Monday,23 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)
Monday,23 July, 2018
Issue 1231, (29 January - 4 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

A monarch passes

Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah was a rock in an unstable region, helping it navigate a path away from the fallout and disasters of post-Arab Spring turbulence, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Quranic verses that appeared on the television screen were the prelude to the sad announcement. It did not come as a surprise. When President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi flew from the UAE to Saudi Arabia for a few brief hours it was obvious that the moment had drawn near.

We had been watching the final days of King Abdullah bin Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud with heavy hearts and pensive minds. I imagine that this applied to Egyptians in general, who acquired greater familiarity with the Saudi monarch when he stood by them during their recent difficulties, extending a generous helping hand to their country and supporting it in all international forums.

The Saudi king died, as is the fate of all God’s creatures, but his memory will live on in the annals of history and in the minds and hearts of a generation that share the memories of difficult and crucial moments in which fate hung on a thread.

King Abdullah, the leader of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), was a man of his times. He assumed responsibility in the late 1990s, while still crown prince, when his father, King Fahd, became bedridden. Then, and after he became king, he had to contend with the consequences of profound change that we can sum up in a single word: globalisation.

Whatever opinion one might have of that word, it signified a surge of movement and dynamism in conservative countries that were compelled to make a choice: to reform and adjust or pay a price. The price, moreover, would be heavy as “globalisation” soon began to fuel the ugly face of terrorism at the international level. Tragically, this ogre marched beneath the banner of Islam.

As the Saudi monarch who served as the Custodian of the Holy Places in Mecca and Medina, the king’s responsibility was enormous, not just before the Saudi people but before the Islamic world, from Indonesia to Morocco, and the entire world, as a representative of a merciful religion.

Shouldering this burden could not have been easy. One day, historians will write about this period at the threshold of the third millennium. It is an era that bought not only terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, London, Paris and Madrid, as well as in the KSA itself and in other Islamic capitals and cities, but also the Western reaction, including the invasion of Iraq. This war sent disastrous tremors throughout the region, on top of which came a succession of Israeli wars against Lebanon and Gaza with occasional forays into Syria.

King Abdullah handled all of this with a blend of wisdom and resolve. Wisdom recognises the limitations of time and the ability to change. Reform can be bold but it should not be destructive. One can be resolute in taking measures to promote Arab and Islamic interests, but wisdom takes into account the complexities of the world and the interwoven nature of interests. In brief, wisdom does not mean being hesitant or lax when confronting intractable problems, and resolute does not mean recklessness.

It was well known, for example, that for the conservative right in the US — and this was said openly — the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was not the objective. The Saddam Hussein regime was already isolated, a pariah that had its wings clipped in the first Gulf war. The objective, as was said, was Saudi Arabia and Egypt because they were the keys to changing the entire region, moulding it according to the American model and mood.

But the great historical moment came with what became known as the Arab Spring, which plunged the entire region into a morass of fraught and destructive revolutionary conditions. One frequently read in Western commentaries at the time that it would only be a matter of time before the khamaseen winds of the “Spring” would overturn the status quo in Saudi Arabia and other Arab kingdoms.

In fact, while some Arab countries fell and others became failed states, the monarchies proved resilient. This was because at the heart of one of them was King Abdullah, who managed the four past years with consummate boldness, courage and determination.

Many will write about the industrial cities he built, the scientific academies he established, and the progress he achieved in women’s affairs, in education and in government. However, history will recall his time at the helm during the great storm and how he managed to navigate through it, not just by implementing reforms at home but also by taking a firm and decisive position on situations abroad.

This applied to Bahrain, where he used military force to forestall catastrophe and, whether Western capitals liked it or not, to the Syrian crisis and to the fight against terrorism in the region as the whole.

Quite simply, it was the position of King Abdullah that shifted the scales with regard to Egypt, when the Egyptian people succeeded in stopping the extremist, terrorist, bloody revolutionary wave propelled by the Muslim Brotherhood and other organisations that were built on this base and at the pinnacle of which is Daesh (the Islamic State).

Of course, the Saudi monarch’s stance would have been informed by shared history, the spirit of kinship and other common bonds, but other factors were involved, factors of a geopolitical nature with a direct bearing on and long-range implications for strategic balances in the entire Middle East.

The Arab region and the Middle East as a whole may seem to be teetering on the verge of collapse as a result of the fallout and disasters of the post-Arab Spring. But the picture is really not all that grim since the change in the strategic balances that was brought about through the efforts, wisdom and resolve of King Abdullah. He brought Qatar back into the fold of the moderate Arab order and gave Egypt the ability to declare that the security of the Gulf is a red line.

Against the backdrop of a region that seems like an amorphous miasma, hovering in the air and without direction, with no sign of condensing and coalescing into something concrete, Egypt has emerged from this state of vaporous fluidity. There is now an Arab alliance forged by the late King Abdullah that is capable of dealing with the difficult days ahead.

King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz Al-Saud now has to follow through, using his wisdom and wealth of experience while taking advantage of the foundation that has been laid for dealing with an array of complex issues. This includes a special framework for handling the crisis in Yemen, which is deteriorating with every passing day.

There is the on-going war against Daesh, for which reason foundations have been laid to enable Iraq to recover its strength. At the same time, the new Saudi monarch will have to deal with the battle of managing oil prices, which the late King Abdullah entered from a position of strength in order to sustain OPEC countries’ share of the international market.

The burdens will be numerous and all of them onerous. However, in view of all that King Abdullah had done, King Salman will not be starting from scratch. In fact, he has a solid, robust basis to build on. May God have mercy on King Abdullah’s soul and may He help King Salman in all the challenges that lie ahead.

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