By: Laila Makboul, University of Oslo.
Following the death of king Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, an immediate debate has been re-merged about his reign in the media outside Saudi Arabia. One point of contention has been whether he was a cautious reformer or as the Saudi historian Madawi al-Rasheed described him; “an adversary of democracy in the Arab world”, capable of cosmetic change at most. In the Arab world, a heated incongruity has become visible among religious figures and the society in the former’s utterance of condolences and prayers to the late king. Much is because of the his stance towards the Muslim Brotherhood, rendering it a terrorist group and lending support to the Egyptian president who has been behind the brutal crackdown of the Brothers in Egypt. And since Hamas is the Palestinian offshoot of the Egyptian Brotherhood, Sisi wants to see it humiliated as well. It reached an embarrassing peak when the Imam of the al-Aqsa mosque, Dr. Ismail Nawahdah, was booed down from the pulpit after he called upon the congregation to pray for him during the Friday sermon. It might therefore come as a surprise that religious Brotherhood figures such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Tareq al-Suwaidan have expressed their condolences to the late king by praying for his forgiveness. When the latter was asked on Facebook whether it wasn’t the king who had banned him from entering the Kingdom, he replied with an affirmative “na’am”.
In contrast, there is an official display of sorrow inside Saudi Arabia as the nation seems to be united by the loss of their leader. Depicted as their father; religious figures, intellectuals and common people use paternal metaphors when describing their relationship to king Abdullah. One of the many vivid portrayals was given by Dr. Najib al-Zamil, a member of the Shura Council as “the king of hearts, whose kind and trustworthy smile penetrates the centre of our hearts with the comforting words: “You are in good hands. Trust in Allah and everything will be as He wills”.” Following the same resonance, the immediate reaction to his death across the political and religious spectre has been one of prayers, following a national oath of allegiance to the new ruler described as “a good successor to a good predecessor” (khayru khalaf li-khayri salaf). The title was previously used about the appointment of king Abdullah in 2005 and gives the succession a religious connotation and a sense of historical continuity as the notions of salaf and khalaf have traditionally been used about the early generation of the Muslim community and those following in their footsteps.
The immediate speech of the Grand Mufti of the kingdom is noteworthy and summons the political-religious alliance of Al Saud and Al al-Shaykh in which the country is based upon. Beginning with the establishment of the first Saudi state, Shaykh Abdulaziz Al al-Shaykh goes on to mention each and all of the kings of Al Saud as a continuation of the two Shaykhs’ Kingdom, “founded to combat darkness and polytheism and to be built upon knowledge, guidance and faith. Hence, the transfer of governance is a religious affair in which the people are obliged to give allegiance to”. In this is the essence of understanding the discourse of reform inside Saudi Arabia.
One of the country’s prominent advocates for reforms is the general manager of the upcoming Al Arab news channel, Jamal Khashoggi. A columnist, previous editor-in-chief of the liberal newspaper al-Watan and a former Afghani Mujahid, Mr. Khashoggi has been pushing for reforms for years within the political-religious framework of Saudi Arabia, sometimes trespassing the red lines. During a meeting in 2011, he told me that those who question the teachings of Abd al-Wahhab are challenging the foundation of the Kingdom. It is in this framework that we should understand his latest commentary on the death of king Abdullah whom he terms as an undertaker of gradual reforms. According to Mr. Khashoggi, “the departed predecessor (salaf) king Abdullah continued in the footsteps of the first reformist of the country king Abdulaziz who was loyal to the reformist call of ibn Abd al-Wahhab. King Abdullah continued widening the doors of reforms for his successor (khalaf) to take over”. One of the points Mr. Khashoggi touches upon is the women’s role in the society. He quotes a private meeting with the king where he expressed his concern for education and how women should be educated in order to serve their countries. Commenting on the appointment of the first female deputy minister Noura al-Faiz, Mr. Khashoggi asked the king if that implied that a woman may become a minister in the country. The king replied “one step at a time. She first needs to be successful in her appointment as a deputy minister. And I am confident that she will”.
With more than 200 000 Saudi students currently studying abroad thanks to the Kingdom’s scholarship program – half of them women – there might be some truth in Mr. Khashoggi’s description of a king of gradual reforms, at least in the educational field which has seen a massive reform during his reign. As one of the many female PhD students told me in the aftermath of the king’s death: I will dedicate my research to his soul and promise to go back to Saudi to serve my country under the leadership of King Salman as a strong intellectual human being because Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah and our new leader King Salman gave me this right. I believe that our future is brighter. May God protect our country, our leaders and the people of Saudi Arabia.