Saudi Arabia: The Passing of a King

King Abdullah, Saudi Arabia

Image courtesy of U.S. Department of Defense

Saudi Arabia: The Passing of a King
| published January 23, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review editor

A key military and economic ally of the United States has died, and with his passing will no doubt come widespread predictions of a Middle East in flux and a volatile region which must now move forward without his stabilizing force.

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, 90, died of pneumonia and heart failure on Thursday. Though not as flashy or headline-grabbing as his Muslim counterparts across the wider Middle East, he was arguably the most powerful man in the region. He was also a counter-balance to the destabilizing factors and radical elements in the wider Middle East, pushing back gently but firmly against his closest rivals in Shiite dominated Iran, while also moderating against the sometimes more volatile Sunni nations of Iraq and Syria. Abdullah sought more often than not to forge peace among his Arab and Middle Eastern neighbors, but his quest for economic and political stability never matched his ideal vision.

Nevertheless, he was known as a reformer and a mediator. He gave women the right to vote, and he became a powerful voice for religious tolerance. King Abdullah also instituted educational improvements, and appointed a reform-minded nephew to head the education ministry, and appointed Nora al Fayez as the nation’s first female top teacher and to head a new department committed to the education of women. He established a generous scholarship process for students of all walks of life to gain educational advantages, including study abroad. Though his family’s wealth was built on oil, Abdullah has seen the distant future, and it is non-carbon. He spurred the government of Saudi Arabia to take a leading role in the development of solar energy on a massive peninsular currently dedicated to the extraction of oil.

King Abdullah was also a crucial, pivotal ally militarily of the United States, the United Kingdom, and both the U.S. and U.K.’s many partners in several major conflicts in the region. Though suspicious and ambivalent toward his half-brother’s decision in 1990 to allow the United States to establish military bases in the build-up before the Gulf War, King Abdullah more recently agreed to join the coalition of countries confronting the militant terror army know as ISIS. Saudi Arabian pilots and jet fighters have participated in bombing missions into northern Iraq and northern Syria to attack ISIS positions on the ground.

His full name was Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, and aside from his considerable political power over the world’s biggest oil producing nation—which made him and his extended family one of the wealthiest dynasties on Earth (he was estimated to be worth more than $18 billion last year)—he also served as the custodian and caretaker of the two most important Islamic religious sites, the Two Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina. At the heart of Mecca is the Ka’ba, a large stone obelisk toward which millions of Muslims turn each day to pray. Forbes magazine ranked the King as the eighth most powerful person in the world.

Abdullah—who was born in 1924, the tenth son of King Abdulaziz, also known as Ibn Saud—was one of many family members of the House of Saud, the founding family which has ruled Saudi Arabia for generations. He was elected mayor of Mecca in 1961, and in 1963 was appointed commander of the Saudi National Guard—both important grooming roles in anticipation of higher political power within the family.

After the death of King Khalid in 1982, and the ascension of Fahd bin Abdulaziz to the throne, Abdullah was selected as crown prince, though not without considerable resistance and factional struggle within the complex family network. Later, in 1995, when King Fahd suffered a serious stroke, Abdullah became the acting head of state and the highest ranking member of the royal family. But he was not officially crowned King until 2005, when his incapacitated brother died—one decade after the stroke.

In the capital city of Riyadh, Abdullah’s half-brother Salman, aged 79, took power as the new King. Salman quickly established the new line of succession, as is customary, appointing Prince Mohammed bin Nayef next in line for the throne after designated successor Crown Prince Muqrin. Salman had been acting in the capacity as de facto ruler for months while Abdullah had been ill, or recuperating from illnesses. Abdullah’s condition worsened near the end of December when persistent bronchitis turned into pneumonia, forcing the King into the hospital.

The new king addressed his country, now in mourning, on television and radio early Friday, assuring them of stability and easing worries.

“We will continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment,” the King said, adding “the Arab and the Islamic nations are in dire need of solidarity and cohesion.” The reference was widely viewed in the U.S. and Europe as a veiled reference to the instability sparked by the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, new tensions between Iran and the rest of the world, and the potentially destabilizing effects of al Qaeda-inspired terror and disruptions in Yemen.

The new King Salman had served previously as Defense Minister, a role he has maintained since 2011. Salman was instrumental in encouraging others in the royal family to accept U.S. involvement in the current multi-pronged war against ISIS and al Qaeda. For this reason, analysts in Washington expect no major shift in military or defense policy to emerge from Riyadh.

But King Salman is facing what may be his nation’s most critical juncture: the threat of ISIS, which now competes almost daily with al Qaeda for pre-eminence in violent extremism, extends deeply into Saudi Arabia, where social and economic inequality are still a stubborn fact of life. He also assumes power at a moment of maximum risk on the Arabian Peninsula, as extremist and radical groups attempt to destabilize Yemen, and as ISIS militants move perilously close to the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

King Salman will also face demographic challenges as his country’s young people grow in proportion to the rest of the population. The internet, smart phones, and social media are shattering the social template of an ultra-conservative nation where the state generally exerts substantial control over news and information.

Salman also arrives to the throne at the height of worldwide economic tensions over oil—not because prices are high, but because those prices are low. Other OPEC countries are angry at Saudi Arabia for its persistent overproduction of oil at a time when world reserves are at their highest in a generation. Energy analysts in the United States are unsure as to what King Salman’s intentions might be concerning oil production, but are in agreement that the next few days and weeks will be critical to understanding Saudi Arabia’s long-term intentions in energy supplies.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Oil Prices & Saudi Arabia’s Endgame; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 8, 2015.

Oil, Debt, & Venezuela on the Brink; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 9, 2015.