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King Abdullah, First Saudi Ruler to Visit a Pope, Dead at 90

Pope Benedict XVI welcomes King Abdullah to the Vatican


Aleteia - published on 01/23/15

Meeting with Benedict XVI discussed Christians in Islamic kingdom.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who died Friday, was the first Saudi monarch to visit a Pope. Abdullah visited Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican in November 2007.

Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a powerful U.S. ally who fought against al-Qaida and sought to modernize the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom, including by nudging open greater opportunities for women, was 90.

More than his guarded and hidebound predecessors, Abdullah assertively threw his oil-rich nation’s weight behind trying to shape the Middle East. His priority was to counter the influence of rival, mainly Shiite Iran wherever it tried to make advances. He and fellow Sunni Arab monarchs also staunchly opposed the Middle East’s wave of pro-democracy uprisings, seeing them as a threat to stability and their own rule.

The king will be succeeded by his 79-year-old half-brother, Prince Salman, according to a royal court statement carried on the Saudi Press Agency. Salman was Abdullah’s crown prince and had recently taken on some of the ailing king’s responsibilities.

Abdullah was born in Riyadh in 1924, one of the dozens of sons of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. He was selected as crown prince in 1982 on the day his half-brother Fahd ascended to the throne. Abdullah became de facto ruler in 1995 when a stroke incapacitated Fahd. Abdullah was believed to have long rankled at the closeness of the alliance with the United States, and as regent he pressed Washington to withdraw the troops it had deployed in the kingdom since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The U.S. finally did so in 2003.

When the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks took place in the United States, Abdullah had to steer the alliance through the resulting criticism. The kingdom was home to 15 of the 19 hijackers, and many pointed out that the baseline ideology for al-Qaida and other groups stemmed from Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

When al-Qaida militants in 2003 began a wave of violence in the kingdom aimed at toppling the monarchy, Abdullah cracked down hard. For the next three years, security forces battled militants, finally forcing them to flee to neighboring Yemen. There, they created a new al-Qaida branch, and Saudi Arabia has played a behind-the-scenes role in fighting it.

Abdullah’s aim at home was to modernize the kingdom to face the future. One of the world’s largest oil exporters, Saudi Arabia is fabulously wealthy, but there are deep disparities in wealth and a burgeoning youth population in need of jobs, housing and education. More than half the current population of 20 million is under the age of 25. For Abdullah, that meant building a more skilled workforce and opening up greater room for women to participate. He was a strong supporter of education, building universities at home and increasing scholarships abroad for Saudi students.

Abdullah for the first time gave women seats on the Shura Council, an unelected body that advises the king and government. He promised women would be able to vote and run in 2015 elections for municipal councils, the only elections held in the country. He appointed the first female deputy minister in a 2009. Two Saudi female athletes competed in the Olympics for the first time in 2012, and a small handful of women were granted licenses to work as lawyers during his rule.

One of his most ambitious projects was a Western-style university that bears his name, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which opened in 2009. Men and women share classrooms and study together inside the campus, a major departure in a country where even small talk between the sexes in public can bring a warning from the morality police.

The changes seemed small from the outside but had a powerful resonance. Small splashes of variety opened in the kingdom — color and flash crept into the all-black abayas women must wear in public; state-run TV started playing music, forbidden for decades; book fairs opened their doors to women writers and some banned books.

But he treaded carefully in the face of the ultraconservative Wahhabi clerics who hold near total sway over society and, in return, give the Al Saud family’s rule religious legitimacy.

From the multiple conflicts in the region, Sunni-Shiite hatreds took on a life of their own, fueling Sunni militancy. Syria’s war helped give birth to the Islamic State group, which burst out to take over large parts of Syria and Iraq. Fears of the growing militancy prompted Abdullah to commit Saudi airpower to a U.S.-led coalition fighting the extremists.

At the time of Abdullah’s visit to Pope Benedict, the Vatican described the 30-minute private meeting as "warm" and said the two men discussed the presence and hard work of Christians in Saudi Arabia, according to a BBC report. The BBC pointed out that an estimated 1.5 million Christians lived in Saudi Arabia at that time, but that they were not allowed to worship publicly in the Islamic kingdom. 

An instance of that restriction came to the fore last September, when officers of the “Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice” responded to a report of “suspicious activities” in a neighboring house. The tip alleged that an Indian man had turned his residence into a church. Authorities surveilled the house and finally raided it on Sept. 5, arresting men, women and children. They also seized copies of the Bible and various musical instruments.

According to the BBC report on Abdulla’s visit to Pope Benecict,

The Vatican said the talks allowed a wide discussion on the need for religious and cultural dialogue among Christians, Muslims and Jews "for the promotion of peace, justice and spiritual and moral values, especially in support of the family."

Christians [working in the kingdom] complain that rules [regarding religious freedom] are not clear and hardline Muslim authorities sometimes crack down on legitimate congregations.

"The most important thing is to get the possibility to gather in freedom and security for our worship, our masses and our activities," said Bishop Paul Hinder, responsible for Catholics in Arabia, in an interview with Reuters news agency. 

In November 2008, Abdullah and his government were responsible for the "Peace of Culture" which took place at the United Nations General Assembly. It brought together Muslim and non-Muslim nations to eradicate preconceptions of Islam and Terrorism. It brought together world leaders, including former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Tony Blair, Israeli President Shimon Peres, U.S. President George W. Bush, and King Abdullah II of Jordan.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

IslamPope Benedict XVIReligious Freedom
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