King Abdullah ibn Abdilazīz of Saudi Arabia, known in the kingdom as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, died early Friday morning according to Saudi state TV. No cause of death was immediately given.
Associated Press reports:
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, the powerful U.S. ally who joined Washington’s fight against al-Qaida and sought to modernize 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.
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’s successor is 78 year old Crown Prince Salman, who is said to be in poor health himself.
King Salman has been part of the ruling clique of princes for decades and is thought likely to continue the main thrusts of Saudi strategic policy, including maintaining the alliance with the United States and working towards energy market stability.
During his five decades as Riyadh governor he was reputedly adept at managing the delicate balance of clerical, tribal and princely interests that determine Saudi policy, while maintaining good relations with the West.
Very little is known of Crown Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. He gradated from Great Britain’s RAF college with a degree in aeronautics and also went to General Staff school in the US. He served as the Kingdom’s intelligence agency director for 7 years, beginning in 2005.
Abdullah was a strong US ally and a decent ruler. His experience will be missed in the Middle East as the challenges facing the Kingdom continue to grow. Some considered him a “reformer,” but this is surely an overstatement. The radical conservative Wahhabi clerics are a powerful influence in the country, and as long as they wield that influence, any “reforms” will be close to meaningless.