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The obscenity of calling Saudi King Abdullah a “reformer”

King Abdullah.
King Abdullah.
Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia's deceased King Abdullah, according to just about every obituary in major Western publications, was a reformer. The New York TimesWashington PostBBC, and NPR all describe Abdullah as a ruler committed to reforming Saudi Arabia's notoriously repressive practices. Sen. John McCain called Abdullah an advocate for peace; IMF head Christine Lagarde called him a "strong advocate for women."

But Abdullah did not, in fact, make any fundamental reforms to the Saudi state, which remains one of the most oppressive and inhumane on earth. It punishes dissidents, including currently with multiple rounds of publicly lashing a blogger, amputates hands and legs for robbery, and enforces a system of gender restrictions that make women not just second-class citizens, but in many ways the property of men. Abdullah's reputation as a reformer comes from some relatively limited policy shifts he made. Praising Abdullah as a reformer, in addition to being misleading, seems to imply that Saudi Arabia should be held to a lesser standard than the rest of humanity, and that its citizens should be somehow grateful for Abdullah's minor adjustments to a system that remains cruelly unjust.

Abdullah didn't challenge the basics of the Saudi state

saudi protest flogging

People protest at the Hague against Raif Badawi's 1000 lash sentence for speaking his mind in Saudi Arabia. (Martijn Beekman/AFP/Getty Images)

The Saudi political system, a blend of absolute monarchy and Islamic extremism, has one of the world's worst human rights records. There is no democracy and basic freedoms are limited. Detainees there, according to Human Rights Watch, "commonly face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest, and torture." Punishments including amputation, flogging, and beheading.

Political dissent is strictly forbidden. Just two weeks ago, Abdullah's government lashed blogger Raif Badawi 50 times for the "crime" of defending atheists. Badawi has been sentenced to 1000 lashes in total, and ten years in jail.

Under the so-called "guardianship" system, women have essentially no independent rights. "Girls and women are forbidden from traveling, conducting official business, or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardians," HRW explains. Women are de-facto prohibited from marrying without their permission from their "guardian."

In 2006, a Saudi court sentenced a rape victim to 90 lashes because she was in a car with a man she wasn't related to. When she spoke to the media about her case, her sentence was doubled.

King Abdullah did not attempt to fundamentally reform these practices or the system underlying them. "King Abdullah came to power promising reforms, but his agenda fell far short of achieving lasting institutional gains on basic rights for Saudi citizens," Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director of HRW, wrote this week.

Praising Abdullah on the basis of lowered standards

abdullah saudi

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah at the king's Riyadh Palace April 6, 2011 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Why have so many media outlets and prominent political leaders praised Abdullah as a reformer? By the standards set by other Saudi rulers, he did make an effort, if very modest, to do that. But Abdullah should be judged on the standard of what he actually accomplished, and not let off the hook because his peers managed to be even worse.

Human Rights Watch acknowledges that Abdullah made some actual effort in areas such as women's rights, religious and political freedom, and public transparency. He created scholarships for Saudi women to study abroad, pushed efforts to streamline the court system, and curtailed Saudi Arabia's dangerous support for Islamic extremism abroad.

That's not nothing. But it still barely scratches the surface of Saudi Arabia's problems.

This is partly because of systemic issues such as the state's religious character. Saudi Arabia is founded on a bargain between the al-Saud family and the Wahhabist clerical establishment, an Islamic fundamentalist movement with a particularly harsh interpretation of Islamic law. The Wahhabist establishment is still very powerful, and any Saudi monarch has to consider that.

Still, there's no excuse for sentencing a blogger to 1000 lashes for speaking his mind. There's no excuse for flogging rape victims, or sentencing women to prison simply for demanding the right to drive.

Abdullah may have been a reformer by the benchmark set by other Saudi monarchs. But the standards of Saudi royalty shouldn't be confused with moral ones.