An earlier version of the story painted the late King Abdullah as an advocate for women's rights in absolute terms. A mention that the definition was apt in the Saudi context, while not by Western standards, that had been dropped in editing has since been restored.
Saudi Arabia’s late King Abdullah was one of the most powerful monarchs in the world. While he is credited for leading the state through challenging times, like the Arab Spring and the rise of the Islamic State, one of the King’s biggest legacies was his effort to nudge the country toward improved human rights.
While Saudi Arabia is often criticized for its abysmal human rights record, especially when it comes to women, Abdullah led the slow movement toward a more equal society -- by Saudi, if not, by Western, terms. Despite the Kingdom’s strict adherence to Shariah, Islam’s moral code and the country’s legal code, King Abdullah slowly put in motion laws and organizations that would facilitate equality for women as the country shifted toward cultural and economic modernity.
He is recognized for allowing women to hold jobs as supermarket cashiers and appointed Saudi Arabia’s first female member of the Council of Ministers, Norah al-Faiz, as one of his deputy ministers to represent the interests of women’s education.
Female education was part of King Abdullah’s hallmark advocacies. According to a report by World Policy Journal, Abdullah’s focus was on female higher education. “King Abdullah’s reign is considered as the golden era for women’s higher education,” Sabria Jawhar, a columnist and former Jeddah bureau chief for the Saudi Gazette, said in the report. “Since he assumed the throne in 2005, he has made it very clear that he believes educating Saudi women is a top priority for him.”
The $12.5 billion King Abdullah University of Science and Technology that he built and named after himself was the first Saudi school of higher education to allow men and women to study together, as opposed to segregated men’s and women’s colleges. And in 2011, Abdullah made a monumental ruling that would allow women to vote and run in future municipal elections. That has not happened yet. “We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society,” the king said in an address at the time, according to the New York Times.
Abdullah had advocated for even more rights for women, but was often met with resistance as a result of the kingdom’s cultural traditions. In an interview with Barbara Walters in 2005, Abdullah promised that he would allow women to drive, one of the biggest symbols of independence in Saudi Arabia. However, pushback from Saudi conservatives over a council advisory meeting about allowing women on the roads eventually halted consideration of women's “right to drive.”