Sa'ud, Abdullah Bin Abd al-Aziz al- (1924–)

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Sa'ud, Abdullah Bin Abd al-Aziz al-

Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz al Sa'ud is the king of Saudi Arabia. He is the eleventh son (and the fourth to succeed to the throne) of King Abd al-Aziz bin Abd al-Rahman al-Sa'ud, who founded the modern Saudi state in 1932.


Abdullah was born in Riyadh to Abd al-Aziz's eighth wife, Fahda bint Asi al Shuraym, of the Abdu section of

the Shammar tribe. She had earlier been married to the Rashidi ruler, Sa'ud, who was killed in 1920. After primary education at the Princes' School from religious authorities and intellectuals, Abdullah was entrusted with his first official post as governor of Mecca. In August 1962, King Faysal appointed him commander of the National Guard, a post he maintained for several years. King Khalid secured his eventual ascendance to the throne when he named Abdullah second deputy prime minister in March 1975. Even though Khalid's successor, King Fahd, preferred the defense minister, Prince Sultan, as his heir, he conferred the position, along with that of first deputy prime minister, on Abdullah in 1982 to maintain family harmony. Over the years, but especially after Fahd's incapacitating illness, Abdullah navigated the Byzantine al Sa'ud family politics with rare adroitness, pleasing most members. Ultimately, he managed the al Sa'ud as he managed his own extended families (he married several women who gave him at least ten sons and as many daughters).


The primary source of disagreement between Fahd and Abdullah throughout the 1980s was the question of political reforms. King Fahd repeatedly pushed for the rapid adoption of a Basic Law as well as the establishment of the long-promised Majlis al-Shura. Abdullah, on the other hand, made no public allusions to either before 1990. Of course, promises of basic political reforms were almost always associated with internal events that threatened the stability of the ruling family, including the epoch-making 1979 takeover by Islamic militants of the Grand Mosque in Mecca. These pronouncements may well have been designed to appease internal opposition, but the monarch's endorsement of such reforms appealed to the loyalties of various disenfranchised groups, while Abdullah's lukewarm position alienated others.


Name: Abdullah bin Abd al-aziz al Sa'ud

Birth: 1924, Riyadh

Family: Ten known sons, including Mit'ab and Khalid (both Sandhurst graduates who serve as deputy commanders of the National Guard), Abd al-Aziz, Faysal, Sultan, Turki, Mish'al, Fahd, Sa'ud, and Mansur; ten known daughters, Fahda, Nayifa, Aliyya, 'Adila, Nuf, Sita, Sayfa, 'Abir, Sara, and Hayfa

Nationality: Saudi Arabian

Education: Court and religious education


  • 1951: Appointed governor of Mecca by King Abd al-Aziz
  • 1962: Appointed commander of the National Guard by King Faysal
  • 1975: Appointed second deputy prime minister by King Khalid
  • 1982: Designated heir apparent and first deputy prime minister by King Fahd
  • 1985: Establishes al-Janadriyya, the annual National Heritage and Culture Festival
  • 1985: Founds the Equestrian Club in Riyadh
  • 1995: Designated regent after King Fahd suffers a stroke
  • 2005: Becomes king, custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, and prime minister; remains commander of National Guard


The seven sons of the Hassah bint Ahmad al-Sudayri, led by the late King Fahd, form a formidable alliance within the al Sa'ud dynasty. In 2007, this sub-clan was led by Sultan, who was also heir apparent and Minister of Defense, and included Abdul Rahman (who reportedly handled family finances), Nayif (Minister of the Interior), Turki (another leading businessman), Salman (governor of Riyadh), and Ahmad (Deputy Minister of the Interior). Whether by luck or by design, the political fortunes of the "Sudayri Six" or, as they are now known, the "al Sultan," have been closely linked. For example, as Minister of Defense, Sultan welcomed—perhaps even encouraged—his younger brother Turki's appointment as his deputy in July 1969. Similarly, when King Fahd was Minister of the Interior (1963–1975), he promoted Nayif as his deputy in June 1970. Not surprisingly, when Nayif became Minister of the Interior in 1975, the youngest of the full brothers, Ahmad, was advanced to the deputy post.

Another point of disagreement between Fahd and Abdullah in the 1980s concerned the overall organization of Saudi Arabia's defense and security establishment.

King Fahd and Prince Sultan made a number of efforts to undercut Abdullah's institutional base, either with proposals to merge various forces under full army command or restrict the National Guard to light weapons that would reduce it to a police force rather than the paramilitary organization it is. For his part, Sultan frequently advocated the establishment of a national conscription program, which would have deprived Abdullah of bedouin recruits for the Guard. Throughout the 1980s, Abdullah resisted these efforts, and the advance in his political standing in the 1990s corresponded with new plans to increase the size and strength of the Guard. Critical commitments made to the regular military and the Guard took on concrete forms in the aftermath of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing 1991 Gulf War.

Following that war, the ruling family became sensitive to both domestic and international pressure for liberalizing reforms. Against a new trend of open challenges and calls for reforms from liberal voices, the monarch nominated sixty leading citizens to a Majlis al-Shura. In this endeavor, Fahd was supported by his heir, who, true to al Sa'ud traditions, rallied behind his ruler to ward off opposition.

The 1992 Edict

On 1 March 1992, King Fahd addressed his subjects on television and issued several key documents, including the Basic Law of Government, the statutes governing the newly created Majlis al-Shura, and the Law of the Provinces. The monarch's decision was propelled by the rising tide of internal opposition, as well as the repercussions of the Gulf War; it was meant to appear to be a step toward a process of institutional change. One of Fahd's last decisions was to expand the membership of the Majlis from 120 to 150, indicating its acceptance by Saudi elites.

The Basic Law of Government was divided into nine main sections, dealing with the general principles of the state, the law of government, the values of Saudi society, the country's economic principles, the various rights and duties of citizens, the authority of the state, financial affairs, auditing authorities, and general provisions.

The section of the Basic Law dealing with the succession "was of greatest interest and proved to be a bombshell both within and outside the ruling family," according to Simon Henderson in After King Fahd: Succession in Saudi Arabia (p. 21). The most controversial part, which provided that "rulers of the country shall be from amongst the sons of the founder … and their descendants," stated that "the most upright among them shall receive allegiance according to the Holy Qur'an and the Sunna of the Prophet (Peace be upon him)." The last line, imposing a qualification ("the most upright") was telling. One interpretation was that seniority was no longer the primary qualification for succession and that other considerations strengthened a candidate's eligibility. A further clause stated that "the King shall choose the Heir Apparent and relieve him by a Royal Decree." Without a doubt, this last line threatened the balance of power within the royal family, foreshadowing the authority of the heir apparent, or crown prince.

After Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke in late 1995, Abdullah, the crown prince, was designated regent. Fahd never fully recovered, although he formally resumed his duties in 1996. By the time he died in 2005 and Abdullah succeeded him, Abdullah had effectively been the sole ruler of the country for almost a decade.

National Dialogue

The 2003 American war in Iraq sent shock waves throughout the Gulf region as it shifted the regional balance of power. This regional change took on a specific character in Saudi Arabia because of the kingdom's custodianship of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina. The presence of these holy sites compelled Riyadh to remain exquisitely conscious of its responsibilities to the Muslim world, especially its Sunni component. The last great regional power shift—the 1979 Iranian Revolution—had precipitated important changes in domestic policies throughout the Muslim world, so there was good reason to anticipate similar changes in 2003. However, the desire for political reforms did not spread through the ultraconservative ruling family. Rather, public discourse took on a new dimension—in the form of petitions calling for a movement toward a constitutional monarchy—which redefined how Saudis accessed authority. Sophisticated supplications, addressed to the monarch and the crown prince, became both frequent and public. From early 2003, prominent Saudi reformers, led by Abdullah al-Hamid, argued that the best way to counter the spread of Muslim extremist ideas was to transform the kingdom into a constitutional monarchy. Hamid, along with matruk al-falih, Ali al-Diminni, and thirteen other activists were arrested in March 2004, although only the three named individuals were still in custody by mid-2005 when Abdullah, after acceding to the throne, pardoned them. In general, Saudi reformists adopted pacific steps, bordering on the reverential, toward the ruling family. Although their demands challenged the ruler's absolute power, Abdullah deemed it necessary to meet with leading petition signatories, and authorized a process of dialogue by way of a partial rejoinder. Since December 2003, several rounds of National Dialogue were held to discuss, at times with unabashed frankness, sensitive questions. Saudis from all walks of life debated religious differences, education concerns, some of the causes of extremism, gender matters, and municipal elections.

Municipal elections

The National Dialogues set the tone for fundamental changes facing Saudi Arabia. The next step was the unhurried introduction of municipal elections, starting in Riyadh on 10 February 2005 and followed by the Eastern Province and several southern provinces in early March. These concluded following elections in the west and north in April. The elections (75% turnout for registered voters in Riyadh) proved far more popular than anticipated. Yet, and not surprisingly, conservative, pro-clerical candidates won most seats, illustrating the intricacies of democratization. Although holders of half of the 178 municipal posts would eventually be appointed, not elected, a significant precedent was established when ordinary Saudis flocked to polling stations, leading observers to foresee an elected Majlis in the future.

Abdullah was somewhat fortunate during his first year as king because he assumed rulership as the government's treasury was relatively healthy and growing steadily. With new and contemplated massive investments in the oil sector, Riyadh considered its unemployment and poverty problems—priorities identified by the new monarch in his inaugural address—as containable threats to long-term internal stability, even if the economy needed to create several million new jobs over the following two decades. He was also fortunate that the Saudi public turned against terrorists spreading havoc throughout the Kingdom. Several hundred individuals have been killed in Saudi Arabia since 2003, and Saudi citizens have mostly supported the state's enforcement of the country's stringent anti-terrorism laws, even if its methods are drastic and overbearing. Whatever arguments liberal reformers have advanced have paled in comparison with conservative pressure to impose law and order. Abdullah has successfully pushed establishment clergymen against the wall, forcing thousands into "reeducation camps," cajoling others to tone down inflammatory rhetoric, and setting clear limits to acceptable behavior.

Foreign Policy Since 2005

Until the Gulf War, Abdullah maintained a cold attitude toward Western powers in general and the United States in particular. His attitude improved somewhat once he saw Washington make good on its promise to support the monarchy by intervening successfully after Baghdad's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Once he formally became king in mid-2005, Abdullah's attitude toward the West and the United States underwent significant improvement, but is still no better than lukewarm.

Abdullah is not given to his predecessor's dangerous adventurism. Unlike Fahd, who welcomed over half a million foreign troops into the kingdom in 1990, and later allowed an unpopular long-term U.S. military presence, Abdullah quickly signaled that he would not join George W. Bush's post-9/11 crusade in the Muslim world. Even when a marginal Rand Corporation analyst called on the United States to invade Saudi Arabia and seize its oil fields in July 2003 as a punishment for its lack of cooperation, Abdullah retained his stoicism. Riyadh would not abandon its pro-Muslim and pro-Arab commitments.

The United States and the West

Nevertheless, and despite significant efforts by both sides, Saudi-American ties were in deep crisis by the time Abdullah became king. To be sure, serious cooperation continued in counterterrorism, regional defense concerns, and the security of long-term American access to reasonably priced oil supplies, but the critical trust element was now openly questioned. Abdullah was not concerned about established ties between executive branches but with the disastrous public perceptions fueled by woefully biased attitudes toward Muslims in general and Saudis in particular. Saudi Arabia under Abdullah is perceived by Western elites as a foe that cannot be fully trusted and Abdullah cannot afford to seem pro-American in front of his increasingly awakened population when American policies in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine are contrary to their sentiments and perceived long-term interests.

China and India

It was partly this erosion in Saudi-American contacts that prompted Abdullah to embark on his historic visits to China and India. Chinese president Hu Jintao welcomed him at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on 23 January 2006, declaring that the trip, the monarch's first foreign journey after his accession to the throne, opened a new chapter in Sino-Saudi relations. The two governments signed five agreements, including a landmark pact for expanding cooperation in oil, natural gas, and minerals exploration. As Foreign Minister Sa'ud al-Faysal underscored, "China is one of the most important markets for oil and Saudi oil is one of the most important sources of energy for China." The dramatic progress in cooperation between these governments is a recent phenomenon, as diplomatic ties were established only in 1990, but it was largely produced by Western antagonisms toward Saudi Arabia and the Sunni world.

If the January voyage inaugurated a new era in Sino-Saudi relations, then the 22 April 2006 visit of President Hu to Riyadh, immediately following a stop in the United States, solidified the relationship even further. Importantly, the Chinese expanded their discussions to include Middle East regional issues, including developments in Iraq and Palestine. President Hu became the second foreign leader, after President Jacques Chirac of France, to address the Majlis al-Shura, when he offered Chinese assistance in resolving regional conflicts. This was a direct challenge to Washington's hegemonic role in the region.

No matter how interpreted, Abdullah recognized that the kingdom's ties with China were now on a different level, evolving dramatically to reflect China's growing economic and political strength and its consequent new relationship toward Arabs, Muslims, Islam, and Middle Eastern oil.


In 2007, Abdullah and the world are faced with a new crisis brewing in the Persian Gulf region as Iran's nuclear aspirations are realized. For Saudis, this crisis potentially allies them with the West against neighboring Muslim Iran. How Abdullah is tackling this dangerous situation may foretell future Saudi-Iranian and Saudi-Western relations.


From this sacred land, the birthplace of our Prophet, has sprung forth the call to Islam, proclaiming the oneness and unity of the Creator, ending man's enslavement of man, and exhorting the principles of equality, right and justice. Thus was this call able to reach the farthest ends of the globe, East and West, by persuasion through just values and good example, and not by dint of the sword, as those deliberately ignore or fail to apprehend the truth, insist on claiming.

Let us recall what a radiant beacon our Islamic civilization was in lighting the way forth for other civilizations, offering them a fine example of the spirit of tolerance and justice, and leading humanity forward through its singular achievements in jurisprudence, intellectual endeavors, the sciences, and literature. Indeed, it is these major contributions that provided the decisive catalyst in bringing enlightenment to the dark ages.

… It is heartbreaking for us to see how our glorious civilization slipped from the exalted graces of dignity to the ravines of frailty. How painful that the ideology sprouted forth by criminal minds has unleashed wanton evil and corruption on earth, and that the ranks of our one Ummah—united in the lofty heights of its glory—have turned into helplessness.

… Let us bid farewell to the age of division and disintegration in order to usher in a new era of unity and dignity by relying first on Allah and then on patience and hard work.

… Islamic unity will not be achieved by bloodletting as the miscreants—in their misguided waywardness—insist on claiming.

Fanaticism and extremism cannot grow on an earth whose soil is embedded in the spirit of tolerance, moderation, and balance. It is here that the Islamic Fiqh Academy, with its overhauled makeup, comes in to assume its historic role and responsibility in resisting the extremist ideology in all its forms and manifestations.

Furthermore, a gradual approach to this end is the way forward to ensure success, which starts with consultation in all walks of life—political, economic, cultural, and social domains—to reach a stage of solidarity and, God willing, to a true and fortified unity worked through strong institutions so as to restore the Ummah to its rightful place in the balance of power.

… You may agree with me that developing educational curricula, and improving them, is a fundamental prerequisite to building a Muslim personality. Steeped in tolerance, such a personality would lay the foundations for a society that rejects isolationism and turns its back on courting hostility to the other by interacting with all humanity, adopting what is good and rejecting what is bad.

Dear brothers: I look forward to a United Muslim Umma and good governance that eliminate injustice and oppression for the sake of the comprehensive Muslim development that eradicates destitution and poverty. I also look forward to the spread of moderation that embodies the Islamic concept of tolerance. Moreover, I look forward to Muslim inventors and industrialists, to an advanced Muslim technology, and Muslim youth who work for their life just as they work for the Hereafter, without excess or negligence, without any kind of extremism.



King Abdullah is perceived as a serious ruler outside Saudi Arabia because he has addressed many challenges and engaged in genuine debates on a slew of key questions, including tolerance, national unity, and reform. In Muslim, Arab, and international forums, he has developed good listening as well as persuasive skills. Abdullah repeatedly insists that Riyadh will combat regional, tribal, and ideological discord and has instituted policies that stand with fellow Muslim, Arab, and international governments against terrorism. A savvy statesman who can work the tribal tent as well as confidently as any politician, Abdullah has always paid careful attention to his people, aware of the source of his legitimacy. A pious individual of personal integrity, he is respected by Saudi elites, among whom he enjoys tremendous personal popularity.


With the full power of the monarchy, Abdullah has instituted mild, incremental political reforms and pursued economic integration into the global capitalist economy, symbolized by its membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Emboldened by his relative first-year success, Abdullah was determined to take advantage of opportunities facilitated by the petrodollar windfall of recent years. Toward that end, he has allocated significant resources to infrastructure, building railroads, improving airports, erecting new cities, and encouraging foreign investment, which topped $600 billion by early 2006. These initiatives imply that Saudi Arabia intends to be the center of the Gulf region, and one of the major economic forces in the world, despite political challenges.

In the key area of oil production, Saudi Arabia under King Abdullah has increased capacity to meet demand, especially from China and India. Abdullah has supported a sustained production level precisely to guarantee a Saudi role as the ultimate stabilizer of world petroleum prices.


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                                        Joseph Kechichian