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King Abdullah: Chronicle of life and times of a reformer monarch



BY the time he came to the throne of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in August 2005, he was already 80 years of age and many had serious doubt about his ability to situate the kingdom in a pride of place in the ever changing face of 21st  century world view.

  But by Friday, January 23, 2015 when he finally breathed his last at the age of 90, King Adbullah must have surpassed not only the doubters’ expectations, but even those who believed in his reformist disposition. 

   Indeed, to frequent visitors to the two Muslim holy mosques in Makkah and Madinah, King Abdullah’s reforms are most evident in the breath-taking uplifting and modernization of the mosques (haram), which has transformed pilgrimage to the sites pleasurable, less cumbersome and a thing to look forward to, aside its spiritual essences. But then, even this may be in a clear contention with those who believe that the greatest impact the late monarch made was taking Saudi Arabia to the club of Group of Twenty (G20), the only Arab state in the fold.

 According to the report of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2013, Kingdom ranked 10 among G20 countries in terms of per capita GDP and is expected to occupy the rank of nine within the coming five years.

   King Abdullah started a $138 billion social welfare programme and financed tens of thousands of scholarships for Saudi students to study abroad at state expense. King Abdullah was also responsible for promoting a new generation of Saudi technocrats to positions of executive influence in key state economic institutions such as Saudi Aramco, Sama, Petromin, Sabic, Sagia, banks, finance and commerce ministries. He also led Saudi Arabia into the World Trade Organisation.

   Saudi Arabia’s economic growth rate and industrial diversification improved due to King Abdullah’s reforms and the kingdom has accumulated $780 billion in foreign assets while the public debt/GDP is only three per cent. Saudi Arabia is thus able to survive a protracted period of low oil prices, unlike high-cost producers with leveraged sovereign balance sheets such as Venezuela, Russia, Iran, Algeria and Nigeria.

   Saudi Arabia also diversified its oil export markets in the Far East after a succession of state visits by King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman to Beijing, New Delhi, etc.

   Saudi Arabia’s six economic cities, a $12 billion science and technology university in the kingdom, a solar energy initiative, construction of 500,000 units of low-income housing and salary hikes for lower level government employees are all legacies of the late Saudi king. King Abdullah also awarded oil and gas exploration concessions to Russian, Indian, French and Chinese energy companies.

   Saudi Arabia pledged at least $12 billion of a $20 billion GCC aid package for Egypt. Saudi Arabia is a lead member of the anti-ISIS coalition led by the United States.

   King Abdullah’s lifetime coincided with the transformation of Saudi Arabia from a collection of tribes and regional fiefdoms into the biggest economy of the Arab world, financed by one-fifth of the planet’s proven crude oil reserves.

   Two of Islam’s three holy mosques — the Grand Mosque in Makkah and the Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah — are currently witnessing the largest ever expansion in history. The Saudi authorities have given top priority to serving Hajj and Umrah pilgrims as well as to develop the two holy mosques ever since the Kingdom was formed. King Abdullah made immense contributions to improve the facilities and upgrade the services for pilgrims by spending over SR250 billion.

     In the history of the two holy mosques a new era began with the launch of the current massive expansion and making available of the best ever facilities and services for pilgrims by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah since he ascended the throne in August 2005. He dedicated the new expansion to the Islamic world. Tipped as the best environment-friendly design with high tech safety standards, the ongoing expansion is designed to increase the capacity of the Grand Mosque and courtyards to 2.6 million and Prophet’s Mosque to about 2 million worshippers.

   King Abdullah laid the foundation stone for the expansion of the Grand Mosque at a ceremony held in Makkah on August 19, 2011. Described as the “Project of the Century”, the King Abdullah Expansion Project is estimated to cost SR80 billion. The total area of the existing mosque is 356,000 sq. meters accommodating 770,000 worshippers while the new expansion covering an area of 456,000 sq. meters will accommodate an additional 1.2 million worshippers.   Courtyards of the mosque’s new expansion can hold more than 250,000 worshipers. The Ministry of Finance is supervising the expansion project, which is being implemented by the Saudi Binladin Group.

   The pilgrims partially benefited from the expanded structure during the last Hajj exercise. These included the entire ground and first floors of the annex building, and the first and second mezzanine floors. A total area of 167,784 sq. meters in the annex building and 118,790 sq. meters of courtyards around the structure were opened for pilgrims. The annex building’s main gate is named after King Abdullah and it has two new minarets, bringing the mosque’s total number of minarets to 11. More than 10,000 toilets and thousands of ablution areas and drinking water spouts have been set up in the courtyards of the mosque. More areas of the mosque have been air-conditioned and these included first floor of the first Saudi expansion from Safa staircase to the middle of King Fahd expansion.

   The expansion project consists of three parts: Construction of a new building; expansion and development of courtyards around the mosque, including walkways, tunnels and toilets; and development of service facilities for air-conditioning, electricity and drinking water.

   A 1,200-meter tunnel would be constructed from the end of the expansion site passing through Jabal Al-Hind while another tunnel with a length of 1,100 meters will be built under Jabal Madafie. An emergency 700-meter tunnel crossing the other two tunnels will be constructed, starting from Jabal Al-Kaaba. The entire roof of the Grand Mosque and mataf will have air-conditioned sunshades.

    As part of the project, expansion of mataf (circumambulation area around the Holy Kaaba) is being implemented in three phases over a period of three years. The expansion, which started on November 15, 2012, will triple the capacity of mataf from the existing 48,000 to 150,000 pilgrims an hour when it is completed.

    The first phase also consists of the sound, lighting and air-conditioning system, and mataf for the pilgrims with special needs. The second phase was started after Hajj exercise of 2013 and works on the third phase will begin after the current Hajj season. Top standards of safety and quality are being maintained while implementing the project. A total of 7,000 pilgrims an hour are benefitting from the two temporary circular bridges.

   Mataf on the second and third floors will have cable cars to carry elderly and disabled pilgrims and there will be direct access to these floors from outside. The top floor of the mataf will have an automated walkway revolving around the Holy Kaaba. The mataf structure will also be tremor proof. The Abbasid-Ottoman era portico of the Grand Mosque, demolished for the mataf expansion, will be refurbished and restored once the expansion work is over. The Turkish Gursoy Group, an international firm specialized in renovation of buildings, is currently finishing the Herculean task of refurbishing of removed pieces and parts of the portico.

   While launching the Haram expansion project in August 2011, King Abdullah also inaugurated the newly expanded masaa (the running area between Safa and Marwa), the King Abdulaziz Endowment Towers including the Makkah Clock Tower, the Jamarat Bridge complex in Mina and the Mashair Railway. As part of the project, expansion of masaa, which is located inside the mosque, was completed earlier, and this increased masaa’s capacity from 44,000 to 118,000 pilgrims an hour. The expansion, which took three years from 2007-09, increased the area from 29,400 to 87,000 sq. meters and the running course has been widened from 20 meters to 40 meters. Now pilgrims can perform the ritual of sa’i comfortably from all five levels — basement, ground, first, second and third floors and the roof. 

   The hi-tech Jamarat Bridge is another milestone of King Abdullah’s achievements in serving the pilgrims. The SR4.2 billion mammoth multilevel bridge was completed in 2009. The completion of the project, which allows pilgrims to hurl pebbles at pillars symbolizing Satan from all five levels of the bridge, has ensured a smooth and hassle-free stoning ritual that witnessed deadly stampedes in the past.

   The bridge, an architectural wonder, is 950 meters long and 80 meters wide, and each floor is 12 meters high. The entire project is designed to hold 12 stories and as many as 5 million pilgrims in the future if the need arises. The project also includes three tunnels and provides 11 entrances and 12 exits in all four directions. It has a helipad for airlifting pilgrims in case of emergency. The Jamarat project also includes an air-conditioning system backed by water sprinklers that can reduce the temperature to about 29 degrees Celsius.

  Earlier, the government spent SR4 billion to build the fireproof tent city in Mina. A total of 40,000 tents were erected on an area of 250,000 sq. meters and it has the capacity to accommodate more than one million pilgrims. It took three years to complete the fire-proof tent city whose work started immediately after a huge fire that swept through thousands of tents, killing more than 300 pilgrims on April 25, 1997. The authorities have constructed six 12-story buildings that can accommodate 20,000 pilgrims in Mina mountain slopes, besides unveiling plans to build another 212 residential towers.

    King Abdullah laid corner stone for the expansion of the Prophet’s Mosque during his visit to the holy city on September 24, 2012. Later in March 2013, the King approved the master plan for the mosque’s expansion, after experts made necessary changes onto the plan as per his instructions. The King ordered quick implementation of the expansion of the mosque’s northern, eastern and western parts within a period of two years. Once the expansion is completed, the mosque will have a total area of 1.1 million sq. meters with the capacity to accommodate an additional 1.6 million worshippers.

   Head of the Presidency of the Two Holy Mosques Affairs Sheikh Abdulrahman Al-Sudais described the new expansion work as unprecedented. He said the first phase of the expansion would cover construction of multistory buildings within the periphery of the existing northern courtyard, and the flat roof of the entire mosque structure. There will be a main gate for the new building with two main minarets and two side minarets at the corners of the building. The first phase will add prayer space for 800,000 worshippers. In the second and third phases, the eastern and western courtyards will be added to the mosque and thus increasing the capacity to accommodate another 800,000 worshippers.

   The mosque will have 27 new domes. The project includes a helipad for airlifting patients to hospitals, and new roads separated from pedestrian pathways, in addition to a tunnel for pedestrian traffic with escalators.

   According to sources, the expansion project also covers massive development of the central Haram area and the unplanned neighborhoods, with the holy mosque as the core center. The expansion will draw on the rich Islamic history of the Prophet’s City and the Islamic architectural designs of the mosque. The surrounding buildings will also be developed on the same pattern.

   There will be a system for moisturizing and softening the air in the summer season. This will be through setting up of two stations to pump sterilized water at the sprawling parking area in the basement of the mosque courtyards. 

   As many as 436 water sprinklers will be installed on 218 pillars to be set up at all the plazas around the mosque. A total of 200,000 pilgrims will benefit from 250 sunshades erected in the courtyards of the mosque.

   As the custodian of the two holy Mosques, King Abdullah played a remarkable role in taking the Kingdom into the elite club of world nations.

   Under King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia witnessed remarkable achievements in the transport and communications sector. The most important among them is the public transport system, especially the railway projects. The government has awarded contracts worth $22.5 billion to three consortia to carry out designing and construction works of Riyadh metro network. 

   The consortia consist of giant companies, which are leading manufacturers and builders of rail networks and trains in the world. The gigantic project is expected to be completed within five years.

   Similar is the case with the public transport system in the major cities, including Riyadh, Jeddah, Makkah and Madinah. Works of the Haramain High-Speed Railway, which connects Makkah and Madinah via Jeddah, are progressing well and the ambitious project is due to complete by the end of 2015.  

  The Landbridge project is one of the biggest in the region with an estimated investment of $7 billion, and involves construction of 950 km of new railroad between Riyadh and Jeddah and another 115 km track between Dammam and Jubail.

   Apart from this, works are under way for the North South Railway, which is a 2,400 km passenger and freight rail line that will further boost the Kingdom’s economic prosperity, in addition to passenger traffic.

   King Abdullah granted Saudi women several concessions and privileges, which included the right to their own distinct ID cards and abolishing the need for a legal representative to carry out commercial activities and official transactions on their behalf.

   His eponymous foreign scholarship program helped some 30,000 female students to pursue higher education in different specializations in top institutions around the world. Many others enrolled in local private colleges and universities under other scholarship programmes.

   In 2009, King Abdullah appointed the first female deputy minister in the Ministry of Education. In another brave decision, the King in 2011 decided to name women to the country’s consultative Shoura Council.

   Over the past nine years several women were appointed to key positions in the government and public sectors. They became members of the boards of chambers of commerce and industry as well as heads of chamber committees.

   Women with lesser skills were given the opportunity for the first time to work in the retail sector as cashiers and saleswomen. They also received support to start their own small businesses and were able to obtain real estate loans. They also won the right to sponsor their non-Saudi children, something that was not permitted previously.

   Female students were no longer restricted to study specializations in education, humanities and medicine, but were given the freedom to choose from a variety of specializations and career options, including engineering and legal practice. They now have access to such specializations in newly launched university departments in the Kingdom.

   Mona Al-Dosary, a Shoura Council member, said Saudi women were not just given the chance to sit in the council as observers, but were considered active members. She said they were given every right their male counterparts enjoyed. “We have been making valid proposals and constructive comments that are appreciated by our male colleagues. Recently, a female member was named the deputy head of a committee.” Professor Rouqaya Kashgari of King Abudulaziz University in Jeddah said the mentality of male domination many sectors changed during the King’s era.

   “I was elected to be the first female head of a scientific society at King Abdulaziz University three years ago. The move to include women was not restricted to the Shoura Council alone but was applied in our sector as well,” she said.

   On a global level, King Abdullah’s participation in international diplomacy reflects the Kingdom’s leadership role in defense of Arab and Islamic issues and for the achievement of world peace, stability and security.  

  He took a leading role in promoting dialogue among the world’s leading faiths. His call for interfaith dialogue resulted in the convention of the World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid, Spain and a United Nations conference on dialogue in 2008. 

  King Abdullah also sought to resolve conflicts in the Arab and Islamic world. Peace in the Middle East and the plight of the Palestinians are of particular concern to him, and the initiative on these that he presented at the Beirut Arab Summit in 2002 has been adopted by the League of Arab States, as has his forward-looking strategy for a unified Arab stance on international issues. He has played a key role in brokering agreements for a Palestinian national unity government and a reconciliation accord between Sudan and Chad on Darfur.  

  As a strong advocate of constructive global cooperation, King Abdullah held a number of important international summits and meetings in the Kingdom. In June 2008, he hosted the Jeddah energy summit to discuss ways of stabilizing global oil markets. Other major international meetings included the Third OPEC Summit of Heads of State and the 19th Arab League Summit in 2007 and the 27th summit of the GCC Supreme Council in 2006. 

  On the issue of terrorism, King Abdullah, until his passage last week remained unwavering in his condemnation of the taking of innocent lives, and in his denunciation of deviant groups that falsely claim to be Islamic. At the Counter-Terrorism International Conference in Riyadh in February, 2005, he urged international cooperation to fight this global scourge.

  As a friend of the world, he undertook numerous state visits both as Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques and as Crown Prince to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s relations with countries around the world. The state visits included Spain, France, Egypt, Jordan, Britain, Italy, Germany and Turkey in 2007; and China, India, Pakistan and Malaysia in 2006.

  The late king’s first official visit to the United States was as Prince Abdullah in 1976, when he met with President Gerald Ford. His second visit was in October 1987, as Crown Prince, when he met with President George H.W. Bush. In September 1998, he made his third state visit to the United States, meeting in Washington, DC with President Bill Clinton. He met again with President Clinton in September 2000 while attending the Millennium event at the UN in New York.

  On April 25, 2002, and again on April 25, 2005, Crown Prince Abdullah was received by President George W. Bush at the presidential ranch in Crawford, Texas. In 2008, King Abdullah twice hosted President Bush at the royal ranch in Jenadriyah, especially in May same year when the president visited Saudi Arabia to mark the 70th anniversary of Saudi-US relations.

  Throughout his life, King Abdullah has retained a love of the desert, along with a love of horsemanship. He was a breeder of pure Arabian horses, and founder of the equestrian club in Riyadh. Another life-long passion was reading, to which he attributed great importance. He established two libraries, the King Abdulaziz Library in Riyadh, and one in Casablanca, Morocco.

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