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, has died, according to Saudi state media. 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.
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.
Saudi state media said the king died after midnight on Friday. His successor is his 79-year-old half-brother, Prince Salman, who has recently taken on the ailing Abdullah’s responsibilities, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.
Abdullah was born in Riyadh in 1924, one of the dozens of sons of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. Abdullah was selected as crown prince in 1982 on the day his half-brother Fahd ascended to the throne.
Abdullah became de facto ruler in 1995 when a stroke incapacitated Fahd. When Fahd died in 2005, Abdullah officially rose to the throne. He then began to more openly push his agenda. His aim at home was to modernize the kingdom. One of the world’s largest oil exporters, Saudi Arabia is fabulously wealthy, but there are deep disparities in wealth and a burgeoning youth population in need of jobs, housing and education. More than half the population of 20 million is under age 25.