It was painful, even pathetic, to see television images of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in the last few months of his life.
It was impossible not to feel for the nonagenarian. Even taking into account that he had enjoyed a rich and full life of royal indulgence; even taking into account that his country possessed a fifth of the world's proven oil reserves of a trillion barrels and often held the West hostage to its caprice; even taking into account that -- like all members of the ruling family -- he subscribed to an intolerant form of Islam known as Wahhabism; and even taking into account that in the decade of his reign, Abdullah did not always act with alacrity on pressing issues such as economic and social empowerment; even taking into account all these things, one felt bad that an old man in failing health died in the early hours of Islam's Sabbath, Friday, without a word of what meaning he'd drawn from life.
Did he die a fulfilled man? Did Abdullah feel on his deathbed that he'd given all he could for the advancement of his people? Was he satisfied that he'd set his society on the path of global competitiveness? Was he certain that he'd mobilized the monetary might of Saudi Arabia in the cause of justice and fair play, particularly in the messy region of 22 countries that's known as the Middle East?
We will never know. That's because Abdullah was never a loquacious man in public, like some other monarchs such as the late King Hassan II of Morocco, and the late King Hussein bin Talal of Jordan. He wasn't given to introspection; few monarchs are. And if he did keep private diaries -- well, they were private, and we will never know unless his successor, or some other descendant in the unforeseeable future decides to bare all. It's unlikely, of course. King Abdullah went to the grave without telling us who he really was, what his innermost thoughts were about a world careening toward catastrophe, indeed about his own people's travails, and about his region's turbulence.
Why's that important? Now that Abdullah is gone, do we truly care what he thought -- if at all -- about global issues and local concerns? To whom does it matter whether he saw a meaning to his life, beyond the pious platitudes that he dutifully mouthed when necessary?
And the big question: Will Abdullah be missed?
The answer to that last one is easy: I think not. Abdullah wasn't a social transformer. Of course, he made some significant contributions here and there -- such as the $12 billion eponymous university where, wonder of wonders, men and women are actually allowed to set aside their gender differences and study side by side.
Abdullah won't be missed because he could have grasped the brass ring and help bring about statehood for Palestinians without insisting on the destruction of Israel. Yes, he proposed such statehood, but then didn't follow up with the vigorous diplomacy that the idea needed.
Yes, he encouraged education, but not necessarily the full emancipation of Saudi women. (They still aren't allowed to drive.)
Yes, he retained relatively cordial relations with the West -- and particularly the United States -- but he wasn't beyond throwing frequent fits of pique over his often ill-informed perceptions that America advanced a malevolent form of neo-imperialism in the Middle East.
Yes, he gave humanitarian aid when tragedies struck in parts of the developing world. But Abdullah was more inclined to support proselytizers bent on converting people of different faiths to Islam.
Yes, he was mindful that Saudi Arabia needed to consistently cultivate its neighbors in the Gulf in the cause of Sunni solidarity. But Abdullah often treated their monarchs with less respect than they deserved.
And yes, he said he understood the yearnings and aspirations of young Saudis for a better life that at least matched that of their counterparts in the West. But Abdullah failed to significantly expand economic opportunities at home, nor did he work strenuously to create a social contract that emphasized tolerance and understanding in the manner of the United Arab Emirates.
So Abdullah is no more. After the eulogies have been delivered, the prayers recited, the monuments raised, and the public tears shed, I rather think that he will be remembered less for what he wasn't than for what he was.
He wasn't a monarch who could have accelerated Saudi Arabia's drive toward modernity. He wasn't a monarch who ensured gender parity, thereby excluding a demographic majority of his people from contributing to the national welfare. He wasn't, in the end, a monarch who brought peace and security to a region rife with historical angst and animosities.
All the encomiums aside, he wasn't a monarch who did much more than he could have.
Abdullah was, in the final analysis, well, just another monarch. His time came, and then he was gone.