Published in The Express Tribune – cover photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth
The Australian musician Nick Cave, who often touches on love and death, once mused on a great man’s last rites (his own), ‘The motorcade will be ten miles long, the world’ll join for a farewell song […] they’ll sound a flugelhorn, and the sea will rage, and the sky will storm. All man and beast will mourn. When I go.’
And so it was, if in a land far from Mr. Cave’s jazz riffs: the desert sands of Riyadh. Last Friday, the world woke in panic to find Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, King of Saudi Arabia, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and Leading Light of the Ummah, had passed away.
The anguish spread far and wide through Muslim lands. Particularly despairing were Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Iraq, and Syria — united only by their love for the king (and unrelated battles with terrorism).
But beyond sites of civil strife, a man is also known by his friends. George H. W. Bush called him a ‘dear friend and partner’. Israeli President Rivlin mourned that ‘his wise policies contributed greatly to our region and to the stability of the Middle East’, a statement that states the obvious.
Egypt’s Sisi was most earnest, ‘The Arab nation [has] lost a leader of its best sons.’ Many noted the general’s subtle self-praise — Sisi himself was one of the king’s best sons. In bringing back the military in Cairo, the general owes much to the king. Long live his swagger stick over those Brotherhood-electing Egyptians.
And Nawaz Sharif, in agony over the king’s health, rushed to Riyadh the second time in weeks. The king had a ‘special place in the hearts of every Pakistani,’ said Mr. Sharif, and Pakistanis everywhere wept along. In the king, Mr. Sharif may have seen a kindred soul: a gentle reformer with an image problem, in a land where power is shared between brothers.
The obits were, as always, unjust. They qualified the king’s reforms with feeble adjectives: the I.M.F. called him ‘a discreet but strong advocate of women’. The New York Times said he ‘nudged’ Saudi Arabia forward. And Reuters called him a ‘cautious’ reformer.
‘Discreet’, ‘cautious’, ‘nudged’; as always, the non-Khaleeji press played it safe. CNN’s Fareed Zakaria tried the mostest — ‘an extraordinary figure’, he managed.
Let’s see the facts. Abdullah was crowned in 2005, but by the grace of the ailing Fahd, was running the place 10 years yore. He allowed women the vote, but forbade them from driving — a fatherly figure who knew the line between right and wrong.
Which was why justice was swift under the king. So lawful was his reign, state executioners complained they were overworked (and late in coming home to their families). A blogger was lashed 50 times, two weeks ago. And a rape victim was sentenced to 90 lashes soon after King Abdullah’s crowning.
Lo, unvarnished justice.
And with justice came accountability. When 15 schoolgirls died in a dormitory fire, because the religious police hadn’t let them escape (they weren’t appropriately dressed), the king was Significantly Upset. He went as far as sacking the head of women’s education (presumably male).
Yes, the king had his finger on the people’s pulse: even as he flew in fleets of jumbo jets, he directed that princes pay all their phone bills. He was also the first royal to be photographed visiting the shack of an impoverished Saudi citizen, such was His Majesty’s humility. No pharaoh was he: he swatted the heads of petitioners with a ‘slender’ bamboo stick, were they to attempt bowing or kissing the royal digits.
But King Abdullah was also a staunch supporter of the Bush family — the al-Sauds’ personal friends — in their crusade against Moslem terror. Following 9/11, King Abdullah famously wrote to George W., ‘God, in his mercy [… enables] us to transform such tragedies into great achievements.’
That great achievement proved the War on Terror: so close were their ties, the Bushies forgot 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq instead.
Yet even in a complex world, the king never forgot House Saud’s D.N.A.: the Wahhabi School, a doctrine rooted in warm tradition. Famous alumni (under Provost Abdullah) include the Taliban, al-Nusra, and Boko Haram, all beneficiaries of the kingdom’s vast wealth.
But many proved ungrateful. Like evil stepchildren, I.S.I.S. and al-Qaeda strayed from the righteous path, and were excommunicated by the Saudi clergy. Shame on them.
Speaking of shame, Pakistan’s current leadership was equally blessed by His Majesty’s petro patronage. WikiLeaks uncovered the true extent: as of 2008, says a cable, $100 million cash injections were making their way to Pakistan on a yearly basis from Saudi Arabia — for religious charities in Southern Punjab. The king’s investment has since reaped rich harvests, and Southern Punjab has changed beyond recognition: an oasis of peace between the sects.
Forgetting the philanthropist, hard it may be, and we find Abdullah the statesman. He brought peace to tiny, troubled Bahrain, through excellent ‘military advisers’. He proposed to John ‘Waterboarder’ Brennan that terror detainees be implanted with e-chips, to track their movements via Bluetooth. It worked on horses and falcons, the king said. Brennan replied, ‘Horses don’t have good lawyers.’ Many laughs were had, and the U.S.A. and K.S.A. grew ever closer — two free nations brought together by oil, arms, and former friend Saddam Hussein.
But none of it comes close to capturing the king’s belovedness, or the universality of his admirers — from Texan tycoons to Yemeni criminals. According to Robert Lacey’s book, Osama bin Laden once told a fellow jihadi about a dream that stayed with him (Abdullah had yet to be crowned). In his dream, Bin Laden heard the sounds of celebrations and ‘looked over a mud wall’ to see Abdullah arriving — to the joy of cheering throngs.
‘It means Abdullah will become king,’ Bin Laden said. ‘That will be a relief to the people and make them happy. If Abdullah becomes king, then I will go back.’
Yes, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud ruled in the hearts of all: the sheikhs and the Sharifs, the Bushes and the Bin Ladens, the Israels and the Egypts.
So blinding was his light, it may be greedy to wish for more of him in the world.