By Ishaan Tharoor January 23 at 6:02 PM
Saudi King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz, center, as he received oaths from hundreds of Islamic clerics, tribal chiefs and other prominent Saudis on Aug. 3, 2005. (Amr Nabil/AP)
The late Saudi King Abdullah, whose death was confirmed Thursday, has been lionized by politicians around the world. En route to the World Economic Forum in Davos, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hailed Abdullah as “a man of wisdom and vision” and a “revered leader.” Similarstatements were made by other Western leaders.
Christine Lagarde, the female head of the International Monetary Fund, even hailed the monarch as “a strong advocate for women.”
That last eulogy ought to furrow brows. After all, when it comes to gender rights, Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy is one of the most heavily criticized regimes in the world. Its draconian religious laws place limitations on everything from the clothes women can wear to the means by which they travel outside their homes. Controversially, women are still banned from driving in the country.
Lagarde did qualify her comment, saying Abdullah was a reformer “in a very discreet way,” credited with initiating a number of measures aimed at it giving women a bigger stake in the country’s economic and political life. But the change is very gradual, stymied by traditionalists who still hold sway in the country’s courts. Abdullah’s reforms, writes one commentator, have “all the substance of a Potemkin village, a flimsy structure to impress foreign opinion.”
Closer to home, moreover, there are a few women related to the late monarch who may object to the praise being heaped upon him. Abdullah, like other Saudi royals, had numerous wives — at least seven, and perhapsas many as 30. He had at least 15 daughters. Four of them, according to news reports, live under house arrest.
The plight of the Princesses Jawaher, Sahar, Hala, Maha attracted attention last spring, when details emerged of their supposedly dire condition living in captivity in Saudi royal compounds in the city of Jeddah. Their mother, Alanoud Al-Fayez, has lived in the United Kingdom for the past decade and a half. She was divorced by her husband multiple times, the final instance in 1985.
Fayez claims her daughters’ supposed incarceration, which has gone on for some 13 years, was both a mark of Abdullah’s vindictive streak and intolerance of his daughters’ modern, independent upbringing. She says the four have been locked away for more than a decade, subject to abuse and deprivation.
Last year, various news stations managed to reach Sahar, 42, and Jawaher, 38, who live in a separate compound from Maha, 41, and Hala, 39. In an interview with RT last May, the pair described how they were running out of food and water.
The British TV network Channel 4 News ran this video, which included footage allegedly taken by one of the daughters that depicted the depths of their neglect at the hands of Saudi authorities.
In another interview with an Arabic channel, the princesses described how they were being punished for championing women’s rights and resisting the kingdom’s strict rules mandating male guardianship over women.
Speaking to the New York Post last April, their mother claimed her daughters’ continued detention was “about psychological warfare and breaking them down,” and that her children “are wasting away.”
There are some doubts about the extent to which the women are living in genuine captivity. When confronted with the daughters’ claims, Saudi authorities have been tight-lipped, insisting that the situation “is a private matter.” The women have not been formally charged with any crime.
Since the spasm of media stories last year, reports on the condition of the princesses have dried up. On social media, their mother continues to call for their release, using the hashtag #Freethe4. She holds regular protests in London urging action.
As news of her ex-husband’s death spread around the world, Fayez issued just one short tweet on Friday, quoting a Quranic verse: “We belong to Allah, and to Him we will return.”
Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.