For Saudis, Abdullah redefined what it means to be king

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz seen here in a file photo taken in Riyadh in 2007.

Story highlights

  • Until his passing, King Abdullah remained committed to articulating and implementing a clear vision for Saudi Arabia
  • Many remember the monarch for his foreign policy initiatives, including his plan for comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors
  • King allowed Saudis to follow his lead and speak with greater freedom about a range of issues

Fahad Nazer is a terrorism analyst with JTG Inc, an analysis and intelligence company in Virginia that has government and private clients -- including defense companies in the U.S. and abroad. Nazer is a former political analyst at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Foreign Policy, Yale Global Online and Al Monitor. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

(CNN)The passing of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz may not have come as a surprise -- his health had deteriorated in recent years -- but until the very end, the monarch was determined to leave an indelible imprint on the throne by articulating and implementing a clear vision for the country.

Abdullah also seemed to possess the political acumen necessary to adjust to the changing needs and increased political awareness of the Saudi populace, as well as to the shifting political realities in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Fahad Nazer
Abdullah didn't officially ascend until 2005, but he had been the de facto king since 1995, when his predecessor and half-brother Fahd's health started failing. It was Abdullah who had to steady the ship during the tumultuous aftermath of the September 11 attacks on the United States and subsequent terrorist attacks inside the kingdom in 2003 and 2004.
    The specter of terrorism not only forced some to question the foundation of Saudi Arabia's "special" relationship with the US, but also posed a serious threat to the stability of the regime by challenging its Islamic bona fides on which its entire claim to legitimacy rests.
    Although it was the late Interior Minister Naif Bin Abdulaziz and his successor who devised the kingdom's multi-pronged counter-terrorism strategy -- part security operation, part public awareness campaign -- that largely contained the threat from al Qaeda, Abdullah's resoluteness and assurances to Saudis and the international community should not be underestimated.

    Foreign policy initiatives

    Many might remember Abdullah for his foreign policy initiatives, including his plan for comprehensive peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors -- adopted first by the Arab League in 2002 and then again 2007 -- or his efforts to foster interfaith understanding by sponsoring international forums aimed at bringing together followers of various religions to stress their shared values, as his meeting with Pope Benedict in 2009 illustrated.
    But many Saudis are likely to think of him as the king who tried to dispel any lingering doubts about the validity of the narrative around which the state was founded: The idea of a Saudi "nation" and its concomitant notion of a unifying Saudi identity.
    Abdullah convinced many Saudis that they are not merely passive observers but rather stakeholders in a still-ongoing nation-building endeavor.
    Although he sometimes used the stern tenor of an avuncular patriarch -- as he did when he encouraged Saudis not to become their own worst enemy by questioning each other's loyalties -- the frank tone he often used in his speeches ushered in a new era, where Saudis of all walks of life felt more open to speak about not only what they considered to be the main impediments hindering the kingdom's development, but also some of the obstacles standing in the way of their own self-fulfilment.

    Liberalized voices

    Many in the Saudi media and burgeoning Saudi civil society, following the king's lead, felt emboldened to write and speak about subjects that were once considered off-limits, including extremism among some clerics, government corruption, the role of women, child and spousal abuse, and the soundness of the educational curriculum.
    That is not to say that red lines do not remain and that some have not crossed them and paid a price.
    The imprisonment of some outspoken advocates of reform in 2014 brought Saudi Arabia intense scrutiny from