The late Saudi King Abdullah has been lionised by politicians around the world. En route to the World Economic Forum in Davos, US Secretary of State John Kerry hailed him as "a man of wisdom and vision" and a "revered leader." Other Western leaders made similar statements.

International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde even hailed him as "a strong advocate for women". But when it comes to gender rights, Saudi Arabia's absolute monarchy is one of the most heavily criticised regimes in the world. Its draconian religious laws limit everything from the clothes women can wear to the means by which they travel outside their homes.

Controversially, women are still banned from driving in the country.

Lagarde did qualify her comment, saying Abdullah was a reformer "in a very discreet way", credited with initiating several measures aimed at giving women a bigger stake in the country's economic and political life.


But the change is very gradual, stymied by traditionalists who still hold sway in the country's courts. Abdullah's reforms, writes one commentator, have "all the substance of a Potemkin village, a flimsy structure to impress foreign opinion".

Abdullah, like other Saudi royals, had numerous wives - at least seven, and perhaps as many as 30. He had at least 15 daughters. Four of them, according to news reports, live under house arrest.

The plight of the Princesses Jawaher, Sahar, Hala and Maha attracted attention last year when details emerged of their supposedly dire condition living in captivity in Saudi royal compounds in Jeddah. Their mother, Alanoud Al-Fayez, has lived in Britain for the past 15 years. She was divorced by her husband multiple times, the final instance in 1985.

Fayez claims her daughters' supposed incarceration, which has gone on for some 13 years, was both a mark of Abdullah's vindictive streak and intolerance of his daughters' modern, independent upbringing. She says the four have been locked away for more than a decade, subject to abuse and deprivation.

Last year, various news stations managed to reach Sahar, 42, and Jawaher, 38, who live in a separate compound from Maha, 41, and Hala, 39. In an interview with RT last May, the pair described how they were running out of food and water.

In an interview with an Arabic channel, the Princesses said they were being punished for backing women's rights and resisting the kingdom's strict rules mandating male guardianship over women.

Their mother told the New York Post last April that her daughters' continued detention was "about psychological warfare" and that her children "are wasting away".

There are some doubts about the extent to which the women are living in genuine captivity. Saudi authorities insisted the situation "is a private matter". The women have not been formally charged with any crime.


Modest burial
Abdullah's body was wrapped in a simple shroud and placed in an unmarked grave in accordance with conservative Islamic traditions. The ceremonies and burial were attended only by family members and an inner circle of aides and friends.

Pallbearers carried a litter to the public al-Oud cemetery, a sandy field with small, undecorated marker stones in sight of shabby apartment blocks. Foreign leaders from Africa, Europe and Asia are in Riyadh. US President Barack Obama will arrive on Wednesday.

- additional reporting Bloomberg, AP