A legacy of likability: King Abdullah
A legacy, according to the daily use of the word, is the impression that he/she leaves on others’ hearts and minds after a brief or long-term encounter. It is either a soothing feeling to the soul, or a sour feeling that upsets the soul. Moreover, the encounter can be either personal (e.g., dyadic relationships — fiancé and wife) or direct (e.g., friends, workmates and classmates) or mediated by media outlets and second persons (e. g., public figures in the areas of business, arts, entertainment, sports and the likes).
Our assessment of those public figures, including politicians, is not usually objective as many would expect. It is entirely tainted with our subjective feelings, specifically, our liking for a public figure no matter what his/her capacity. This is an accepted scientific fact in the areas of political and social sciences. As a result, political campaigners, pollsters and advertisement agencies put a lot of time and efforts in vigorously studying the “likability” factor of a public figure.
One can deduce that our assessment of our public figures, in most part, is based on the feelings that we have for them in our hearts rather than our minds, even in the most critical assessment, such as of our leaders. This political and social fact has come to be known in the first televised US presidential debate in 1960 between Vice President Richard Nixon and Sen. John F. Kennedy. This debate drew over 66 million viewers of a population of 179 million Americans.
Although, Nixon was a vice president, Sen. Kennedy won the presidential debate and eventually the US presidency. Many political and social scholars claim that the “likability” of Kennedy was the decisive factor in his winning of the US presidency, especially his looks on television. Similarly, for this reason, George W. Bush, Texas governor, won the presidential debate with Vice President Al Gore in 2000. Many believe that President Bush’s accessibility to the American people, who can relate to him as one of them, “Good Ole’ Country Boy,” won him the US presidency.
As we commemorate Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah’s accession to the throne on 25th Jumada Al-Thani 1426H/Aug. 1, 2005, as the sixth king of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it is time to reflect on our king’s legacy that affects the future of the country and Saudi people. This reflection involves the king’s likability, his public domestic policies and his international public policy. By examining this three-level analysis, one could contemplate where Saudi Arabia is heading forward.
It is already established that the “likability” of a public figure is determined by several factors, most importantly, accessibility to the people. King Abdullah’s accessibility emanates from his natural personal feeling that he is one of his people, and this can be detected in his actions and sayings. Most Saudis still remember his surprise visits, when he was a Crown Prince, to some Saudi families in their homes to inquire about their livelihoods, and his intermingling with Saudis and nonSaudis in public shopping malls talking and breaking bead with them at one dining table, “fool and tamees,” and passing food around the people.
These public visits could have political backlashes, especially those visits to some Saudi poor families, in the light of the Saudi strong economic status as an oil-producing country. But, this shows the political realism practiced by King Abdullah. Poverty is a universal phenomenon. It will continue as long as humanity exists, and it could be found in the richest country in the world. Acknowledgment of this phenomenon, however, only shows the government’s determination to solve it, or contain it to its lowest levels.
On the other hand, the indirect impact is that those visits worked as an adhesive that bonds together the leadership with the people by eliminating the psychological aura that usually separates a royalty and commoner in other countries, and at the same time, both are showing mutual respect. The king never appeared as if he is any different from his people by maintaining a power-distance from them, and with personal comfort and ease people of different nationalities were hugging him and holding his hands.
Saudis and non-Saudis alike, in turn, celebrated the king’s presence among them in various ways. With no government pre-arranged political advertisements, the Saudi masses made their own pictures, pins, stickers of the king, with symbols that best describe their personal perceptions and sentiments. All of these symbolic representations of him manifested in snapshots and texts can be seen on their cars, textbooks, notebooks, homes and national attire. These are indications of their natural affection for the king.
People’s likability of King Abdullah is evidently present in the snapshots and the texts selected that convey symbolic meanings, representing their heartfelt feelings toward him. The snapshots display the king putting a Saudi-style trimmed beard that most of our fathers and grandfathers prefer. The texts repeatedly say: “The Falcon of Arabism”. Both snapshots and texts convey a meaning of a continuation of an immense pride in the Saudi rich heritage. The narrative of this heritage can be found in Saudi folklore and history textbooks passed on from one generation to another. A narrative that emphasis nobility, cavalry, bravery, hospitality, and generosity, and, in their eyes, King Abdullah is a representation of those genuine Arab qualities.
With respect to the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’ public domestic policies, it can be explored by examining the underlying objectives of development policy during the king’s reign. His government has presented generous budget in previous years, and the last budget was historical in all aspects. This budget covers major projects involving formal and higher education, health care, housing, welfare programs and basic infrastructure.
Thus, King Abdullah’s domestic public policy is focused on extensive human development programs and aims at raising living standards of the Saudi citizens. For instance, higher education policy equally covers human development of male and female students by establishing new universities and colleges and expanding the existing ones; providing the opportunity to both sexes to travel abroad on scholarships for undergraduate and graduate studies, and granting them financial assistance to enroll in private local universities and colleges.
This is an indication that Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques is giving his attention to the empowerment of Saudi women, first, through education, and then expanding their role in public life. Moreover, various social programs were initiated to address unemployment and poverty. Those programs would take their due time in achieving their desired objectives, but soon, by the will of Allah, the Saudi society would be distinctly characterized by highly educated Saudis that are enjoying high levels of living standards.
As for King Abdullah’s international public policy, Saudi Arabia remained consistent in supporting Arab and Muslim solidarity. However, the most significant international political crises that Saudi Arabia unexpectedly faced were the strained political relationship with the United States after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; and the recent diplomatic crisis with the Republic of Egypt, which led to the recall of the Saudi ambassador to Cairo. These two political crises involved two countries that Saudi Arabia has long-standing strategic relationships with.
King Abdullah’s management of these two crises shows his political realism and statesmanship. In contrast to what some leaders might choose to manage similar crises, King Abdullah’s style exhibits personal character and extreme political maturity. It is a style that attests to his wisdom and farsightedness in reconstructing admirably good diplomatic relationships with two vital allies of Saudi Arabia with least consequences. Nonetheless, Iran’s threat to Saudi Arabia and Arabian Gulf countries’ security remains a pressing and annoying geopolitical situation that needs to be resolved in the same fashion.
With the guidance of Almighty Allah, and then the good will and affection that hold Saudis with their king, we can together navigate through the troubled local and international seas to the shores of progress and prosperity.
Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Zuhayyan is a Saudi academician based in Riyadh
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view