King Abdullah Raises the Bar for Next Generation of Leaders


Over the last quarter century, the kingdom has gone through nothing short of a complete transformation. For one, the near tripling of its population has created new and dramatic demographic challenges. The Saudis also realized that oil is too volatile of a commodity to be relied on almost solely as a source of economic growth.  In addition, the kingdom faced a serious threat to its internal stability when Islamist militants launched terrorist attacks in May 2003. Confronted with these daunting challenges, Abdullah spearheaded a campaign that includes political, economic and social reforms in an effort to resolve some of the kingdom’s long-festering problems and prepare the Saudi people to embrace the realities of an increasingly interdependent international community and a competitive global economy.

The questions surrounding royal succession have lead to much speculation over the years and formalizing the process will create a much needed sense of stability and predictability about who the future leaders of the kingdom will be and how they will be chosen. Of most concern to Saudis and outside observers of the kingdom was who would become king once the current generation of senior princes has moved on. The process and manner by which the first “next generation” king was going to be chosen was the subject of much consternation for regular Saudis and no doubt for the royals themselves.

The fact that the new Allegiance Commission will have the power to remove a sitting king or crown prince from power if he is deemed unfit to rule, is bound to have a significant and lasting impact over how future kings view their own role and powers and how those around them and the Saudi people at large perceive the king. The new high premium on competence and ability to lead and the realization that once boundless prerogatives could be stripped at any given moment should bring some renewed energy to the top two political seats in the kingdom. While there is little doubt that the king will still yield a tremendous amount of power, creating the semblance of a checks and balances system should bring much needed accountability and transparency to the political system. 

At a recent event on US-Saudi relations in Washington, DC, Saudi Ambassador to the United States Turki Al Faisal made a point to inform those gathered of the importance of the new rules on succession. In fact, he made itt clear that he changed his previously prepared speech and instead chose to highlight this latest development. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the prince spoke with pride about the new commission, adding that the translation of the new body as an allegiance commission is a “misnomer” because the word allegiance connotes obedience more than anything else. Instead, the ambassador wanted the audience to think of it more as a contract or compact between the people and ruler in which the ruler has a responsibility to the people and ultimately to God. 

The public rhetoric stressing duties and responsibilities of the ruler as well the importance of responding to the “will of the people” and meeting their need  is  being used with increasing frequency by senior Saudi officials.  The fact that this new commission sits in judgment of the king and crown prince and decides whether he is fulfilling his duties in accordance with the Bayaa is certainly a novel concept in the Saudi context. For all intents and purposes, the king had always been viewed as essentially infallible but now, the ruling family is acknowledging that seniority should not be the main factor in  determining who gets to rule over the kingdom and its twenty six million inhabitants or for how long.   Although it remains to be seen how smooth the next series of royal successions will be, one thing is more certain: King Abdullah has raised the bar significantly for the next generation of leaders and dramatically changed what it means to be the king of Saudi Arabia.

There is little doubt that Abdullah enjoys a tremendous amount of popularity across a wide segment of society.  Not only do many regular Saudis view him as a father figure who has guided the nation through a difficult period with wisdom, pragmatism and patience but even critics of the kingdom – Saudis and foreigners alike – seem to have  praise for the king or at the very least have never been critical of him on a personal level. There is no doubt that his reputation as a humble, fair and pious man go along way towards explaining Abdullah’s popularity.

Visitors to the kingdom speak of little girls walking around malls with King Abdullah buttons on their clothes. Saudi women, Shia and even Saudi youth seem to have nothing but praise for him. Unlike most unelected monarchs in the world, Abdullah seems to view himself as a man of the people and most Saudis view him in that light as well. His pardoning of imprisoned reformers and reversing of inexplicably harsh sentences handed out by ultraconservative religious judges have enhanced his reputation for fairness and ingrained the idea that nothing is more in accordance with Islamic precepts than mercy and forgiveness.  Abdullah also banned the long practice of people kissing the monarchs hand, adding that no self-respecting Muslim should show such reverence to anyone other than God.

Whether it’s his agreement to meet reformers with petitions for change, religious minorities asking more recognition or women asking for more opportunities, Abdullah has put a high premium on listening to all sorts of Saudis and on being receptive to their advice and suggestions. His actions and rhetoric over the years have indicated that the relationship between ruler and people is changing.  Not only are Saudi leaders more willing to discuss the responsibilities of the leadership but they also seem to have realized that increased civic engagement among the Saudi people is a sign of the changing realities of the kingdom and that this political awareness should be harnessed in a constructive manner and not suppressed. By expanding majllis Al Shura, creating the National Dialogue conferences and allowing the elections to half the seats in nationwide municipal councils, Abdullah realized the importance of opening up the political space and allowing Saudis to play a more important role in the future of their country.


Although the challenge of Islamist radicals and militants has been characterized as the most serious to his reign, Abdullah has been widely praised for the manner in which he has handled the threat. While the specter of a future terrorist attack in the kingdom remains strong, most security analysts seem to be in agreement that the Saudi security forces seem to  have the upper hand in the battle with militants and that Al Qaeda and its affiliates have lost not only members but supporters and sympathizers.  However the security component is only part of the campaign to root out militants. Just as importantly, Saudi officials have tried and largely succeeded in winning the battle of ideas with the militants.  Abdullah himself has repeatedly stressed that Islam is a religion of peace, moderation and tolerance.


On more than one occasion, Abdullah displayed a willingness to speak with unusual candor about subjects that were once only reserved for private conversations behind closed doors.  Whether it is militancy, unemployment or government budget deficits, the king made it necessary for future leaders to adopt the same openness in speaking about the challenges that confront the kingdom.  Just as importantly, Abdullah does not seem to shy away from asking the Saudi people to acknowledge their own shortcomings or  expecting them to make some sacrifices. On other occasions, the  king felt it necessary to be critical of Arab leaders, himself included, for not resolving some of the problems that have long plagued the region. At the same time, he has recognized the value of maintaining open lines of communication and cordial relations with all neighboring countries as well as the west.


In short, the new rules on succession add to the already impressive achievements of king Abdullah. Perhaps even more important than tangible accomplishments is the change that the king brought to the political culture of Saudi Arabia. Those of us who have observed the kingdom over the past five years or so can not help but be encouraged that although the pace of reform has been slow and methodical, over time, it seems to have lead to a paradigm shift. Saudis are redefining their responsibility as citizens in society and reconsidering what role they should play in helping the kingdom move forward while adjusting to new realities and preserving its traditions. Afer the new succession amendment, future Saudi leaders will have to redefine their roles as well.

This Article was published at the StraitsTimes

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