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Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Dies, and His Successor Promises Business As Usual

After ruling the oil-rich Sunni kingdom for almost 20 years, King Abdullah died on Friday after a short illness, posing questions for Saudi Arabia's future.
Image via AP

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has died aged 90 after a short illness but his successor, and half brother, has pledged to continue his policies.

Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud died in the early hours of Friday morning after being hospitalized with pneumonia on December 31, 2014. He had ruled the oil-rich Sunni kingdom for almost 20 years.

The new king, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saudhas now taken the throne and in a speech broadcast on state television promised to keep the country on its current course. "We will continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment," Salman pledged, according to an Associated Press translation.


Nevertheless, uncertainty after Abdullah's death pushed up oil prices — Saudi Arabia is one of the world's largest crude producers.

Salman had served as defense minister since 2011, putting him in charge of Saudi Arabia's armed forces when it joined the US-led coalition launching attacks on the Sunni extremist group known as the Islamic State that operates in Syria and parts of neighboring Iraq. He played an increasingly important role in the kingdom as Abdullah's health deteriorated

However, the succession raises questions. Salman is 79 and his health may also be failing. He has had at least one stroke, which cost him full movement of his left arm, and there is speculation that he may be suffering from a number of other conditions.

Like those before him, the new king is also the son of Saudi Arabia's founder Abdulaziz Al Saud, as is new Crown Prince Muqrin. But he and his brothers are elderly, and power must at some point be passed to the next generation, potentially sparking a leadership crisis.

Salman will also face increased social pressure from the kingdom's youthful population. More than 50 percent of Saudis are aged under 25 and many are keen social media users who use the internet to defy the country's strict rules on freedom of speech, and criticize the ageing royal family.

Abdullah is widely described as a modernizer, and the late king pushed to build a more educated and skilled workforce and open up some opportunities for women. This included appointing some women to the non-elected Shura Council that advises the royal family and government. He also promised women's suffrage for this year's municipal council elections.


However the kingdom remains ultraconservative, partly as a result of massively influential hardline Wahhabi clerics. Women aren't allowed to drive, political parties are banned, and punishments similar to those enacted by the Islamic State, including public beheadings, amputations, and lashings are common.

Abdullah also took a deeply authoritarian approach to the existential threat posed by 2011's Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings. Saudi police crushed any possible dissent, detaining activists and cracking down on public protests.

The US has maintained a close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and President Barack Obama offered his sympathies and condolences following Abdullah's death. "As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions. 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," Obama said in a statement. "The closeness and strength of the partnership between our two countries is part of King Abdullah's legacy."

There has been past friction between the two countries, however, partly as a result of American reluctance to provide more concrete help to achieving Saudi goals, such as backing the predominantly Sunni rebel groups battling President Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria.

Unlike his more withdrawn predecessors, Abdullah made widespread attempts to influence Middle Eastern politics and check Shiite powerhouse Iran's attempts to shape the region. The late king's policies included backing armed Sunni groups opposed to Iranian proxies — including in Syria — which fanned sectarian tensions and contributed to massive bloodshed. In the case of the Islamic State, extremist Sunni factions have returned to target the kingdom itself.

Follow John Beck on Twitter: @JM_Beck