King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who was reported dead on Thursday night, was praised by President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, and other western leaders as a reformer and stalwart of stability in the Middle East.
The Saudi government has been a longstanding ally of the U.S. in the region, with both ex-President George W. Bush and Obama having both strong and close relationships with members of the Saudi Royal Family.
So, it’s not surprising that Obama and Kerry haven’t really mentioned Saudi Arabia’s human rights situation and press freedom, which has been described as poor by various organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
But he’s been praised as being a stable force in the region, and he is credited with virtually eradicating terrorism inside the country while providing reforms to women’s rights.
“Abdullah has been the de facto ruler of the Kingdom since King Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995; he became king a decade later when Fahd passed away. A progressive reformer by Saudi standards, Abdullah gave the Kingdom 20 years of stability,” said the Brookings Institution think tank, which specializes in foreign policy.
During the Arab Spring protests in 2011, radical Islamist factions that emerged–namely in Syria. Middle East commentator Adel Darwish told the BBC that the monarch “was instrumental in establishing an alliance between Egypt, Kuwait and the UAE” during that period of unrest.
“When there were some small disorders in Saudi Arabia, he managed to contain them by opening up. If you look at how the Saudi papers have debated issues for the last two to three years – no-one would have dreamed of that five years ago. That was quite an outlet and meant Saudi Arabia managed to avoid this so-called Arab Spring,” he said.
However, Toby C. Jones, who is an associate professor of history at Rutgers University, isn’t so sure.
Abdullah’s “record is not quite as positive or rosy as a lot of people are reflecting upon this morning,” he said, according to an interview with Democracy Now.
“He came to power formally in 2005, celebrated as a potential reformer, as somebody who would modernize and lead the kingdom forward. But it turns out he’s largely failed on every one of those measures. He has turned the clock back in terms of inciting sectarianism at home and supporting the forces of radicalism abroad,” he added.
When he was crown prince, Abdullah crushed and did away with anyone who might challenge the Saudi government, Jones noted. “And he did so as crudely as any of his predecessors did. He was not a benevolent dictator. He was a dictator,” he said.