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King Abdullah Dies: Saudis Mourn Their 'King of Hearts'

Although the 90-year-old King Abdullah had battled ill health for months, his death on Friday took an emotional toll on many Saudis.
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RIYADH — Although the 90-year-old King Abdullah had battled ill health for months, his death on Friday took an emotional toll on many Saudis who felt a personal connection to their ruler.

"King Abdullah wasn't just any king, he was the king of hearts," said Ahmed, a taxi driver in the capital of the oil-rich gulf state. The 37-year-old then retrieved a 10 riyal bill from his wallet and stared at the late monarch’s image. "I am going to miss you," he said tearfully.

"I really can’t believe he is gone," added 30-year-old Kholoud Al Baiz, a clinical dietitian at the King Abdul Aziz Medical City where the king was admitted during his ill health. "I have loved him since I was a child, before he was ever in the political arena. He was a humble man, which was what made him such a great and beloved leader. He understood hard work and praised it."

The king did introduce some reforms for women. But he was criticized by human rights groups for failing to introduce significant reforms to a country that still carries out public beheadings for drug trafficking and lashings for adultery and apostasy.

"King Abdullah came to power promising reforms, but his agenda fell far short of achieving lasting institutional gains for Saudi citizens," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

The reform often cited by the king’s supporters was the appointment in 2013 of 30 women to the Shura Council, a body that advises the absolute monarchy.

One of those appointees was Thoraya Obaid, a former undersecretary to the United Nations. "He was a reformer in many areas of development in the country," she said. "To be more specific, he especially supported women working towards ensuring their full citizenship under challenging circumstances."

However, many critics disagree with that assessment. Saudi Arabia still operates the male guardianship system, which according to Human Rights Watch prohibits women from having a passport, marrying, travelling and going into higher education without the approval of a man.

Its continued legal ban on women drivers was called "absurd" by Human Rights Watch and "preposterous" by Amnesty International.

Like many Saudis, Al Baiz holds a different view. "[The king] understood that women play a valuable part in society and wanted to provide them with the power to carry out their daily responsibilities," she said. "I will not lie to you. It is a sad time for me personally and for the country as well. The man is irreplaceable."

Another woman working at the hospital, 47-year-old Dr Hanan Balkhy, attributed her entire carrier to the king. "During my 15 years working here I have risen up the ranks and have had the freedom to fully practice as a pediatric researcher and administrator in my field," she told NBC News. "Only one generation ago, there was no education here, during my mother’s time. But the late king allowed such advances to happen for many women physicians."

"He was a man who enforced the equality between men and women and enhanced the importance of women’s power in the kingdom," said Rasha Abdulrahman Al Shobaily, an administrative director in her late 30s.

Political parties are banned in Saudi Arabia. The Al Saud dynasty has held absolute power since the 18th century, and its critics have received lengthy jail sentences. But the intimacy with which many people spoke about the late ruler suggested accusations that the royals are out of touch with their citizens may be wide of the mark.

Um Mohammed, a Riyadh stall holder in her late sixties, referred to the late monarch as "Abu Miteb," a term of endearment in the Arab world. "Abu Miteb was one of us," she told NBC News at her stall in a popular souk in the city. "He felt our pain. He loved us like his own children and we looked to him like our father."

Now the kingdom’s attention turns to Abdullah’s successor, King Salman. Saudi fashion designer Aljazi AlRakan described the new incumbent as a "greatly loved figure that closely touched the lives of every single member in Riyadh during his long reign as governor of the city.

"I have strong faith many more doors shall be opened for women. We will see more dreams fulfilled," she said.