Today on Fareed Zakaria GPS former British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined CNN’s Fareed Zakaria from Davos. Blair said that King Abdullah will be remembered for modernizing Saudi Arabia and as a force for stability in a region of chaos.
Blair on King Abdullah taking on the religious establishment: “This is a discussion I used to have with King Abdullah, and his attitude was, look, this is a, in some ways, a very conservative country. We’re doing the change. But let us do it at our own pace. And you can always have a debate as to whether you should accelerate or — and go faster and so on. But what he was really trying to do, I think, was create these vehicles of change in the country. So, for example, Saudi Aramco is the oil company, not run like many oil companies around the world, but actually a really top, well run company. The university he established, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, men and women treated equally, educated equally. And the term science and technology was chosen for a reason. So I think, you know, his view would be that he was moving as fast as he could. I think it was only maybe in the ’60s or ’70s that Saudi television was accessible.
Full transcript after the jump.
FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: The death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, while not unexpected, has nonetheless sent shivers across the world. Any leadership change in such a crucial country is apt to cause concern. Will the new king change course on oil? Syria? Relations with the West?
Let’s start first with the political. To talk about that, I asked Tony Blair, the former prime minister of the United Kingdom, to join me.
ZAKARIA: Tony Blair, pleasure to have you on.
TONY BLAIR, FORMER UK PRIME MINISTER: Thanks, Fareed.
ZAKARIA: You knew King Abdullah well. His reputation and certainly some of his talk in the few times I had an opportunity to talk to him were about reform and about change. But if you look at how much has changed in Saudi Arabia, it isn’t that much. I mean women still can’t drive. There still is segregation by the sexes. The religious establishment is still very powerful. And they still adhere to a very puritanical version of Islam.
BLAIR: I think if you think about it relative to, say, a country like the USA or Britain, then that may be accurate. But if you look at it relative to where Saudi was, you now have more young women in university than in — than men. You have a situation where King Abdullah was an author of the interfaith dialogue and actually would meet both Jews and Christians to talk about interfaith issues.
He was really the architect of the Arab Peace Initiative back in 2002, which offered a two-state solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict.
And, you know, you take a company like Saudi Aramco, it’s probably one of the best run companies in the world.
So I think there was a real process of modernization. I think he was a genuine reformer and modernizer. And I hope, expect that that process will continue. But obviously, there’s a — there’s a long way to go.
I think, though, evolution for him and actually for Saudi Arabia is infinitely preferable to revolution.
ZAKARIA: You’ve spent a lot of time trying to deal with the issue of radical Islam, an ideology that you believe, you know, is pernicious and spreading.
What is — how should we think of Saudi Arabia, then, because certainly in its origins, it was very much Saudi money and Saudi priests and Saudi donations and in some ways, again, the Saudi version of Islam that was globalized in the 1980s and ’90s.
Is Saudi Arabia part of the problem or part of the solution?
BLAIR: I think today it’s genuinely part of the solution, in the sense that it’s important both because you’ve got the two holy mosques there in Saudi Arabia, and because in recent years, really, under the leadership, to be fair, of King Abdullah, it’s pursued an attempt to reach out across the faith divide and also taken a very strong position against extremism and post-9/11, which was a big shock to the kingdom, not only to us, they didn’t merely take a lot of security measures, but they also looked very carefully at what was happening within their own society as well.
So I think now, as we speak, Saudi Arabia is and has got to be, indeed, an ally in this fight.
ZAKARIA: But one thing I wonder, did he confront the religious establishment enough?
I mean in Saudi Arabia, you have this very hardline religious establishment. The theory is that the regime — that the royal family gets its legitimacy by its alliance with these people, and as a result, doesn’t really object to their very retrograde views of religion.
Do you think that the — you know, is that — does that need to happen? Does there need to be a head-on, you know, taking to task of the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia?
BLAIR: Well, I think — and this is a discussion I used to have with King Abdullah, and his attitude was, look, this is a, in some ways, a very conservative country. We’re doing the change. But let us do it at our own pace. And you can always have a debate as to whether you should accelerate or — and go faster and so on.
But what he was really trying to do, I think, was create these vehicles of change in the country. So, for example, Saudi Aramco is the oil company, not run like many oil companies around the world, but actually a really top, well run company.
The university he established, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, men and women treated equally, educated equally. And the term science and technology was chosen for a reason.
So I think, you know, his view would be that he was moving as fast as he could. I think it was only maybe in the ’60s or ’70s that Saudi television was accessible.
ZAKARIA: That’s right.
BLAIR: So, you know, you can have that debate. I think provided the direction continues in, you know, along the path of modernization, then I think it will be good for Saudi Arabia.
We — and we need Saudi Arabia to be successful. You know, as you can see, not just in terms of the oil price, but Saudi Arabia is a key country. Two holy mosques there — there, in many ways, beats the heart of Islam. It’s important for us and for them that they continue to make progress.
ZAKARIA: But when you look at this phenomenon — you’re looking at the Paris attacks and you’re looking at what’s happening in the Middle East — is the wave of radical Islamist ideology waning? Is it going down or is it going up?
BLAIR: I’m afraid right now, I think the — this Islamist ideology is growing. I think it’s global. I think there are many lessons in how we tried to deal with it post-9/11, lessons from my time in office, lessons from now.
But I think we’ve got to learn those lessons and apply them. And we’ve got to apply them in alliance with the modernizing Muslim countries, those who believe in a — in an Islam that is — that is peaceful and reaches out to the rest of the world.
We’ve got to ally ourselves with those, and we’ve got to create both the force capability to fight them where they need to be fought and the education systems that educate our young people to respect each other and respect difference, not view it as a — as a reason for violence or sectarianism.
And I think that’s the task. It’s a huge task. It’s the single biggest security issue, I think, that we — that we face. And I think there’s an urgency about it, frankly.
There are thousands of — thousands of these people now being trained in terrorist camps along North Africa and the Middle East. And we can’t afford to have that happen. We know what happened when Afghanistan became a training ground for terror. We’re at risk of several Afghanistans at the moment.
ZAKARIA: Tony Blair, pleasure to have you on.
BLAIR: Thank you.