King Abdullah an 'advocate of women'? What he did and didn't achieve.

IMF Chief Christine Lagarde applauded the late Saudi monarch's record on women's rights, such as granting women the right to vote in the notoriously conservative kingdom. Yet many human rights advocates say his work didn't go far enough.

Hassan Ammar/AP/file
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia waves to members of the Shura in 2009. On Friday, Saudi state TV reported King Abdullah died at the age of 90.

Christine Lagarde, the head of the International Monetary Fund, has praised King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia as a “strong advocate of women,” applauding the late monarch’s ability to subtly advance women’s issues in his deeply conservative kingdom. 

While human rights advocates argue that the Abdullah reign brought little progress for women, Ms. Lagarde said Friday that he advocated for them “in a very discreet way." 

“It was very gradual, appropriately so probably for the country,” she told reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “I discussed that issue with him several times and he was a strong believer.”

Lagarde’s brief tribute followed the king’s death early Friday Saudi time at the age of 90. 

Over the course of his 10-year rule, Abdullah worked to carefully balance the interests of the kingdom’s conservative clerical establishment with the demands of the modern world. And as The New York Times explains, the shrewd leader “did make changes that were seen as important in the Saudi context.” 

He allowed women to work as supermarket cashiers and appointed Saudi Arabia’s first female deputy minister, Norah al-Faiz in 2009. Appointed to represent the interests of women’s education, she became the country’s highest-ranking female official, The Guardian reports.

In 2011, Abdullah granted women the right to vote and run in municipal elections starting in 2015. The royal decree highlighted his willingness to challenge Saudi Arabia's conservative movement. He announced these changes to women's enfranchisement just months after the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs said the question of women voting would be put off indefinitely “because of the kingdom’s social customs.”

“We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society,” he said at the time, in an address to the Majlis al-Shura, a consultative – and essentially toothless – council that advises the monarchy on public policy issues. Abdullah appointed 30 women to the Shura in February 2013.

Abdullah also contributed to women’s gains in education. Women study beside men at the $12.5 billion research university he built and named for himself: The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology. When it opened in 2009, the university became the first school of higher education in Saudi Arabia to allow co-ed classrooms. (Its dorms have remained single-sex.)

Saudi women have also benefited from a scholarship program established by Abdullah that sends tens of thousands of students abroad to study at Western universities and colleges. The New York Times contends that the program could prove to be his greatest legacy.

It has been suggested that the changes long resisted by conservative forces – resistance that even a king could not overcome – would one day come about as those men and women rose in the government, industry and academia.

Despite these incremental reforms, Saudi Arabia has a long ways to go in improving its record on women’s rights. The World Economic Forum ranked the kingdom 127th of 136 countries in its 2013 report on the global gender gap  

Women remain banned from driving in Saudi Arabia, and existing policies forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, traveling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian. 

“It is not enough for women to sit on the Shura Council if they can’t even drive themselves to work,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement released Friday. 

Mr. Stork called on Abdullah’s successor, King Salman, to “move the country forward by … rooting out gender and sectarian discrimination.”

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