Three days shy of the Egyptian uprising’s fourth anniversary, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah passed away. In obituaries published after his death, major Western news outlets sacrificed honest remembrance in favor of respectful commemoration, hailing the late king as a domestic reformer and capable U.S. ally. Using euphemisms to paper over difficult realities, the king’s harsher moves were described as “wily.” When mentioned at all, Saudi Arabia’s efforts to undermine popular reform movements that shook the region in 2011 were presented as the swift reactions of an “iron-willed defender of the status quo.”
More than his cautious approach to women’s rights or belated response to the spread of extremism, King Abdullah’s decision to uproot the budding Arab Spring will define his legacy.
For Abdullah, ensuring the hegemony of the al-Saud family was his top priority. During Abdullah’s reign, maintaining the dynasty’s absolute power took precedence over respecting the human rights of his citizens and people across the region. The late king perceived Egypt’s democratically-driven revolution and subsequent election of the Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate, Mohammed Morsi, as threats to the authoritarian and religious sentiments that supported the Saudi regime.
After the Egyptian military deposed Morsi, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi became the new Hosni Mubarak. Saudi officials granted Egypt billions in aid, money which Sisi and his military backers used to entrench a government that has outlawed protests and imprisoned scores of nonviolent democratic reformers. To honor the passing of his benefactor, President Sisi cancelled planned celebrations of the January 25th Revolution. It would have been more appropriate, however, to mourn the democratic Egypt King Abdullah worked to abort.
Two thousand miles away from Egypt, Saudi interference has defined the lives of Bahrain’s people for years. On February 14, 2011, tens of thousands of nonviolent protesters swelled the streets of Manama, rallying around the Pearl Roundabout. Alarmed by the precarious position of his despotic counterpart, Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, King Abdullah sent his National Guard to Bahrain in March 2011, across the causeway that links the island to the Saudi mainland. Saudi soldiers aided and abetted the brutal suppression of Bahrain’s democratic movement. Dozens were killed. Saudi intervention gave the al-Khalifa government the momentum needed to arrest some 1,600 people in 2011.
Worried that a democratic Bahrain with its majority-Shiite population would inspire members of Saudi Arabia’s oppressed Shiite minority to push for their rights, the Saudi government forcefully stopped the Arab Spring just as the wave reached its shores. Imprisoned human rights advocates in Bahrain, like Nabeel Rajab and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, have lived with the consequences ever since.
However, King Abdullah’s decimation of the Arab Spring left no bloodier trail than in Syria. The late king worked to the U.S. administration into directly intervening in the metastasizing civil war, leading to cracks in a U.S.-Saudi relationship seen as vital by both parties. Long content to trade oil for guarantees of American support, Saudi officials suddenly chafed at their “dependent” relationship with the U.S. So great was King Abdullah’s need to intervene in Syria that he took matters into his own hands.
Abdullah seemed to view Syria as an opportunity to counter Iranian influence in the region, as evidenced by Saudi support for a multitude of Syrian opposition groups fighting against the Iranian-backed Assad regime. However, by funneling money and equipment to radical elements within the opposition, Saudi officials contributed to the fracturing of rebel forces in Syria. This splintering of a once united opposition not only contributed to the conflict’s downward spiral of violence, but de-legitimized the moderate Syrian voices that initially called for democratic reforms in Damascus and Aleppo.
Until recently, Saudi officials and members of the royal family looked the other way as hundreds of Saudi men crossed the border to take up arms in Syria with extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. Just as the Afghanistan crisis of the 1980s became a center for regional radicalization and led to decades of unpredictable extremist blowback, the Saudi government’s meddling in Syria has cultivated a new generation of radicals that will have disastrous long-term effects. As some regional experts have noted, the DNA of groups like ISIS can be traced back to decades of Saudi support for armed Salafist elements abroad. This support, rendered by the Saudi government in the hopes of promoting a strict brand of Sunni Islam above all others, has led to increased sectarianism and violent extremism in the region. Recent efforts by the Saudi government to wall the country off from terrorist activity in Iraq may indicate, at long last, a realization that years of exporting regressive ideologies abroad can have ramifications at home.
King Abdullah’s efforts to undermine the work of reformers in the Middle East and North Africa extended to other countries as well. Under his orders, Saudi Arabia became a retirement home for ousted dictators. Former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh received medical treatment there in the early days of Yemen’s revolution. Instead of standing trial for his government’s numerous rights abuses, deposed Tunisian President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali is enjoying a comfortable second life as a guest of the Saudi state. King Abdullah also invited Jordan and Morocco into the Gulf Cooperation Council (an offer coupled with attractive offerings of direct aid) just as those governments began to face renewed calls for political and economic reform.
This is the political record so many newspapers in the United States and Europe chose to omit from their testimonials on King Abdullah. There is nothing “wily” about a leader whose government exacerbates a civil war through the haphazard funding of competing opposition forces, nor is a panicked response to a neighbor’s democratic revolution particularly “iron-willed.”
For their part, U.S. officials also appear determined to preserve fiction over fact, and emphasize King Abdullah’s short-term maneuverings over the long-term damage his regional policies have wrought. U.S. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the U.S. armed forces, recently announced an for students at the National Defense University. The competition is expected to pay “fitting tribute to the life and leadership of the Saudi Arabian Monarch.”
With any luck, perhaps one student will submit a report on the late king’s efforts to capsize the Arab Spring, buoy regional dictators, fund extremism and put human rights defenders in jail. Such an essay would be a truly fitting tribute to the life and leadership of Saudi Arabia’s late monarch.