Saudi King Dies, Leaves Challenges for Successor

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

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia during the opening of the World Conference on Dialogue at the Pardo Palace in Madrid, Spain, on July 16, 2008
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia during the opening of the World Conference on Dialogue at the Pardo Palace in Madrid, Spain, on July 16, 2008 (Ammar Abd Rabbo)

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

The royal succession comes at a time of upheaval. Saudi Arabia, the world’s pivotal oil producer, is seen as the driving force behind keeping petroleum prices down. This puts pressure on its nemesis, Iran, as well as Russia, currently locked in a standoff with the West over its meddling in Ukraine. Both nations are heavily dependent on oil exports.

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

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 within the royal family would allow him to become king.

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 surgical procedures in recent years and was seen wearing an oxygen mask in his increasingly rare public appearances.

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 from the second generation of princes have been elevated to top positions in the government.

Abdullah was seen as a reformer when he formally ascended the throne. Since he did, 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 women. But 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, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to ten years in prison and a thousand lashes for “insulting Islam.”

The Saudi king styles himself “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” in Mecca and Medina, two of the holiest sites in Islam.

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

Salman faces more daunting challenges.

Despite sitting on probably the world’s largest oil reserves, 70 percent of Saudis do not own their own homes. No Saudi pays income tax but all are eligible for cradle-to-grave social services.

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

40 percent of Saudis are under the age of fifteen.

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