King Abdullah, the monarch who ruled Saudi Arabia for the past nine years, is dead at 90. His oil revenue made him the richest head of state in the world, with a personal worth of roughly $18 billion. The son of Ibn Saud, he took power after his half-brother King Fahd died in 2005, and he is succeeded by his 79-year-old half-brother Salman. On Tuesday, President Obama will cut short his visit to India, canceling a trip to the Taj Mahal, to say hello to our little friends in the Gulf and attend the King’s funeral.
Abdullah, instantly recognizable in his white keffiyeh and tinted shades (not to mention a Zappa-esque goatee that seemed to be drawn on his face with a Sharpie), was one of the world’s worst human rights abusers. Besides keeping laws in place that treated women as property and denied them suffrage, he was notorious for arresting and jailing hundreds of activists. He also allowed the U.S. to use Saudi military bases such as Al Udeid Air Base for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the country is now home to a CIA base used for conducting drone strikes in Yemen. Abdullah’s reign has been marked by the violent suppression of any attempts at real reform–both at home and in countries like Bahrain that had been sites of unrest during the Arab Spring of 2010.
Perhaps most shockingly, he imprisoned four of his own daughters (he is believed to have had about 20 daughters, 30 wives and 15 sons). In a Channel 4 UK interview in March, two of these daughters–Princesses Sahar and Jawaher–talked about being put under house arrest for the past 13 years. Their crime? Speaking up for women’s rights and against poverty–an offense that reduced them from princesses to slaves in their own home, where they claim to be starved and abused.
You wouldn’t know any of this from reading Western leaders’ fawning eulogies, however. After all, Saudi Arabia is both the world’s biggest oil exporter and a loyal customer to defense contractors, from whom they have purchased huhdreds of billions in weaponry. How else to explain John Kerry’s description of Abdullah as “a man of wisdom and vision” or Tony Blair’s official statement declaring “I knew him well and admired him greatly?” Even more baffling is his treatment in the mainstream press: one paragraph in his New York Times obituary begins by calling him “a force of moderation” only to end several sentences later with an admission that he had “hundreds of militants arrested and some beheaded.”
The award for most shameless statement by public figure probably goes to Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, who went so far as to call him a “strong advocate of women.” Though he did grant such modest reforms as allowing men and women to study together at the humbly named King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, calling him an advocate for women makes about as much sense as calling George Wallace a civil rights hero.
But money is money, and politicians have proven all too willing to embrace the “stability” of a brutal dictatorship if it means protecting their countries’ investments against the twin dangers of revolution and democracy. If doing so involves praising a tyrant as a beacon of reform, so be it. And let’s not forget Al Qaeda started when a jilted Saudi millionaire (Osama Bin Laden) got sick of the U.S. and Saudis oppressing Muslims. And our support for the Kingdom, paramount among many other crimes, led to Osama’s financing 9-11.