Paola Bernardini, a friend of mine who is Associate Director for Research, Contending Modernities, at the University Notre Dame, guest blogs in memory of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah:
Saudi Arabia is rated among the worst of the countries which restrict basic civil and political liberties. In this hereditary monarchy grounded on the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence, political parties are forbidden; the public practice of any religion other than Sunni Islam is restricted (including Shia Islam); women are not allowed to drive, nor to hold public office; the media is controlled by government and any opposition to the regime is severely punished with prison and corporal punishment.
And yet, the late King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, who died last week at the age of 91, was known to be a liberal. As last Friday’s New York Times columnist stated, “King Abdullah’s reign was a constant effort to balance desert traditions with the demands of the modern world.” In only 10 years, which is how long he officially ruled, he appointed the country’s first female deputy minister; started a Center for National Dialogue headed by “a 70-strong group of worthies, including, unusually for Saudi Arabia, Shias, women and some noted liberals,” with the role of discussing reform and introducing more tolerance for religious diversity within Saudi institutions; paid a visit to Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican (the first ever of a Saudi monarch); sponsored the creation of the Vienna Center for Interfaith Dialogue, which carries his name and has a board of directors with representatives of Judaism, Christianity and Hinduism; and created the first co-ed university on Saudi soil — KAUST, North of Jeddah — open to both Saudi and Western youth and faculty, where women can drive on campus, the religious police is not allowed and, according to rumors, non-Muslim have their own space for prayer. These few and yet important attempts at modernization are the reason why the death of King Abdullah bin-Aziz was received with sadness, even when news of a new Saudi blogger being detained in prison and sentenced to 1000 lashes merely for having expressed his political dissent on the web, was being circulated. Hopefully, the new King Salman, who has assumed the throne, will follow in his brother’s footsteps, no matter how strong the resistance on the part of the religious conservatives will be.