Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

King Abdullah: The Figure, the Leadership and the Policies | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Between the July 2006 war in Lebanon and the Mecca Agreement, I have genuinely contemplated writing about King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, his activism and the policies Saudi Arabia has adopted during his reign. I am thus grateful for the circumstances that afforded me the opportunity to write about this noble subject.

Writing about a leader and policymaker such as King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz is unlike writing personal views on friends or media figures  notwithstanding my acquaintance with him and the fact that I had formed my opinion of him long before when he was Crown Prince and Commander of the National Guard.

I met him repeatedly in the 1990s with Rafik Hariri, at the time when the latter was Lebanon’s premier. I also spent some time with the Saudi monarch on the two occasions in which he visited Beirut as Hariri’s guest. I have spoken to hundreds of people who are acquainted with him, acquaintances that vary in degree, and their impressions about him were similar: he is a man of integrity, whose characteristics are that of a leader and who values truth and honesty above all else. He believes in action over mere talk, but when he does speak, his words stem from the heart. He derives his vision from his faith, which alternates between his faith in Islam and in Arabism, as well as managing public affairs to better his people’s living conditions.

I will never forget his courage and foresight when he first proposed the Arab Peace Initiative at the Beirut Summit of 2002. He bravely proposed it, even after having just endured the repercussions of 9/11, such as the War on Terror and the world’s exploitation of it, including our Israeli adversary Ariel Sharon, to attack the Palestinian cause and beleaguer Arabs about their religion and nationalism on one level, and their lives and wellbeing on another.

After assuming my position as Prime Minister, however, I have spent time with him on numerous occasions and have spoken to him many times. My opinion of him remains steadfast. In fact, my thoughts about him have grown deeper, as I have become more familiar with the leader and statesman following his succession to the throne in 2005.

I visited Saudi Arabia once to offer my condolences to the King, the country’s chief princes and its friendly people upon the death of the great late King Fahd Bin Abdulaziz. I went on another visit to congratulate King Abdullah, and we discussed many issues pertaining to Lebanon and the broader Arab region. On these two occasions, I have personally witnessed the starting points of progress and development on both the Arab and international scales. But moreover, I have also witnessed that success is finally beginning to manifest, which is ultimately the fruit of a thinker’s clear vision and a dedicated immense effort.

Many of his projects and plans had been prepared prior to his succession, as he has been present on the scene for over 35 years. His responsibilities doubled, however, during his brother Fahd’s illness, which also granted the opportunity to plan and accomplish a great deal.

Any outstanding political effort, in actuality, calls for three main rudiments: a vision, objectives and policies, and the capabilities available and the paths on which it is permissible to tread. It seems as though all said rudiments are present in this man and the country’s policies over the last two years.

As for his vision, the kingdom, as well as the Arab and Muslim worlds, were in the midst of terrifying developments: the Israelis persisted in carrying out terrorist acts against Palestinians whilst occupying their land. Iraq and Afghanistan were under occupation and external pressure was being piled on Arabs from abroad as a result of the War on Terror. This is in addition to unjust and unwarranted international laws and the region’s seemingly insolvable woes. One such issue is the prevalence of extremism and fundamentalism, which is detrimental on two levels. On one level, it is a threat to stability; but moreover, it harms the cause of Islam and its relations with the rest of the world. On another level, fundamentalists are commonly associated with Muslims and Arabs and their governments.

As for internal developments, we have all witnessed the economic boom that took place during his reign, which he was responsible for launching, and will continue to sustain. If the face of the kingdom had changed dramatically during King Fahd’s tenure, then King Abdullah’s term is destined to reach new horizons. In fact, if the Arab and Gulf efforts were to unite, the outcome would be a joint Arab economic-technological boom that could rival and cooperate with the world’s most advanced powerhouses.

This economic boom accompanied administrative reforms and developments, and a new perspective for running the Shura Council [Saudi Arabia’s Consultative Council]. This fact can be attested through the revolutionary words he employs in the Shura Council sessions’ commencement speeches. Discussions about religious, social, national, and cultural reforms began to take place in the National Dialogue conferences, which he introduced to the Kingdom during his post as Crown Prince.

Saudi culture encourages customs such as greeting guests and holding frank discussions with people. But during the reigns of King Fahd and King Abdullah, they combined these deeply rooted customs with the consultancy of their establishment in the Saudi cabinet’s meetings; the Ministry of planning’s meetings and outlook studies,

the Shura Council sessions, the National Dialogue’s discussions, which have brought about rising waves of development, as well as the growth of both the local administration and the immunity lent to the middle class and civilian society.

A ‘declaration’ of a new vision for the Muslim world, and the whole world at large, materialized in the Islamic Summit that Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz hosted in Mecca. It was attended by the leaders and envoys of 56 Muslim states, as well as hundreds of unofficial delegates.

“Islam is in a good state today,” he said. Muslim societies and countries are enduring trying times. This is either due to mismanagement, extremism or internal and external disputes. Three things are required: the correct management of public affairs, which will ultimately serve our nation and religion, and for us to unite for the greater good and for our vital cause; Palestine, and finally to deal with the world using a more open-minded and responsible approach.

It is common knowledge that Saudi Arabia does not take sides and does not engage in internal battles with Muslim and Arab countries. This is despite the fact that King Abdullah’s speech in the Mecca summit, which he had called for, suggests that he adopted an initiative approach and rhetoric, rather than mere assistance and encouragement.

The outcome of his bold vision allowed him to take initiative in many instances on the Arab, regional and international levels. Those who observe the Kingdom’s policies and the King’s political efforts since 2005 would know that his course is one of reform and openness. He is a firm believer in benefiting from the experience of others in a manner that runs parallel to our religion, and moreover in a way that contributes to the dissemination of nation’s causes.

He rejects concepts such as the clash of civilizations, whilst assimilating ideas of a united vision for Muslims and Arabs. He has paid numerous visits to the US and the major European countries, in addition to China, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and a multitude of Arab countries, including Egypt. During every visit, bilateral relations were not the heart of the discussions alone, other issues were also broached such as the situation in the Arab world, the Palestinian plight, how to get out of the Iraqi quagmire and how to protect our children’s future so that it may be devoid of extremism and violence, and how to put an end to the unrest that has broken out in many parts of the Muslim and Arab worlds.

Along this same course; that of initiating change as opposed to waiting for it to come about or acquiescing to the policies of others and the results they reap, King Abdullah sent his foreign minister and two other Saudi envoys to Iran. He is also keen on sending delegates to Syria, all for the sake of pacifying rising tensions between Sunnis and Shia and to discuss the situation in Lebanon and Iraq. When he felt that such dialogue came into fruition, and that it was finally time to confront these rising challenges with an initiative of some sort, being the man of initiative that he is, he held the Summit Conference of the Arab League Council in Riyadh. His main objectives were: to reintroduce the Arab peace initiative, calling for collective action to unify Arabs as one, and to convince foreign parties that peace is a cause that cannot be further delayed.

In Luigi Pirandello’s famous play “Six Characters in Search of an Author,” martyrdom is a recurring concept, much like the Arab world the past few decades. The anticipated author and savior of the situation in the Arab world, however, is King Abdullah, in every sense of the word.

A friend of mine once told me about a speech that was delivered by Prince Saud al Faisal [Bin Abdulaziz] in an official meeting in which he criticized the situation in the Arab world. I told him that I had often heard these words stated by the Prince, and also by King Abdullah. I used to jokingly tell my friend that the King and the Prince were at the forefront of an ‘opposition’ to the prevalent status in the Arab world and that which is obscure and sectarian oriented. In their view, it is wrong that we are working against one another, and it is equally wrong to succumb to the rules and resolutions of others, abandoning our responsibilities towards our main causes and towards the suffering of our brothers and sisters. No matter how frequently we communicate, no matter how many projects we launch or halt, our vision remains united, and our goals established: to reach a just solution for the Palestinian cause and put an end to the suffering, to return Iraq’s freedom, [to spread] peace and unity and to sustain stability in the Arab world, which can be realized by countering extremism and encouraging growth and development. This can only be achieved by means of collective action and unifying policies, not conflicting ones.

Palestine and Lebanon are prime examples of King Abdullah’s policies in that respect. By this, I am not referring to Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Palestine, which is a long-standing one that dates back to 1945; instead, I am referring to King Abdullah’s powerful debut on to the scene to salvage the Comprehensive Peace Agreement at a time when it was abandoned by both Israel and the United States alike. Unfalteringly, he proposed the initiative in Beirut 2002 (he was still Crown Prince at the time). This was a manifestation of his belief in a settlement that would preserve both sides’ inalienable rights, one such right being a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as a capital.

Violence broke out in the region, as a result of the Israeli reoccupation of Gaza and the West Bank, in addition to the American occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq and following the events of September 2001. Arabs, too, faced mounting pressure and were increasingly being beleaguered. Both the King of Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince at the time, contended that no one can just terminate the Palestinians and their nation, and no one can change the tolerant nature of Islam. America and Israel’s policies depend on the use of force and the complete disregard of the genuine reasons behind the increasing desperation of Arab youth. These policies hinder the way to change and to the achievement of a comprehensive peace. Instead, they create breeding ground for extremists, as the youth is aggravated as a result of the escalating crises and the unbearable foreign pressures. The international approval that the initiative was met with when it was re-launched only serves as proof of the missed opportunities that have only weakened the people’s morale and destroyed every chance of freedom and stability.

Officials in Saudi Arabia did not expect the situation to further decline after the summit and after the Mecca agreement. Yet, when it did after Hamas seized Gaza, it did not recoil or hesitate to try, along with Egypt, once again to resolve the Palestinian cause and to help them regain their unity and renew their strength in the face of the enemy, and in the face of both genuine friends and supposed friends alike.

As previously mentioned, King Abdullah and Prince Saud al Faisal have repeatedly discussed striving towards reaching an Arab resolution. Perhaps this is what our Palestinian brothers should aim to reach, so that the battles fought by their grandparents and ancestors, in which so many of them were killed and martyred, would not be in vain. They have lost what is deemed vital by humans for a decent and honorable living: their land and their stability.

To King Abdullah, however, al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem remains to be the first Muslim Qibla [the direction to which believers face during prayer], the third of the holiest mosques in Islam after the two holy mosques of which he is a custodian, and the central part of Arabism and honor. His brother King Faisal has expressed his yearning to pray in al Aqsa Mosque.

Saudi Arabia’s policies towards Lebanon are yet another prime example of Saudi Arabia taking initiative. The first time I spoke to the King about Lebanon two years ago, he was extremely sad but optimistic and hopeful all at once. He was sad over the slaying of Hariri, who was a native of Saudi Arabia and Lebanon and sad at the state of the whole Arab world. He once said to me that Hariri was a giant in his own right, that he was a man of great loyalty, someone who built and constructed much for our two nations and that he was a source of pride for the Arabs. His blood will not be spilt in vain, he told me. International investigations will not stop until the culprits are exposed. His hope had lied in the unity of the Lebanese and in the progress of his country and its independence. The Lebanese contributed to the progress and construction of the Arab world and the whole world at large, he told me. They would do wonders in their own land  if they were given the chance, he said.

The King also once said to me: “[Saudi Arabia] is with you in every possible way, and you will soon feel the consequences of this, be it by means of political, financial or diplomatic support, or by rebuilding the nation and ensuring its economic and military growth, or by protecting southern Lebanon and helping the nation reinforce its sovereignty. Saudi Arabia is with Lebanon.” It was during this time (on our third meeting) that we both began to seriously consider the Paris III Conference. The King contacted me frequently after every event or assassination. Often, I would be meaning to call him to consult him about certain issues only to receive a phone call from him first.

During the July 2006 war, he repeatedly imparted wisdoms about perseverance and determination to the people of Lebanon and to myself. When the Lebanese were under siege and endured conflict throughout July and August, he made constant calls to me. I was also informed that he had exerted tremendous efforts to end the war on Lebanon, to help the wounded and the displaced, to rebuild Lebanon and to reunite its factions. When Prince Saud al Faisal came to Lebanon to attend the meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Beirut, he told me that the King did not fear for the Lebanese, as he had much faith in their courage, resistance and steadfastness. However, he still hoped that they would not disappoint him by dividing after the war. He also hoped that we could strive towards embracing our nationhood and sustaining its unity. Two days later he called me himself and told me that Lebanon will survive because of its people’s resolve, and because of the attention it garnered from the Arab world and the international community alike. “We want you to be concerned for yourselves and your unity. As for foreign interference, leave it to us, we shall suppress it,” he said.

It can thus be said that the King’s nurturing of Lebanon following Hariri’s assassination came in four main stages. The first stage came immediately after the assassination when Saudi Arabia launched a joint Arab- and international- campaign to guard Lebanon’s security and to help it regain its strength and independence. This stage reached its peak in the Paris III conference, which laid the foundations for a new economic future for Lebanon, one that was devoid of its typical economic problems with deficits and debts.

The second began just before the July 2006 war when a string of assassinations took place, and when National Dialogue was in an obvious state of decline. During this stage, Saudi Arabia provided financial and political support. The third, which developed as a result of the escalation of the crisis and the divisions, and remains ongoing to this day, is Saudi Arabia’s constant initiatives that attempt to unite the Lebanese and reinstate stability to their political structure. Also, to reinforce the nations many regional and international contacts so as to put an end to foreign interference; or to employ them with the intention of reconciling the country’s many factions.

The fourth stage coincided with the emergence of the Fatah al Islam ‘conspiracy’, which has proven that just as extremism can be used to carry out its own personal goals, it can also be used by external parties, both knowingly and sometimes even inadvertently. Saudi Arabia has remained true to Lebanon by supporting its security and political systems and by exchanging views with it on how to handle the situation, and how to uphold the unity of Muslims, and regarding the relationship between Lebanon and Palestine.

Throughout the four stages, King Abdullah’s concern for Lebanon became increasingly clear through the various policies he introduced to bring stability back to the region, his committed attempt to resolve its main causes, and his launching of developmental projects, which will eventually give Arabs new opportunities. He has remained, throughout all the stages, and when I met him for the sixth time in Riyadh a few weeks ago, a loving and farsighted man who firmly believes in the ability of Arabs to break away from their dilemmas, no matter how entangled they may be. It is thus natural that I hold him, and other top officials of the Kingdom, in high regard, because I have been close to them over the past two years.

I once said to him following a tragic event in Palestine and Lebanon: “Your Royal Highness, in Palestine, we must raise the banner of all Arabs, because when Palestinians fight this brings about disastrous consequences for all Arabs. We are in the frontline defense for Lebanon, and the unrest in our country must be confronted by all Arabs, particularly you, your highness.” He smiled amicably and said: “You do not have to remind me, brother, of the situation in Lebanon and Palestine and Iraq, as we have not, nor will we ever neglect them. This is not simply by virtue of the danger we may be subjected to in the aftermath, but rather because it is our moral and Arab duty.”

The entire Saudi leadership has goals and visions that aim towards achieving stability in the region, and reinstating the right back to Arabs to take charge of their causes and issues. The Kingdom has lent its power and energy to solve internal Arab disputes, to improve relations between Arab and other neighboring countries, to change the American policies in the region, and to achieve stability and maintain it by implementing a comprehensive peace plan. This is achieved by encouraging moderation in the region’s policies and foreign relations, and by advocating religious, political, administrative, developmental reform.

Naturally, not every method employed will succeed, while some will not live up to expectations. The Saudi leadership emerges at a time of emptiness and war, and after stability has been undermined. It is for this that I pray that any obstacles in the way – if we walk together – can be rendered minor negligible problems on our way to success, not failure, God forbid.

As for Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, the human, the leader, the noble knight, may he and his reign live long, and may we benefit from his presence and his efforts, for what he has offered and done for us, and for how he has struggled and strived for the progress and advancement of the Kingdom. He has been a protector for the Arabs and Muslims and has demonstrated his concern and care for the welfare of the Arab World, in addition to the peace, unity, freedom and stability of Lebanon’s democratic system and communal life.