The Current

'Reformer' & 'moderate': A look at the former Saudi king's legacy

Western leaders past and present were quick to praise the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia last week, prompting some to ask if they were talking about the same kingdom ... the one known for beheadings, radical Islam and restrictions on women. Today, we're tracking the manouvres of the New King in a country where the ties that bind can...
At his funeral last week, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia was remembered as a modernizer and a reformer. That may clash with your understanding of the country's human rights record. But those who know the country best, would like to set the record straight. (Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters)

Western leaders past and present were quick to praise the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia last week, prompting some to ask if they were talking about the same kingdom ... the one known for beheadings, radical Islam and restrictions on women. Today, we're tracking the manouvres of the New King in a country where the ties that bind can sometimes blind.

When Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah was laid to rest at a funeral last week, it was a ceremony attended by world leaders from far and wide. U.S. president, Barack Obama, even cut short his trip to India to get there to pay his respects. And a common theme in the many eulogies heard for King Abdullah, was that he had been a "moderate" and a "reformer" on the throne.

Now, "moderate" and "reformer" might sound to many Western ears like unlikely characterizations of the former King. After all, Saudi Arabia has a well-documented record of curtailing women's rights, repressing religious minorities, punishing criminals with floggings, amputations and beheadings ... and systematically exporting an extreme, ultra-conservative view of Islamic thought. But many who watch Saudi Arabia most closely insist that's only one way of looking at the situation.

So as the new King -- Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud -- settles in and takes the reins, we convened some people who take the long view of what's happening in Saudi Arabia.

  • Bernard Haykel is a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.

  • Hossam Shobokshi is a Saudi citizen who has been watching the changes in Saudi society from his home in Jeddah.

This segment was produced by The Current's Naheed Mustafa.

Last Word: Manal al-Sharif

We've been talking about Saudi Arabia, and whether the late King Abdullah should be understood as a reformer. Manal al-Sharif leaves little doubt about her credentials as a Saudi reformer.

You might remember her from 2011 when she rocked the boat in Saudi Arabia by driving a car. She uploaded video of the act to Facebook, and found herself in hot water with authorities. Then, when her demonstration went viral online, the Saudis had to explain why women are forbidden to drive.

Here is Manal al-Sharif's Ted Talk: A Saudi woman who dared to drive

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