Saudi King Abdullah passes away
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, the powerful U.S. ally who joined Washington’s fight against al-Qaeda and sought to modernise the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom with incremental but significant reforms, including nudging open greater opportunities for women, has died, according to Saudi state TV. He was 90.
Abdullah’s death was announced on Saudi state TV by a presenter who said the king died at 1 a.m. on Friday. His successor was announced to be 79-year-old half-brother Prince Salman, a Royal Court statement carried on the Saudi Press Agency said.alman was Abdullah’s crown prince and had recently taken on some of the ailing king’s responsibilities. The 69-year-old Prince Muqrin, a former head of intelligence in Saudi Arabia and half-brother to both Salman and Abdullah, was announced as the kingdom’s crown prince.
Unlike his guarded predecessors, Abdullah, who ascended to the throne in 2005, 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.
Regionally, perhaps Abdullah’s biggest priority was to confront Iran, the Shiite powerhouse across the Gulf. He backed Sunni Muslim factions against Tehran’s allies in several countries, where 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.
Abdullah was selected as crown prince in 1982 on the day his half-brother Fahd ascended the throne. He became de facto ruler in 1995 when a stroke incapacitated Fahd. Abdullah was believed to have been long rankled by 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 U.S. finally did so in 2003.
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. His strict upbringing was exemplified in the three days he had to spend 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 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 2009. Two Saudi female athletes competed in the Olympics for the first time in 2012, and a small handful of women were granted licences 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.
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.
“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.”
After the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks took place in the United States, Abdullah had to steer his country’s alliance with Washington 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-Qaida 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.
Obama condoles death
President Barack Obama expressed condolences and offered sympathy on Thursday to the people of Saudi Arabia following the death of King Abdullah, an important ally and a major force in the Muslim world.
Obama, who visited with the ailing king in his desert compound last March, praised Abdullah for taking “bold steps” in advancing the Arab Peace Initiative. In a statement, Obama credited the 90-year-old king for being dedicated to the education of his people and for greater outreach to the international community.
“As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions,” Obama said. “One of those convictions was his steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond.”