslims, the land of the Two Holy Mosques, bearing with me a message from the Islamic world representing its scholars and thinkers who recently met in the confines of the House of God. This message declares that Islam is a religion of moderation and tolerance; a message that calls for constructive dialogue among followers of religions; a message that promises to open a new page for humanity in which – God willing – concord will replace conflict.”

King Abdullah went on to denounce extremism and violence as anathema to all religions, called for a vigorous effort to reach common ground, and urged conference attendees to “let our dialogue be a triumph of belief over disbelief, of virtue over vice, of justice over iniquity, of peace over conflicts and wars, and of human brotherhood over racism.”

A few months later, in November 2008, King Abdullah co-hosted a dialogue of faiths at the New York headquarters of the United Nations that was attended by heads of state, religious leaders, and civil society activists. Officially titled the “Culture of Peace” conference, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the King’s decision to spearhead the dialogue at the UN “bold, courageous and potentially far-reaching.” In an article published in the International Herald Tribune on November 12, 2008, entitled “King Abdullah and the Skeptics”, Blair argued forcefully that the King’s dialogue initiative has the enormous potential to undermine the appeal of extremists who only seek confrontation. He described King Abdullah’s efforts as “a major step forward in the long march to a relationship between Islam and other faiths that is not one of confrontation or distrust but of peaceful co-existence.”

At the United Nations, King Abdullah reiterated his denunciations of extremism and his urgent pleas for tolerance and dialogue. “In front of the whole world, we state with a unified voice that religions through which Almighty God sought to bring happiness to mankind should not be turned into instruments to cause misery,” he said. “Human beings were created as equals and partners on this planet; either they live together in peace and harmony, or they will inevitably be consumed by the flames of misunderstanding, malice and hatred.”

King Abdullah later met privately for two hours with a small group of American religious leaders, ranging from Baptist preachers to Jewish rabbis, Muslim imams and heads of Sikh Indian communities, to Greek Orthodox clerics and Catholic priests. As one attendee put it: “I never thought I would see this in my lifetime: the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques here, meeting all of us, listening, and searching for common ground.” Emotions filled the room, as King Abdullah told the attendees: “We are all brothers and sisters in humanity. Let us join hands to fight the ‘deviants’ who cause violence and sow hatred in the name of our peaceful religions.”

In fact, it should also be noted that King Abdullah’s outstretched hand is also relevant at home as he embarks on a series of reform initiatives that have the potential to transform the Kingdom and dramatically lift up millions of Saudis. In February 2009, the King initiated the most significant cabinet shake-up since assuming the throne. He installed reform-minded figures in key religious, judicial, communications and education positions, appointing a new Head of Judiciary, Minister of Education, Minister of Information, and leader of the “religious police,” known as the Committee to Promote Virtue and Prevent Vice. These appointments underscored the reformist vision that King Abdullah has displayed in his rule, and were hailed by some of the Kingdom’s leading intellectuals and modernizing voices.

The move also won praise from many Western commentators and long-time observers of Saudi Arabia. Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and former Wall Street Journal publisher Karen Elliot House wrote on February 23, 2009: “In a country where the norm has been one tentative step forward and two back, this time the King has reversed that pattern to take at least several serious steps in the direction of real reform.” Meanwhile, veteran Newsweek Middle East correspondent Christopher Dickey, in an article on March 30, 2009 about King Abdullah entitled, “The Monarch Who Declared His Own Revolution,” described the cabinet shake-up and the King’s reform initiatives as part of a broader vision to transform and modernize Saudi Arabia.

In a hugely symbolic gesture, King Abdullah also appointed the first female Deputy Minister, Noura Al-Fayez, to the Education Ministry. In the Saudi context, amid a deeply conservative and patriarchal society, this proved to be a stunning appointment that captured world headlines and earned the praise of Saudi women’s rights activists. Though Saudi society still has a long way to go before women’s rights are fully enshrined, the King’s move brought hope to millions of Saudi women equally searching for opportunities to serve their country. In a sign of tangible progress, more Saudi women have been granted government scholarships for graduate studies abroad than men, at approximately a 60-40 percentage ratio, and King Abdullah has made women’s education at home a top priority. Several new women’s universities have been launched and King Abdullah’s most ambitious education project – the multi-billion dollar King Abdullah University of Science and Technology launched in September 2009 and expected to become the MIT of the Middle East – is open to both women and men and the campus will be co-educational.

King Abdullah also displayed his outstretched hand to the world in May 2008 when he announced a $500 million grant to the World Food Program of the United Nations to help the world’s poor cope with rising food costs, helping the more than 130 million people who had been pushed into hunger and the some two billion people affected by the crisis. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said, “This contribution of an unprecedented size and generosity comes not a moment too soon, given the needs of millions of people dependent on food rations.” The World Food Program Chairperson Josette Shearan said that the “extraordinary” Saudi donation helped it reach its goal of $755 million and “will keep many people from dying, others from slipping into malnutrition and disease, and will even help to stave off civil unrest.” Shearan added that the Saudi donation would allow the WFP “to continue to provide food for millions of children enrolled in school and therapeutic feeding programs in Kenya, Yemen, Ethiopia, and Somalia and in many other critical hunger zones.” She described it as an extraordinary act that links the King to “humanitarians around the world.”

In February 2009, at the prestigious World Economic Forum conference in Davos, Switzerland, the WFP awarded King Abdullah its most prestigious prize: Champion in the Battle Against Hunger. Josette Shearan told the Davos crowd that witnessed the award ceremony that, “King Abdullah’s generosity has not only moved the world but has saved many lives in this year of challenge. For this reason he is recognized, not only by us, but by many others.”

Minister of Industry and Commerce Abdullah Zainal Ali Reza accepted the award on King Abdullah’s behalf. During the ceremony, World Food Program officials noted that King Abdullah’s generous donation in response to the crisis of rising food prices has had an impact beyond that moment of trouble. King Abdullah’s donation has aided an additional 23 million beneficiaries in 24 countries in programs which include: extending school feeding to 2.6 million children in six countries: Haiti, Liberia, Pakistan, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Tajikistan; providing supplementary rations of nutritious food to malnourished children and women – 130,000 malnourished children in seven countries: Djibouti, Ghana, Guinea, Haiti, Liberia, Senegal and Tajikistan, with another 11 countries about to start implementation; and accelerating cash and voucher programs to enable people to access food through markets in countries from Malawi to Nepal.

King Abdullah’s sense of responsibility and outstretched hand to the poor has been well known throughout the Kingdom. A well known episode recalls a time when King Abdullah heard about a particular area in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, that was home to several dozen families who barely had enough food to eat. According to many Saudi insiders with knowledge of that day, King Abdullah grew angry and demanded that he proceed immediately with his driver to the designated areas. His security detail had to scramble to keep up with him as the King and the driver left the palace. Upon arrival, King Abdullah listened to their stories and provided them with some temporary relief, but he knew that he needed a long-term solution. Shortly thereafter, the King announced a new organization: The King Abdullah Housing Foundation. This organization would provide low-cost housing to all Saudis who could not afford their rents or a home.

Saudis also often describe encounters with King Abdullah that reflect on his humility and genuine interest in his people. Once, while on a visit to a shopping mall, King Abdullah caused a stir when he sat down in a food court near a McDonalds and chatted with all who were nearby. As the crowds gathered, King Abdullah engaged in conversation with a group of young Saudis, a few older women, a janitor, and anyone else who happened to be sitting in his direct vicinity. Once again, his security detail scrambled to ensure that the King was safe, but King Abdullah was clearly relishing this moment of spontaneous interaction with ordinary Saudis, reaching out his hand to his people as they reached back.

King Abdullah’s oil policy also represents an outstretched hand to the world. With 25% of the world’s oil reserves and the only meaningful excess capacity among major oil producers, Saudi Arabia is, by far, the most powerful state influencer of oil prices in the world. While a myriad number of factors influence the price oil from rising demand in Asia to speculators in New York and London to weather patterns and civil conflict in Africa, and individual states matter less in this equation, a country like Saudi Arabia still plays a vital role in stabilizing oil prices. King Abdullah’s policy has been clear: Saudi Arabia seeks a stable, fair, moderate price that allows consuming countries to purchase oil, does not bankrupt poor countries, and yet still allows producers enough of a cash surplus to re-invest in their oil industry for future sales. In fact, in a July 2009 report, the International Monetary Fund praised Saudi Arabia for its wise policies that promoted oil market price stability and moderation. Often, Saudi Arabia pushes back against OPEC price hawks who seek to dramatically spike prices. Perhaps even more importantly, Saudi Arabia under King Abdullah has engaged in an ambitious production expansion program, which will bring more crude oil on line to world markets, thus satisfying growing demand and tempering prices.

As I reflect on King Abdullah’s rule, it occurs to me that his outstretched hand may, in the end, become an important symbol. From reaching out to the poor, to shaking hands in peace-making diplomacy, to lifting up Saudis with wide-ranging education and economic initiatives, to bringing together moderate voices of Islam and reaching out to other faiths, to ensuring stable and moderate oil prices, to actively participating in G-20 discussions on the future of the global economy, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz is changing his country and the world. The key question faced by other world leaders and even other senior Saudi officials will be this: will they, too, offer an outstretched hand to meet the King halfway to resolve some of our common global challenges?

The reign of King Abdullah offers the world a unique opportunity. The world’s foremost oil producer, the home of the two holiest sites in Islam, and the Arab world’s diplomatic heavyweight is ruled today by a man with a strikingly forward-looking, global and inclusive vision for the future. In King Abdullah, the world has a reliable, powerful partner to help tackle some of the planet’s most pressing challenges from global warming to nuclear proliferation, from transnational terrorism to chronic underdevelopment and poverty. Too often, the world sees the King of Saudi Arabia as only a regional player, but King Abdullah has the means and vision to be a consequential global actor with positive influence for the world. In many ways, he has already lived up to that promise, with global peace-making diplomacy, bridge-building dialogue, stable oil policies, and wide-ranging humanitarian assistance.

Reflecting on Saudi Arabia and the rule of King Abdullah is not merely an academic exercise. In so many senses of the word, Saudi Arabia matters, and matters deeply. As home to Islam’s two holiest sites, in Mecca and Medina, the Kingdom often serves as a bellwether for the Muslim world, a world that faces severe turmoil and major challenges. As the holder of the world’s largest proven petroleum reserves, Saudi Arabia’s oil policy – one that has consistently favored price moderation – affects the lives of billions on our planet. Given its enormous influence in Arab affairs – and under King Abdullah the leading regional power by far – Saudi Arabia will play a vital role in shaping the future of a troubled but potential-filled region. At a time when regimes like that in Iran actively promote instability and crisis in the region, the role of King Abdullah’s vision in creating an “arc of stability” becomes ever more vital. That is why the world needs to pay close attention to what happens in Saudi Arabia and needs to understand the thinking, vision, and policies of King Abdullah.

Saudi monarchs are, by their nature, influential leaders, but some have been more influential than others. The Kingdom’s oil reserves, custodianship of the two holiest sites in Islam, and its strategic alliances with influential states from China to the United States, make the work of any Saudi king both challenging and vital to world peace and prosperity. With King Abdullah, however, the role of the Saudi King on the world stage has been enhanced to its highest level ever in history, partly due to changing global dynamics but more importantly, due to the personality and vision of King Abdullah himself. His international stature as a man of integrity and a peacemaker has positioned him to play a key role in global affairs and his domestic stature as a popular King and “man of the people” has positioned him to lay out domestic policy initiatives that are transforming Saudi Arabia and unleashing the latent potential of its people.

Saudi Arabia today is widely seen as the pivotal state in the Arab and Muslim world. Former Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora called King Abdullah “the savior of the situation in the Arab world,” Newsweek magazine called him “a regional elder statesman” and “wise man of Arab politics,” United Press International referred to him as “the Arabian peacemaker,” and a commentator for the Dallas Morning News commented that the King has ushered in a “Saudi renaissance.” King Abdullah has been a vigorous promoter of Arab unity and initiated and nurtured the historic Arab Peace Initiative, a comprehensive peace offer with Israel, first offered in 2002. In the often fractious world of Arab politics, the King has served as an anchor of unity to achieve this historic initiative.

Meanwhile, world leaders from President Hu Jintao of China to U.S. President Barack Obama to United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon offer high praise for the Saudi monarch. In fact, President Obama visited with King Abdullah in Riyadh for consultations before he delivered his landmark address to the Muslim world in Cairo on June 5, 2009. While they discussed pressing regional issues such as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Afghanistan and Pakistan, US troop withdrawals in Iraq, and Iran’s nuclear program, Obama listened attentively, according to aides, as the King spoke about his vision for a moderate Islam that stretches back to the roots and spirit of the faith.

Indeed, in the entire speech delivered in Cairo, President Obama only mentioned one leader from the Muslim world: King Abdullah. He said, “Faith should bring us together. That is why we are forging service projects in America that bring together Christians, Muslims, and Jews. That is why we welcome efforts like Saudi Arabian King Abdullah’s Interfaith dialogue.”

When King Abdullah was officially announced the monarch of Saudi Arabia in August, 2005, he pledged “to uphold the truth” and “to ensure that justice takes root,” while managing a government that “serves all citizens without discrimination.” Subsequently, he went on a tour of all regions across Saudi Arabia to reach out to people, listen to their concerns, and engage in dialogue. During one of his visits to the city of Asir, he said:

“Building a nation does not stop at the completion of one stage. Our past and present are the strong foundations for our future, but a nation must not content itself with pride at daily accomplishments, but rather must look forward to the future.”

In a few other regions, the King spoke honestly, noting that the Kingdom’s rapid development had been uneven and some regions had been neglected, and he pledged to change that – several underserved regions have been the recipient of government largesse in the past few years since he made those tours, with new universities, better infrastructure, and more incentives for private business.

A few months later, in a historic speech in Mecca before fifty-seven Muslim leaders at an Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting, King Abdullah delivered a similar message to his fellow Muslim leaders: honest, visionary, heartfelt, critical, and forward-looking. While praising Islam’s Golden era that spawned “singular achievements in jurisprudence, intellectual endeavors, the sciences, and literature and provided the decisive catalyst in bringing enlightenment to the dark ages,” he offered an honest assessment of the ills affecting Muslim states today, and called for his fellow leaders to look toward a better future, a Muslim renaissance that is prosperous, educationally advanced, and moderate.

It was an extraordinary speech, one of dozens of such speeches the King has delivered on a domestic and international scale that have laid out an inspiring vision of the future, provided an honest and unflinching lament of the ills of the world, and called for practical steps to achieve peace and development. Most importantly, King Abdullah has backed his words with wide-ranging actions from peace summits to development aid to robust diplomacy toward solving conflicts. Within Saudi Arabia, he has launched ambitious economic modernization initiatives, overseen a cultural renaissance, taken substantive steps to transform the education and the judiciary sectors, pushed back successfully against Islamic extremists whom he refers to as “deviants” whose exploitation of the “peaceful and moderate nature of Islam” puts them at war with Islam itself, and generally launched the Kingdom into a new direction that embraces modernization without threatening authentic traditions and culture.

As a result of all of this activity, he has been an extraordinarily busy man. From foreign visits to tens of countries, to receiving hundreds of envoys and heads of state who want to consult with the King to regular tours of new industrial, commercial, educational, and cultural centers spawned by his rule across Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah has presumably had little time to stop and reflect on the extraordinary nature of his rule as he continues to make history.

This book seeks to reflect on the nature of King Abdullah’s rule and its effects on Saudi Arabia, its fellow Muslim states, and the wider world as a whole. This book contends that King Abdullah is one of the four most important world leaders today and the most important and transformative Saudi head of state since his father, King Abdulaziz al-Saud.

This book is not a detailed account of the life of the King, but rather an attempt to understand King Abdullah’s thinking and policies and put them in a global, regional, and domestic context. To achieve this goal, I visited Saudi Arabia five times in the last two years and spoke with a wide variety of government officials, academics, journalists, intimates of the King and other Saudi citizens. I also sought to draw extensively upon King Abdullah’s own words, in private and from his speeches and interviews.

It will be clear from these pages that King Abdullah is truly a leader of consequence, and, historians will look back on him as one of the most important leaders of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Saudi historians might see King Abdullah as the King that most closely resembled King Abdulaziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia and one of the most visionary leaders of his era.

S. Rob Sobhani
Washington D.C.
November 2009

Date of Release: February 24, 2010
Ordering Information: Email Dr. Sobhani < >

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“King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia: A Leader of Consequence”: A Conversation with S. Rob Sobhani – SUSRIS Exclusive Interview – Feb 24, 2010