Whoever observed the welcoming celebrations in Riyadh, and listened to what people had to say about the return of the Saudi ruler, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, from his medical trip, would think they were living in a different era to 2011. This year began with a series of dramatic events, and significant developments continue to occur. To the outside observer, Saudi Arabia would seem disconnected from news of fleeing rulers, raging uproars and chaotic street scenes.
Rarely would rival parties rally around one individual. Any ruler, by the very nature of their job, is a controversial character. In the US, and because it is the stronghold of the democratic system, we hear nothing but scathing criticism of every speech delivered by Obama, and every step he intends to take. We hear these voices in conference halls, trains, taxis, and even cafes. Yet such discontent is offset by the counter-argument, claiming that Obama possesses the determination to bring about change, but he has been hindered from fulfilling his pledges by a tide of obstructing circumstances. These debates are customary features of idle coffee-shop talk every morning, always ending with the exchange of pleasantries.
At Harvard University, a discussion was recently held about world rulers in general, following the end of the Tunisian crisis, and the beginning of the Egyptian revolution. One of my colleagues asked me: “We hear that you have a good king, who is keen on improving the education system?” I confirmed this statement, and clarified it by telling my colleague that Islam assigns rulers with specific duties. Because Islam is a faith applicable to all eras, and because times change, certain ruling duties become more or less important, and change altogether. In the age we live in, a good education system is just as important as the right to justice, for a civilian cannot fully obtain their rights without first receiving a quality education.
I was unsure why my American colleague had chosen to highlight the issue of education in particular, apart from the fact that the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques has initiated a scholarship program, sending 30,000 male and female students to study in the US. Such an initiative must have given an indication that behind it stands an honest, righteous man.
Indeed, in Saudi Arabia, the current situation deserves contemplation. The biggest problem facing the Saudi youth today is unemployment, yet they look up to their ruler as a man who understands their disappointments and frustrations, and as the only one capable of solving their problems. It is a sentiment of hope and trust rather than anger or exasperation. This subtle bond between the Saudi people and their ruler relates to the nature of King Abdullah, who has a strong sense of compassion and generosity in his expression. There is no malicious falsehood or cruelty in what His Majesty says. His words seem somewhat spontaneous, and are only offset by his firmness when defending the principle of national belonging and patriotism. We all remember him at the 2003 Arab Summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, when he stood up to Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi, who later tried to challenge the Kingdom’s policies.
Saudis do not live a luxurious lifestyle; rather they suffer from a growing rate of unemployment. They know that their country is a target for terrorism, and thus they have a growing preoccupation with security. Equally, Saudi women are constantly endeavoring to improve their social and economic status. There are also challenges with regards to education and healthcare, not to mention the impact of desertification, and a lack of water resources. In addition, the country is not free from financial and administrative corruption. These issues are all causes for serious concern, which the Saudis fear may escalate. Nevertheless, they have maintained their positive feelings towards King Abdullah, because they know that these concerns are shared by both the ruler and the people. Nothing widens the gap between a ruler and the populace more than a disparity in concerns and interests. Such a division tends to create mutual estrangement, and destroys any sense of intimacy, which in time can turn to hatred.
Saudis await the return of their king and they expect a lot from him. They have pinned their hopes upon him, and believe that he can fulfill their aspirations. The Saudi youth feel this way towards King Abdullah because His Majesty has shown them that he cares, having addressed them in the language of a father. Saudis were following the developments of His Majesty’s health condition with deep concern, hoping for his recovery and eagerly awaiting his return. Meanwhile, in other countries, the masses are driving their rulers out, forcing them beyond their borders.