Saudi King Dies, Leaves Challenges for Successor

The new Saudi king, Salman, faces upheaval abroad and challenges at home.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia attends the World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid, Spain, July 16, 2008
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia attends the World Conference on Dialogue in Madrid, Spain, July 16, 2008 (Ammar Abd Rabbo)

Saudi state television reported on Friday that King Abdullah has died and was succeeded by his brother, Salman.

Upheaval in the region

The royal succession comes at a time of upheaval for the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s pivotal oil producer, is seen as the driving force behind keeping the fuel’s prices down. This puts pressure on its nemesis, Iran, as well as Russia, which is locked in a standoff with the West over its meddling in Ukraine. Both countries are heavily dependent on oil exports.

The desert kingdom is a key player in the struggle with political Islam. An American ally, it backs the restored military-led government in Egypt as well as the war against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria.

Next in line

Abdullah’s successor, thought to be nearly eighty years old, was named crown prince in 2012 when the previous heir presumptive, Nayef, died.

Salman has also served as defense minister since.

Abdullah’s death puts Prince Muqrin, the former Saudi intelligence chief, second in the line to the throne, although there are doubts other factions in the royal family would allow him to become king.

Ill health

The former monarch was thought to have been born in 1923 and ruled Saudi Arabia since 2005.

He had run the country as de facto regent for a decade before that after his predecessor, King Fahd, suffered a debilitating stroke.

Abdullah underwent numerous surgeries in recent years and was seen wearing an oxygen mask in increasingly rare public appearances.

Succession

His death raised fresh concerns about the order of succession.

All Saudi kings so far have been sons of Ibn Saudi, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, who died in 1953. Few second-generation princes have been elevated to top positions in the government.

Reform

Abdullah was considered a reformer. Since he came to power, tens of thousands of young Saudis have been allowed to study at Western universities. One in five members of the kingdom’s advisory parliament are now women.

However, women are still forbidden from traveling without a male guardian.

Political and human rights groups are also banned in the kingdom. Last year, a Saudi blogger was sentenced to ten years in prison and a thousand lashes for “insulting Islam.”

In a 2007 meeting with American diplomats, described in a cable published by WikiLeaks, the new king, Salman, said Abdullah’s social reforms had to move slowly for fear of a conservative backlash.

Salman’s challenges

Salman faces more daunting challenges.

Despite sitting on probably the world’s largest oil reserves, 70 percent of the Saudis do not own a home of their own. Saudis don’t pay income tax, but they are all eligible for cradle-to-grave social services.

The kingdom is the world’s sixth largest oil consumer but has little industry other than petroleum.

Economic diversification and growth could inhibit its ability to sell oil abroad — which would, in turn, limit its ability to pay off a restive population with generous public-sector jobs and welfare benefits.

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