Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has pushed cautious social changes in the world’s top oil-exporting country and guided it through a turbulent time that included an al Qaeda uprising, confrontation with Iran and the Arab Spring upheavals in neighbouring states.
Abdullah had an operation on his back on Monday, almost a year after undergoing two rounds of surgery to treat a herniated disc that led to a three-month absence from the kingdom.
The softly spoken Abdullah was born in the royal court of his father, King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, in the early 1920s, when the capital Riyadh was a small oasis town ringed by mud-brick walls at the centre of an impoverished but rapidly growing kingdom, Reuters reports.
But after becoming de facto regent as crown prince when King Fahd had a stroke in 1995, and as king from 2005 onwards, he enacted reforms aimed at reconciling Saudi Arabia’s conservative traditions with the needs of a modern economy.
As head of OPEC’s biggest producer, he is seen to have pursued a moderate oil price policy, raising production to prevent price spikes during supply outages in other countries.
However, despite his reforming reputation, Abdullah opposed the pro-democracy demonstrations of the Arab Spring, reflecting Saudi concerns that the fall of old allies would give openings to regional rival Iran and present opportunities to al Qaeda.
Before becoming king, Abdullah opened up the economy to private and foreign investors, reduced clerical control over girls’ education and pursued changes to the Islamic judiciary.
The reforms were spurred by a need to address unemployment by bolstering the private sector and better preparing young Saudis for jobs, and to reduce the influence of Islamist militants who had supported al Qaeda’s three-year bombing campaign in the kingdom in the last decade.
However, the reforms almost entirely avoided the question of political change, and the only elections in the kingdom are for half the seats on town councils that have little power.
Some activists who have demanded change in petitions ended up in prison, and political parties and public demonstrations are banned.
Abdullah has also aimed to better the position of women in his ultra-conservative country, trying to offer them better education and employment prospects and allowing them to participate in future municipal elections.
Women are still barred from driving and must seek the approval of a male “guardian” to work, travel abroad or undergo surgery in some cases.
When the Arab Spring rippled across the region early this year, Abdullah’s order to spend $130 billion (82.4 billion pounds) on social benefits, new housing and new jobs helped the kingdom to avert any significant pro-democracy unrest.
In a ruling al-Saud family famed for lavish excesses, Abdullah’s fondness for retreats at his desert camp has distinguished him from other princes who prefer to spend summers in Mediterranean palaces.
HEAD OF THE SNAKE
In recent years, Abdullah’s foreign policy has increasingly addressed Saudi attempts to contain what they see as encroaching influence of Shi’ite Muslim power Iran through the Arab world.
That policy reached its apotheosis in March when Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to support the island’s Sunni Muslim monarchy against an uprising by the Shi’ite majority.
Riyadh feared that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 had already altered the regional balance of power to give Iran more sway from Beirut to Baghdad.
Those concerns were underpinned by Iran’s development of a nuclear power station, which the West suspected of hiding an atomic weapons programme.
In a 2009 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, Abdullah was quoted repeatedly as urging the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” by attacking Iran.