Riyadh | His changes looked minute to the outside world. But in a kingdom where ultra-conservative Muslim clerics have long held a lock on all aspects of society, King Abdullah’s incremental reforms echoed mightily. When Abdullah took the unprecedented step of opening a new university where men and women could mix in classrooms, part of his gradual campaign to modernize Saudi Arabia, grumbling arose among the hard-liners who form the bedrock of the powerful religious establishment.
One sheikh dared to openly say that the mingling of genders at the king’s university was a great sin and a great evil. Abdullah sent a tough signal: He fired the critic from the state-run body of clerics who set the rules for Saudi life. As one of the world’s largest oil exporters, Saudi Arabia is governed by a mix of tribal traditions and perhaps the world’s strictest interpretation of Islam.
Its royal family prefers to act quietly in the background, shies away from direct confrontation, avoids putting itself on the line and prefers slow-paced change to radical reform. But Abdullah, who died today at the age of 90 after nearly two decades in power, acted at times with unusual forcefulness for a Saudi monarch.
At home, the results were reforms, including advancements for women, that were startling – for the kingdom at least – and a heavy crackdown against al-Qaeda militants. Abroad, his methods translated into a powerful assertion of Saudi Arabia’s influence around the Middle East. Backed by the kingdom’s top ally, the United States, the king was aggressive in trying to put up a bulwark against the spreading power of Saudi Arabia’s top rival, mainly Shiite Iran, thus shaping the Arab world along new lines, an anti-Iran camp and a pro-Iran camp.
According to a leaked US diplomatic memo, Abdullah urged Washington in 2008 to consider military action against Iran to cut off the head of the snake because of its nuclear advances. Another memo spoke of how Abdullah angrily berated Iran’s foreign minister in private that Persians had no business meddling in Arab affairs.
He pushed Gulf allies into taking increasingly vocal stands against Iran and sought to isolate Syria because of its alliance with Tehran. In Syria, Abdullah stepped indirectly into the civil war that emerged after 2011. He supported and armed rebels battling to overthrow President Bashar Assad and pressed the Obama administration to do the same.
Iran’s allies Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias rushed to back Assad, and the resulting conflict has left hundreds of thousands dead and driven millions of Syrians from their homes.
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