The Islamic Civilization and Societies Program and The East European Studies Program continued their Lecture Series with featured guest Ford M. Fraker, former U.S. smbassador to Saudi Arabia. Currently, Fraker serves as the president of the Middle East Policy Council, a non-profit organization that analyzes all issues that affect U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Fraker’s talk, “Saudi Leadership Transition: Opportunities and Challenges,” discussed Saudi Arabian international relations, royal leadership, and current events. Fraker discussed the recent passing of Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, who died on Jan. 23, 2015. His successor, Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, was crowned as new king that same day. In addition, Muqrin bin Abdulaziz became Crown Prince while Muhammad bin Nayef became Deputy Crown Prince. The speedy transition speaks to the nature of the Saudi Arabian government and hereditary line of rule, Fraker said.
Within that first week, King Salman issued 30 royal decrees, reconfiguring the administration of Saudi Arabia. Much of his legislation influenced major points of interest such as the role of women, education, and religion.
Historically, women have not often had the rights to enter into the educational sphere in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah, however, chose to reform legislation regarding women’s rights, he said.
“When he was first crowned in 2005, King Salman appointed the first woman minister ever of Saudi Arabia,” Fraker said. “When he first came in 2005, women could have two jobs: nurses or teachers. Now, women in Saudi Arabia can be bankers, lawyers, doctors, etc. He also appointed thirty women to the Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia.”
The Consultative Assembly of Saudi Arabia is the formal advisory body that review, debate and pass on every single piece of legislation that is passed into law. Cynics argue that all members of the Saudi Consultative Assembly are appointed—however, the appointed parliament has more American individuals with MBA’s and PhD’s than there are in both houses of U.S. Congress. These educated individuals served as King Abdullah’s think tank.
King Abdullah’s progressive decrees also improved education. Today, approximately 70 percent of students at Saudi Arabian universities are female, demonstrating how effective women’s rights legislation had been in previous years, Fraker said.
King Abdullah even formulated the King Abdullah Scholarship Program, which offers educational opportunities for both men and women students who wish to pursue degrees. Additionally, King Abdullah is known for his educational initiatives because of self-named co-educational research university, he said.
“Probably the event that most people attach to King Abdullah on the education sphere is his creation of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which is a graduate school and he insisted that it be fully co-ed,” Fraker said. “This was a revolutionary notion in Saudi Arabia. One of the clerics who opposed this was literally fired five hours later, which was an indication as to how strongly the king felt about this.”
The choice to fire a critic of his education decree demonstrated King Abdullah’s power with the people. In addition, he felt comfortable enough to push back the Saudi Arabian religious institutions in the name of educational reform, which revealed how important the topic was to the king.
King Abdullah pushed for peace, as seen in his 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which was an attempt to end the Arab-Israel conflict.
“U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State have been known to look at this initiative as a blueprint regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it should be solved,” Fraker said.
Although King Abdullah was a strong proponent for education reform, he also wanted to transform the religious environment. In 2007, he met with Pope Benedict XVI in a meeting that had been expected to last 10 minutes but actually went over an hour, he said.
“The interfaith dialogues initiative was an issue very close to King Abdullah’s heart, which was rooted in his meeting with the Pope,” Fraker said. “It did not really matter whose god they believed in, but the world would be a better place if people believed in a god.”
The interfaith dialogue initiative served as a way to bring together people of all different beliefs and backgrounds. Instead of promoting one theology over another, the dialogue initiative was meant to implement understanding between different groups of people to increase acceptance.
Succeeding the death of King Abdullah, King Salman came to power and is widely known for his dedication to Saudi tribes and his disciplinarian personality. As governor of Riyadh for 50 years, King Salman had learned to be a decisive leader. His appointed Crown Prince Muqrin and Deputy Crown Prince Muhammad both speak English and are known for their hard work and determination, Fraker said.
“The regime has continued to stay secure because they have spent the duration of their regime improving and observing the Saudi people,” Fraker said. “After watching the downfall of many other forms of government, the Al Saud family has learned and improved and hopes to continue to do so for the sake of the Saudi people.”
Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Staff