Saudi King Abdullah was a visionary and shrewd reformist in a turbulent region. Despite the political constraints he faced from conservative cultural mores and the religious right, Abdullah understood that women are an unassailable economic and social resource essential to the growth and diversity of the country.
He instituted the kingdom's first elections for municipal councils, and championed education, creating and endowing King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) — where women study beside men — as well as a scholarship program that sends both sexes to study at Western institutions.
He raised the standing of women by championing equal education, appointing a female deputy minister, and allowing women to work. He granted women the power to vote in municipal elections nearly four years ago, and later admitted them to the powerful Saudi Shura Council where, today, 30 Saudi women from various walks of life proudly and very visibly serve, advising the king on matters of law and governance.
When fundamentalist clerics interpreted the Qu'ran in a manner to sustain the suppression of women, Abdullah replaced them with religious leaders possessing more moderate views. And last year, he decreed that women should be able to do more than vote, but for the first time be able to run in local elections now scheduled for 2015.
Because of his leadership, women will inevitably move towards equal footing with men and have the right to do things as simple as drive a car or participate in a profession of their choosing.
But there is a concern that, with the steep fall in the price of oil and the resultant impact of the country's budget, the continued reform — especially as it relates to the growing empowerment of women — could be derailed.
I believe this will be unlikely, given that Saudi has some of the lowest production costs in the world and sits atop a $1 trillion sovereign wealth fund, which is available to address budget shortfalls. Moreover, the Saudi government realizes that its economy cannot thrive over the long haul with 50 percent of its population suppressed.
King Abdullah set a judicious and progressive tone for the region. It is unlikely that the measured, but clearly liberating and enlightened course set by this reformist ruler will soon be reversed.
Commentary by Quintin E. Primo III, co-founder, chairman and CEO of Capri Capital Partners, an SEC-registered real-estate investment firm with $3.9 billion assets under management (as of September 30, 2014). Capri is based in the U.S. but Primo has been active in the Gulf region since 2008. Outside of the US, he focuses on the emerging markets of Africa, India and the Middle East.