Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz has passed away, aged 90

January 23, 2015 2:06 am
’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz has passed away, aged 90. The
monarch died late last night January 22nd (Nigerian time) in his home.
His death was announced in a statement broadcast on Saudi
state TV.
“His Highness Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and all members
of the family and the nation mourn the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques
King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who passed away at exactly 1am this
morning (Friday – Saudi time),” the statement said.

Abdullah became king in 2005 after the death of his half-brother King
Fahd. The late king’s brother, Salman, 79, has been announced as the new
ruler of the kingdom.
e had been in hospital for several weeks reportedly suffering from pneumonia.
Saudi state television cut to the recitation of Koranic verses, which often signifies the death of a senior royal.
Abdullah
had ruled Saudi Arabia as king since 2005, but had run the country as
de facto regent for a decade before that after his predecessor King Fahd
suffered a debilitating stroke.
Abdullah’s brother and crown prince, Salman, was declared the new king, according to a statement attributed to Salman.
“His
Highness Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and all members of the family and
the nation mourn the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdullah
bin Abdulaziz, who passed away at exactly 1:00am this morning,” the
statement said.
A royal court statement said the late monarch will be buried later on Friday following afternoon prayers.
The
new king has also called on the family’s Allegiance Council to pay
allegiance to King Salman’s half brother Muqrin, who becomes the new
crown prince and heir.
King Salman, 79, has been crown prince and
defence minister since 2012 and was the governor of Riyadh province for
five decades before that.
By immediately appointing Muqrin as his
heir, subject to the approval of a family Allegiance Council, Salman has
moved to avert widespread speculation about the immediate path of the
royal succession in the world’s top oil exporter.
Muqrin, 69, is the youngest of the 35 sons of Abdulaziz bin Saud, the founder of Saudi Arabia.
Diplomats say Muqrin was very close to Abdullah and was frequently entrusted with sensitive assignments.

New king Salman to follow in brother Abdullah’s footsteps

New Saudi King Salman

Photo:

New Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud was responsible for
the modern development of Riyadh during his tenure as the capital’s
governor. (AFP: Saudi Press Agency)

Abdullah pushed cautious changes in the
conservative Islamic kingdom including increased women’s rights and
economic deregulation, but made no moves towards democracy and was a
hawk on policy towards rival Iran.
New king Salman has been part of the ruling clique of princes for decades.
It
is thought he will likely continue the main thrusts of Saudi strategic
policy, including maintaining the alliance with the United States and
working towards energy market stability.
Saudi Arabia, which
holds more than a fifth of the world’s crude oil, also exerts some
influence over the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims through its guardianship
of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest sites.
Most senior members of
the ruling family are thought to favour similar positions on foreign
and energy policy, but incoming kings have traditionally chosen to
appoint new ministers to head top ministries like oil and finance.
In
a country where the big ministries are dominated by royals, successive
kings have kept the oil portfolio reserved for commoners and insisted on
maintaining substantial spare output capacity to help reduce market
volatility.

Late king Abdullah praised as ‘candid and courageous’

US
president Barack Obama expressed his condolences on Abdullah’s death
and saluted the late king’s commitment to close US-Saudi ties.
“As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions,” Mr Obama said in a statement.
“One
of those convictions was his steadfast and passionate belief in the
importance of the US-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and
security in the Middle East and beyond.
“The closeness and strength of the partnership between our two countries is part of King Abdullah’s legacy.”

The king who sought to modernize Saudi Arabia

King Abdullah, who took power in 2005 after the death of his
half-brother King Fahd, was a powerful US ally who joined Washington’s
fight against al-Qaeda and sought to modernize the ultraconservative
Muslim kingdom with incremental but significant reforms, including
nudging open greater opportunities for women.

More than his guarded and hidebound predecessors, Abdullah
assertively threw his oil-rich nation’s weight behind trying to shape
the Middle East. His priority was to counter the influence of rival,
mainly Shiite Iran wherever it tried to make advances. He and fellow
Sunni Arab monarchs also staunchly opposed the Middle East’s wave of
pro-democracy uprisings, seeing them as a threat to stability and their
own rule.

He backed Sunni Muslim factions against Tehran’s allies in several
countries, but in Lebanon for example, the policy failed to stop
Iranian-backed Hezbollah from gaining the upper hand. And Tehran and
Riyadh’s colliding ambitions stoked proxy conflicts around the region
that enflamed Sunni-Shiite hatreds – most horrifically in Syria’s civil
war, where the two countries backed opposing sides. Those conflicts in
turn hiked Sunni militancy that returned to threaten Saudi Arabia.

And while the king maintained the historically close alliance with
Washington, there were frictions as he sought to put those relations on
Saudi Arabia’s terms. He was constantly frustrated by Washington’s
failure to broker a settlement to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He
also pushed the Obama administration to take a tougher stand against
Iran and to more strongly back the mainly Sunni rebels fighting to
overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Abdullah was born in Riyadh in 1924, one of the dozens of sons of
Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. Like all Abdul-Aziz’s

sons,
Abdullah had only rudimentary education. Tall and heavyset, he felt
more at home in the Nejd, the kingdom’s desert heartland, riding
stallions and hunting with falcons. His strict upbringing was
exemplified by three days he spent in prison as a young man as
punishment by his father for failing to give his seat to a visitor, a
violation of Bedouin hospitality.

Abdullah was selected as crown prince in 1982 on the day his
half-brother Fahd ascended to the throne. The decision was challenged by
a full brother of Fahd, Prince Sultan, who wanted the title for
himself. But the family eventually closed ranks behind Abdullah to
prevent splits.

Abdullah became de
facto ruler in 1995 when a stroke incapacitated Fahd. Abdullah was
believed to have long rankled at the closeness of the alliance with the
United States, and as regent he pressed Washington to withdraw the
troops it had deployed in the kingdom since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of
Kuwait. The US finally did so in 2003.

When President George W. Bush came to office, Abdullah again showed his readiness to push against his US allies.

In 2000, Abdullah convinced the Arab League to approve an
unprecedented offer that all Arab states would agree to peace with
Israel if it withdrew from lands it captured in 1967. The next year, he
sent his ambassador in Washington to tell the Bush administration that
it was too unquestioningly biased in favor of Israel and that the
kingdom would from now on pursue its own interests apart from
Washington’s. Alarmed by the prospect of a rift, Bush soon after
advocated for the first time the creation of a Palestinian state
alongside Israel.

The next month, the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks took place in the
United States, and Abdullah had to steer the alliance through the
resulting criticism. The kingdom was home to 15 of the 19 hijackers, and
many pointed out that the baseline ideology for al-Qaeda and other
groups stemmed from Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

When al-Qaeda militants in 2003 began a wave of violence in the
kingdom aimed at toppling the monarchy, Abdullah cracked down hard. For
the next three years, security forces battled militants, finally forcing
them to flee to neighboring Yemen. There, they created a new al-Qaeda
branch, and Saudi Arabia has played a behind-the-scenes role in fighting
it.

The tougher line helped affirm Abdullah’s commitment to fighting
al-Qaeda. He paid two visits to Bush – in 2002 and 2005 – at his ranch
in Crawford, Texas.

When Fahd died in 2005, Abdullah officially rose to the throne. He then began to more openly push his agenda.

King Abdullah meets with US President Obama (Photo: EPA)
King Abdullah meets with US President Obama (Photo: EPA)

His aim at home was to modernize the kingdom to face the future. One
of the world’s largest oil exporters, Saudi Arabia is fabulously
wealthy, but there are deep disparities in wealth and a burgeoning youth
population in need of jobs, housing and education. More than half the
current population of 20 million is under the age of 25. For Abdullah,
that meant building a more skilled workforce and opening up greater room
for women to participate. He was a strong supporter of education,
building universities at home and increasing scholarships abroad for
Saudi students.

Abdullah for the first time gave women seats on the Shura Council, an
unelected body that advises the king and government. He promised women
would be able to vote and run in 2015 elections for municipal councils,
the only elections held in the country. He appointed the first female
deputy minister in a 2009. Two Saudi female athletes competed in the
Olympics for the first time in 2012, and a small handful of women were
granted licenses to work as lawyers during his rule.

One of his most ambitious projects was a Western-style university
that bears his name, the King Abdullah University of Science and
Technology, which opened in 2009. Men and women share classrooms and
study together inside the campus, a major departure in a country where
even small talk between the sexes in public can bring a warning from the
morality police.

The changes seemed small from the outside but had a powerful
resonance. Small splashes of variety opened in the kingdom – color and
flash crept into the all-black abayas women must wear in public;
state-run TV started playing music, forbidden for decades; book fairs
opened their doors to women writers and some banned books.

But he treaded carefully in the face of the ultraconservative Wahhabi
clerics who hold near total sway over society and, in return, give the
Al Saud family’s rule religious legitimacy.

Senior cleric Sheik Saleh al-Lihedan warned against changes that
could snap the “thread between a leader and his people.” In some cases,
Abdullah pushed back: He fired one prominent government cleric who
criticized the mixed-gender university. But the king balked at going too
far too fast. For example, beyond allowing debate in newspapers,
Abdullah did nothing to respond to demands to allow women to drive.

“He has presided over a country that has inched forward, either on
its own or with his leadership,” said Karen Elliot House, author of “On
Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines.”

“I don’t think he’s had as much impact as one would hope on trying to
create a more moderate version of Islam,” she said. “To me, it has not
taken inside the country as much as one would hope.”

And any change was strictly on the royal family’s terms. After the
2011 Arab Spring uprisings in particular, Saudi Arabia clamped down on
any dissent. Riot police crushed street demonstrations by Saudi Arabia’s
Shiite minority. Dozens of activists were detained, many of them tried
under a sweeping counterterrorism law by an anti-terrorism court
Abdullah created. Authorities more closely monitored social media, where
anger over corruption and unemployment – and jokes about the aging
monarchy – are rife.

Regionally, perhaps Abdullah’s biggest priority was to confront Iran, the Shiite powerhouse across the Gulf.

Worried about Tehran’s nuclear program, Abdullah told the United
States in 2008 to consider military action to “cut off the head of the
snake” and prevent Iran from producing a nuclear weapon, according to a
leaked US diplomatic memo.

In Lebanon, Abdullah backed Sunni allies against the Iranian-backed
Shiite guerrilla group Hezbollah in a proxy conflict that flared
repeatedly into potentially destabilizing violence. Saudi Arabia was
also deeply opposed to longtime Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki,
whom it considered a tool of Iran oppressing Iraq’s Sunni Muslim
minority.

In Syria, Abdullah stepped indirectly indirectly into the civil war
that emerged after 2011. He supported and armed rebels battling to
overthrow President Bashar Assad, Iran’s top Arab ally, and pressed the
Obama administration to do the same. Iran’s allies Hezbollah and Iraqi
Shiite militias rushed to back Assad, and the resulting conflict has
left hundreds of thousands dead and driven millions of Syrians from
their homes.

From the multiple conflicts, Sunni-Shiite hatreds around the region
took on a life of their own, fueling Sunni militancy. Syria’s war helped
give birth to the Islamic State group, which burst out to take over
large parts of Syria and Iraq. Fears of the growing militancy prompted
Abdullah to commit Saudi airpower to a US-led coalition fighting the
extremists.

Toby Matthiesen, author of “Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia,
and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t,” said Abdullah was not “particularly
sectarian in a way that he hated Shiites for religious reasons. …
There are other senior members of the ruling family much more
sectarian.” But, he said, “Saudi Arabia plays a huge role in fueling
sectarian conflict.”

Abdullah had more than 30 children from around a dozen wives.

 

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