King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who came to the throne in old age and earned a reputation as a cautious reformer even as the Arab Spring revolts toppled heads of state and Islamic State militants threatened the Muslim establishment that he represented, died on Friday, according to a statement on state television. He was 90.
The Royal Court said in a statement broadcast across the kingdom that the king had died early Friday. The royal court did not disclose the exact cause of death. An announcement quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency said the king had a lung infection when he was admitted on Dec. 31 to a Riyadh hospital.
The king’s death adds yet another element of uncertainty in a region already overwhelmed by crises and as Saudi Arabia is itself in a struggle with Iran for regional dominance.
The royal family moved quickly to assure a smooth transition of power in a nation that is a close ally of the United States, the world’s largest exporter ofoil and the religious center of the Islamic faith. In a televised statement, a brother of Abdullah, Crown Prince Salman, announced that the king had died and that he had assumed the throne.
Salman’s ascension appears to signal that the kingdom will preserve its current policies, but he faces exceptional new challenges. Though Saudi Arabia has traditionally preferred to push its agenda through checkbook diplomacy, it has taken a far more muscular approach since the Arab Spring, offering generous support to its allies, like Egypt, while working to oppose adversaries like President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Even as the drop in the price of oil has depleted its own treasury, it has steadfastly refused to cut the supply, hoping to increase market share at the expense of adversaries that are less able to pump oil at low prices.
“As our countries worked together to confront many challenges, I always valued King Abdullah’s perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship,” President Obama said in a statement issued by the White House. “As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions.”
Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. announced that he was to lead the American delegation “to pay our respects and offer condolences.”
Accidents of birth and geology made Abdullah one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful men. In control of a fifth of the world’s known petroleum reserves, he traveled to medical appointments abroad in a fleet of jumbo jets, and the changes he wrought in Saudi society were fueled by gushers of oil money.
As king he also bore the title of custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, making him one of the faith’s most important figures.
Abdullah had grown accustomed to the levers of power long before hisascension to the throne in August 2005. After his predecessor, King Fahd, a half brother, had a stroke in November 1995, Abdullah, then the crown prince, ruled in the king’s name.
Yet Abdullah spoke as plainly as the Bedouin tribesmen with whom he had been sent to live in his youth. He refused to be called “your majesty” and discouraged commoners from kissing his hand. He shocked the 7,000 or so Saudi princes and princesses by cutting their allowances. He was described as ascetic, or as ascetic as someone in the habit of renting out entire hotels could be.
Abdullah’s reign was a constant effort to balance desert traditions with the demands of the modern world, making him appear at times to be shifting from one to the other.
When popular movements and insurgencies overthrew or threatened long-established Arab rulers from Tunisia to Yemen in 2011, he reacted swiftly.
On his return from three months of treatment for a herniated disk and a blood clot in New York and Morocco, his government spent $130 billion to build 500,000 units of low-income housing, to bolster the salaries of government employees and to ensure the loyalty of religious organizations.
He also created a Facebook page, where citizens were invited to present their grievances directly to him, although it was not known how many entries actually reached him.
But in at least two telephone calls he castigated President Obama for encouraging democracy in the Middle East, saying it was dangerous. And he showed no tolerance for the sort of dissent unfolding elsewhere.
The grand mufti, the kingdom’s highest religious official, proclaimed that Islam forbade street protests. Scores of protesters who failed to heed that message were arrested in the chiefly Shiite eastern provinces. A new law imposed crippling fines for offenses, like threatening national security, that could be broadly interpreted. Reaching beyond his borders, Abdullah sent tanks to help quell an uprising in neighboring Bahrain.
Moves of Moderation
Still, Abdullah became, in some ways, a force of moderation. He contested Al Qaeda’s militant interpretations of the faith as justifying, even compelling, terrorist acts. He ordered that textbooks be purged of their most extreme language and sent 900 imams to re-education sessions. He had hundreds of militants arrested and some beheaded.
But he was also mindful that his family had, since the 18th century, derived its authority from an alliance with the strict Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. He accordingly made only modest changes to the kingdom’s conservative clerical establishment. When Islamic State forces conquered vast stretches of Syria and Iraq, imposing a creed linked to Saudi Arabia’s own, the kingdom was slow to respond.
However, Abdullah chastised senior clerics for not speaking out more forcibly against the jihadists, and he eventually sent Saudi pilots to participate in an American-led campaign against the Islamic State.
Abdullah’s Saudi Arabia had hurtled from tribal pastoralism to advanced capitalism in little more than a generation. The fundamentalist clerics who gave the family legitimacy remained a powerful force. Women who appeared in public without the required covering risked arrest or a beating from the religious police.
Abdullah did make changes that were seen as important in the Saudi context. He allowed women to work as supermarket cashiers and appointed a woman as a deputy minister. At the $12.5 billion research university he built and named for himself, women study beside men.
However, he did not fulfill a promise made to Barbara Walters of ABC News in his first televised interview as king in October 2005: that he would allow women to drive, a hugely contentious issue in Saudi Arabia.
Although he ordered the kingdom’s first elections for municipal councils in 2005, a promised second election, in October 2009, in which women would vote, was postponed until September 2011. Then in March of that year, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs announced that the question of women voting would be put off indefinitely “because of the kingdom’s social customs.”
Abdullah’s greatest legacy, however, may prove to be a scholarship program that sent tens of thousands of young Saudi men and women abroad to study at Western universities and colleges. It has been suggested that the changes long resisted by conservative forces — resistance that even a king could not overcome — would one day come about as those men and women rose in the government, industry and academia.
Perhaps Abdullah’s most daunting challenge arrived in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with the revelation that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. The royal family at first railed at what it called a vicious smear campaign against the kingdom, then ruthlessly suppressed known militants — not least because the monarchy itself was a main target of Al Qaeda.
Striking a balance was almost always Abdullah’s preference. He strove to keep oil prices high, but not so high that they prompted consumers to abandon petroleum, then hedged his bets by investing billions in solar energy research. In 2008, he convened a meeting of world religious leaders to promote tolerance, but held it in Madrid rather than Saudi Arabia, where the public practice of religions other than Islam is outlawed.
Yet Abdullah could, and did, take strong positions. He denounced the American-led invasion of Iraq as “an illegal occupation”; proposed a comprehensive peace plan for the Middle East that included recognition of Israel by Arab nations; and urged in a secret cable that the United States attack Iran, Saudi Arabia’s great rival. “Cut off the head off the snake,” he said.
His kingdom’s interests always came first. Although American companies discovered and developed the Saudi oil fields, he cut deals with Russian, Chinese and European petroleum companies. He made it clear that the world’s energy appetites mattered less than Saudi Arabia’s future.
A Rigorous Upbringing
Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud was born in Riyadh in 1924 into a vast, complicated family. His father, Abdul Aziz, had as many as 22 wives.
Abdul Aziz, whose ancestors founded a precursor to the present Saudi state in 1744, chose his wives partly to secure alliances with other Arabian tribes. Abdullah’s mother, Fahda bint Asi al-Shuraim, was a daughter of the chief of the Shammar, whose influence extended into Syria, Iraq and Jordan.
Abdullah was Fahda’s only son. She also had two daughters.
King Abdul Aziz was not an indulgent father to his dozens of sons. He was quoted as saying, “I train my own children to walk barefoot, to rise two hours before dawn, to eat but little, to ride horses bareback.”
When the young Abdullah once neglected to offer his seat to a guest, Abdul Aziz sentenced him to three days in prison.
Abdullah, who overcame a stutter, was educated in religion, Arab literature and science by Islamic scholars at the royal court. From the Bedouin nomads, he learned traditional ways, including horsemanship and desert warfare. In 1962, he was appointed commander of the National Guard, which draws recruits from the Bedouin tribes, protects the king and acts as a counterweight to the army.
Four of Abdullah’s half brothers preceded him to the throne.
King Khalid appointed Abdullah as second deputy prime minister in 1975. In 1982, Fahd, Khalid’s successor, named him deputy prime minister and crown prince.
After Fahd’s stroke, Abdullah ran the government at first as regent. Political pressures later forced the removal of the regent title, but Abdullah remained the effective decision maker. He refused to sign any official papers with his own name as long as his stricken brother lived. Fahd died on Aug. 1, 2005.
One of King Abdullah’s first official acts was to pardon two Libyans accused of plotting to kill him, a result of Egypt’s engineering a reconciliation between the two nations. He also pardoned three Saudi academics who were in prison for advocating a constitutional monarchy.
He went on to establish job-training programs to help ease severe unemployment among educated young Saudis, to develop long-wastednatural gas as a commodity that could be exported, and to bring Saudi Arabia into the World Trade Organization. He became the first Saudi head of state to meet a pope, Benedict XVI, in 2007.
Although he reaffirmed his kingdom’s longstanding alliance with the United States, tensions arose with events. Abdullah refused, for instance, to permit American bases on Saudi territory for the Iraq invasion in 2003, something he had allowed in the first Gulf War.
‘For the Greater Good’
The king also grappled with domestic crises. The deaths of 15 girls in a dormitory fire in Mecca in 2002 caused an international uproar when it was learned that the religious police had not let them escape because they were not properly dressed. Furious, the king dismissed the head of women’s education.
In 2007, he pardoned a teenage girl who had been sentenced to six months in jail and 100 lashes after being raped. She was convicted of being found in a car alone with a man who was not her relative, a crime in Saudi law.
Though Abdullah made it clear that he thought the girl was guilty, pleasing the religious authorities, he pardoned her, he said, “for the greater good.”
In line with Islamic law, Abdullah kept no more than four wives at once, and was married at least 13 times, said Joseph Kechichian, who studies the royal family as a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.
Abdullah fathered at least seven sons, nearly all of whom have occupied powerful positions as provincial governors and officers in the national guard, Dr. Kechichian said. Of his 15 known daughters, one is a prominent physician, and another has appeared on television to advocate women’s rights.
Abdullah may have resembled his warrior father, but he had a modern sensibility. A diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks in 2010 said that he had suggested to an American counterterrorism official that electronic chips be implanted in detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
He said it had worked with horses and falcons, to which the American replied, “Horses don’t have good lawyers.”