x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

In Saudi Arabia, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown

An interview with one of his sons that reveals rare insights into King Abdullah's daily life, the king is said to be greatly affected by the suffering of the Syrian people and problems faced by his citizens. Elizabeth Dickinson reports

An interview with King Abdullah's son depicts the Saudi ruler as personally involved in the fate of his country and a region in transition. Reuters
An interview with King Abdullah's son depicts the Saudi ruler as personally involved in the fate of his country and a region in transition. Reuters

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah is greatly affected by the suffering of the Syrian people and problems such as unemployment and lack of housing faced by his citizens, according to rare insights into the ruler's daily life and his concerns offered by one of his sons.

The interview with Prince Miteb bin Abdullah depicts the Saudi ruler as personally involved in the fate of his country and a region in transition.

The interview, published yesterday and Saturday in the Saudi Gazette and its sister publication in Arabic, Okaz, also shed light on the Saudi ruler's personal involvement in attempting to end the Syrian crisis.

The Saudi monarch "hurts inside when he watches Syrian citizens killed by Syrians", said Prince Miteb, who is also minister of state and commander of the National Guard.

"The king has not spared any efforts to resolve the Syrian crisis," the prince said. "In the beginning, he sent countless letters to the Syrian president and sent many officials to meet him and made continuous phone calls to warn him about the gravity and danger of the situation. Regrettably, with no avail."

The king's personal appeal to the Syrian president adds context to the kingdom's continuing role as an outspoken advocate for the Syrian opposition. King Abdullah first condemned the regime just months into the initial protests in August 2011, calling on the Bashar Al Assad to "stop the killing machine". Since then, Saudi Arabia has been at the forefront of diplomatic efforts at the Arab League aimed at political transition in Syria.

Late last year, Saudi Arabia joined dozens of other nations in recognising the political opposition as Syria's sovereign representative. The kingdom, along with Qatar, is also reported to be helping support the rebel forces with weapons and other assistance.

"The king's regional and international efforts are continuing to stop the bloodshed in Syria and end the suffering of the Syrian people," the prince said.

Elsewhere in the region, Prince Miteb said that his father was also pained by continuing turmoil in Bahrain and supported an initiative by that country's King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to reopen a National Dialogue between a range of political groups in the country.

"He thanks Allah that the Bahraini people have proved that they care about the safety of their country and have come to the dialogue table," the prince said.

Yet despite the host of foreign policy concerns in the region, Prince Miteb said that it was Saudi Arabia that captured King Abdullah's attention.

"Before he mentions his sons and family in his prayers and supplications, he mentions the citizens," he said. "His entire life is dedicated to religion and the country."

Welfare is increasingly the king's concern, said Prince Miteb. Between two million and four million citizens live below the poverty line, and Saudi Arabia also has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the region, with an estimated two million of 28 million Saudis without work .

"[King Abdullah] gets upset when he repeatedly hears about unemployment, shortage of housing or delay in providing medical treatment to citizens," he said.

Since 2011, the King has widely expanded welfare spending, including a pledge to invest US$37 billion (Dh136bn) on new housing projects, wage increases and unemployment benefits.

Prince Miteb also said women's issues were a priority for the king, who has often been described by analysts as a reformer.

"King Abdullah cares immensely about women's rights. He always stresses this fact during his meetings. He always thinks about the new fields that women should explore."

This month, King Abdullah inaugurated a new session of the national advisory body, the 150-member Shura Council, which included 30 women members for the first time and issued a mandate that females make up no less than 20 per cent of future Councils.

King Abdullah, who is believed to be 88 years old and recently underwent surgery on his back, still maintains an active daily schedule, Prince Miteb said. A sports fan, the king is described as a fan of horse-riding and hunting.

The king's daily routine begins with the morning prayer, after which he sleeps until 8.30am and then takes his breakfast and begins his daily affairs, Prince Miteb said.

"After performing Dhuhur prayer, the king signs files and takes decisions," the prince continued.

"This continues until Asr prayer. In between, he sometimes answers phone calls or receives visitors. This depends on his schedule. In the evening, he gets back to work. Later he tries to walk for a long time. This is how the king spends his day."

edickinson@thenational.ae