King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, a “man of remarkable character and courage” according to some, will be honored by his US military admirers – with an essay competition.
The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Martin Dempsey, announced on Monday the creation of a research and essay competition, to be hosted by the National Defense University. The competition will seek to foster “scholarly research on the Arab-Muslim world”, Dempsey said in a statement.
Billed as a fitting tribute to the “life and leadership” of the Saudi monarch, the competition and award was the brainchild of General Dempsey himself.
“General Dempsey saw this as a good opportunity to honor a key Arab partner,” said Richard Osial, the spokesman for the joint chiefs of staff. “He had a personal relationship with the king, this was somebody he knew; General Dempsey and his wife both lived in Saudi Arabia.”
The essay competition is the latest act of flattery directed towards the kingdom and the reigning al-Sauds in recent days by the US, echoing the heavy praise heaped on the deceased 90-year-old monarch by western leaders. British prime minister David Cameron praised Abdullah for his “commitment to peace and for strengthening understanding between faiths”, as US secretary of state John Kerry called him a “man of wisdom and vision”. IMF head Christine Lagarde even called Abdullah a “strong advocate for women”.
President Barack Obama, who will shorten his trip to India and divert to Saudi Arabia to pay his respects to the leader of the US’s staunchest Arab ally, saluted the king’s commitment to maintaining close ties with the US, offering effusive condolences. “As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions,” Obama said in a statement.
Praise for the king’s courage was echoed by Dempsey, who called the leader “a man of remarkable character and courage”. He first met Abdullah in 2001, when he was serving as US advisor to the Saudi Arabian national guard.
In a string of fawning obituaries, the king has been described as a “reformer” and “modernist”, despite the country’s atrocious record on human rights under his reign.
“Any evaluation of the king’s reign should consider what happens from a human rights perspective,” said Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “There’s been a lot of eulogizing of the king, and certainly for the department of defence he was a great ally, but we should remember what actually took place during his reign.”
Abdullah’s reign saw a general crackdown on all forms of domestic criticism, epitomized by the flogging of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi; a continuation of the guardianship system which gives women an almost absolute lack of independent rights; and mass campaigns of arrests and deportations of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who reported abuse by Saudi authorities.
But praise for the king from the Obama administration is “the least surprising thing in the last year”, Coogle said. “The US has always been incredibly reluctant to criticise the KSA; and while [the US administration] certainly understands and knows what is going on in the kingdom, the US just privileges economic and regional security concerns and puts human rights on the back of the line. It’s pretty much par for the course.”
The competition will be administered during the upcoming academic year at NDU and will be open to all students. The competition will likely have a broad focus, and will call for an examination of US national security interests in the Arab and Muslim world, according to the Mark Phillips, a communications officer at NDU.
More details on the competition were not yet available. But several Twitter users started a hashtag to highlight the absurdity of the competition, using #KingAbdullahEssays.
WASHINGTON — He just couldn’t wait to honor the king.
Days after the death of Saudi King Abdullah, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has created an essay contest to commemorate the monarch — a move blasted by critics of the Saudi ruler's abysmal human rights record.
Dempsey announced the competition Monday, saying it will be open to students at the National Defense University, a graduate school for members of the Armed Forces.
In a statement, Dempsey called Abdullah, who died Jan. 23 at age 90, a longtime backer of the Saudi-U.S. alliance who modernized the Saudi military.
"I found the king to be a man of remarkable character and courage," said Dempsey, who got to know the Abdullah while advising the Saudi Arabian National Guard starting in 2001.
The contest drew attacks from conservatives and liberals. Critics noted that the king oversaw an authoritarian regime that denied women the right to vote or even drive, arrested political foes and punished crime with hangings and amputations.
While noting that "as a woman, I wouldn't be recognized as a full human being by the king," a writer for Mother Jones magazine offered a tongue-in-cheek contest entry linking to articles detailing the kingdom's repressive practices.
Saudi Arabia is a key U.S. ally, but individual Saudis’ funding of radical Islamic and terror groups has long drawn U.S. concern.
The essay contest comes after pundits criticized President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry for lavishing praise on the late king. Obama is cutting short a visit to India to pay his respects to the king’s family and meet his successor, King Salman.
Joint Chiefs spokesman Richard Osial said Dempsey's interest in the award was based on the general's personal relationship with the king.
Dempsey "takes personal relationships very seriously," Osial said.
Mark Phillips, a spokesman for the National Defense University, said it will conduct the essay contest in the upcoming academic year. He said the details of the award, including whether it will be accompanied by a cash prize, will be established later.
Awards can include stipends of a few thousand dollars, Phillips said.
He declined to address criticism of the contest.
"The chairman asked us to do it and we are happy to do so," he said.Send a Letter to the Editor
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