As he begins his eighth year on the throne, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia confronts a region facing unprecedented political changes as well as mounting social pressures at home.
The country marks the seventh anniversary of Abdullah’s accession today, according to the Islamic calendar. Seven years ago, “people pledged allegiance and loyalty to the king and united in support of him,” the official Saudi Press Agency said. Based on the lunar cycle, August 1, 2005 corresponds to May 17.
Abdullah, 88 this year, has kept at bay the popular movements that toppled leaders in Yemen, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. With unrest threatening to spread to the Persian Gulf states, he drew up a $130 billion spending package to help alleviate issues such as unemployment and deployed troops to Bahrain to crush a Shiite-led uprising. At home, the son of King Abdulaziz, the founder of the kingdom, has pursued policies to create jobs and build state institutions.
“The regional environment has been difficult,” said Crispin Hawes, director for the Middle East and North Africa at Eurasia Group in London. “Not only has Abdullah lost a significant ally in Hosni Mubarak, but the emergence of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, continuing upheaval in Iraq and more recently the situation in Syria and Bahrain have posed significant direct challenges.”
Saudi Arabia’s economy will expand 3.9 percent this year, Jeddah-based National Commercial Bank said, after growing 6.8 percent last year.
With Abdullah’s backing, the government has “accomplished reasonable economic growth,” Jarmo Kotilaine, chief economist at Jeddah-based National Commercial Bank, said in a phone interview. “They need to lay the foundation for a diverse economy to absorb new job-seekers.”
Since taking power, Abdullah has implemented a $400 billion fiscal stimulus package in late 2008 and a $384 billion, five-year spending plan for education, housing and transportation in August 2010. He imposed quotas in June forcing employers to cut foreign staff to get Saudis working, and allowed women to work in lingerie outlets.
Abdullah for the first time in the kingdom’s history gave women last year the right to vote in future municipal elections. They can also join his advisory council.
For Mohammed al-Qahtani, a Riyadh-based democracy advocate, many of the changes Abdullah made are “symbolic.”
“When Abdullah took over, at the beginning, there were positive feelings,” he said in a phone interview. “People thought things were changing, that we could express ourselves. Unless institutions are put in place, the changes don’t mean anything.”
A royal decree last year banned media deemed to violate Islamic law and threaten internal security, the official Saudi Press Agency reported. Publications that break the rules can be fined or closed.
Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, was ranked the least democratic country in the Middle East in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2010 Democracy Index. Six monarchs have ruled the kingdom since it was established in 1932. Born in 1924, Abdullah is the 13th son of the kingdom’s founder, according to the website of the Saudi embassy in Washington.
Abdullah has challenged clerics who have spoken out about his efforts to amend gender-mixing restrictions. He removed Sheikh Abdul Mohsen al-Obeikan as an adviser to the Royal Court this month after the conservative cleric told a local radio station that officials were Westernizing laws by “legalizing taboos.”
Abdullah also replaced Sheikh Saad Bin Naser al-Shatri, a former member of the Council of Senior Scholars, for criticizing the opening of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, the country’s first mixed-sex higher-education institution, in September 2009.
“A long-term goal for King Abdullah would have been that Saudi institutions remain strong, employment numbers would improve and relations with difficult parties remained stable,” Hawes said. “Given those goals, he has done very well.”