King Abdullah laid to rest as new monarch faces Middle East challenges
ABU DHABI // Saudi Arabia’s new king promised to continue the policies of his predecessors as his half brother Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was laid to rest – his death on Friday ending nearly 20 years at the helm of the region’s most powerful country.
King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, 79, assumed the throne promising to “continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment”.
“The Arab and the Islamic nations are in dire need for solidarity and cohesion,” the new king said in a televised speech.
King Abdullah died in the early hours of Friday aged 90 after being admitted to a Riyadh hospital on December 31. He was diagnosed with pneumonia.
During his time in power, King Abdullah was widely regarded as a pragmatic reformer who sought to develop Saudi Arabia’s economy while steering the kingdom through a series of crises and conflicts in the region.
His funeral at Riyadh’s Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque was attended by regional leaders including the UAE’s Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Ajman, and Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah.
Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif also attended.
King Abdullah was buried in an unmarked grave as per tradition at the El Ud cemetery in Riyadh, where common Saudi citizens also rest.
Television pictures showed his body, wrapped in a white shroud, being carried on a stretcher through crowds of mourners to the mosque where prayers were held.
Moving quickly to dispel questions over succession, King Salman appointed his half brother Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, 69, as crown prince.
Saudi interior minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 55, became deputy crown prince, moving the line of succession on to the third generation of rulers.
All of Saudi Arabia’s rulers so far have been sons of King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, who founded the modern Saudi state in 1932.
King Salman, who was named crown prince in 2012 but also served as defence minister since 2011, named his son, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to replace him as head of the defence ministry.
The death of King Abdullah prompted an outpouring of sympathy from leaders in the region and worldwide.
“We mourn the death of one of the most notable leaders of the Arab Nation and Muslim Nation who generously gave a lot to his people and his nation and sincerely defended the causes of the Arab Nation and the Muslim Nation,” Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, the UAE President, said in a statement released by state news agency Wam.
Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, said Islamic and Arab nations had “lost a superb leader who stood as an advocate for Arab causes and rights and who helped spread peace, tolerance, justice and benevolence”.
King Abdullah was born in Riyadh in 1924 and ascended to the throne in 2005. He had already been Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler since 1996 because his predecessor, King Fahd, was incapacitated by a stroke.
He was widely considered a reformer, who tried to advance the role of women in Saudi society by expanding the type of jobs available to them. In 2009, he founded the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, the first mixed-gender university in the country, where men and women study together.
In 2013, he appointed 30 women to the country’s 150-member Shura Council, an advisory committee empowered to propose laws that the king can approve. He also decreed that women must always hold a fifth of the council’s seats. In 2009, he appointed the first female cabinet minister, to oversee women’s education.
He also pushed forward efforts to integrate more citizens into the workforce by imposing quotas for the number of Saudi employees companies must hire.
While he was involved in mediating a number of Middle East conflicts – from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to internal GCC tensions – it was the Arab Spring that presented King Abdullah with some of his greatest challenges, both domestically and abroad.
He steered his country through the turmoil of 2011-2012 with a mixture of assertive foreign policy, support for key allies, and the introduction of some reforms at home.
To stave off domestic unrest, he injected an estimated $130 billion (Dh477bn) into the economy, raising government salaries and subsidies. He also sought to reign in parts of the powerful religious establishment.
Abroad, he also moved to support other Arab monarchies in Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain. Saudi troops and tanks were sent to Bahrain to help quell protests by Shiite demonstrators in 2011.
While propping up some leaders, he also played a hand in smoothing some of the transitions taking place as change swept the Middle East.
Along with other Gulf Cooperation Council states, Saudi Arabia helped broker a deal that saw Yemen’s former president Ali Abdullah Saleh relinquish power in 2011.
In Syria, Riyadh aided rebels fighting to overthrow the regime of president Bashar Al Assad. And in Egypt, Saudi Arabia backed president Abdel Fattah El Sisi with billions of dollars in aid after he removed from power Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The efforts were aimed at both stabilising the Middle East and also expanding Saudi Arabia’s power as a regional leader.
The death of King Abdullah comes at a critical moment when Riyadh is battling the extremist group ISIL, which has taken over large areas of Syria and Iraq, and has claimed an attack inside Saudi Arabia.
On the country’s southern border, Yemen is in turmoil, with Shiite Zaydi rebels allied to Iran in control of Sanaa. The group’s expansion into Sunni areas of Yemen threatens sectarian war and is likely to boost recruitment for Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Another issue is Saudi Arabia’s relationship with its key ally the United States. The countries have disagreed over Washington’s efforts to improve relations with Iran as world powers work towards a deal on Tehran’s disputed nuclear programme. Saudi Arabia continues to see Iran as its main rival and is concerned abouts its ambitions for regional influence.
Following the announcement of King Abdullah’s death, oil prices rose over concerns about shifts in Saudi policy. The new monarch, King Salman, takes power at time when prices are their lowest levels since 2009 after Riyadh resisted calls for Opec production cuts.
The new competition with North American energy producers could prove to be a greater threat to stability in Saudi Arabia than ISIL militants and unrest in Yemen. For now, the country is likely to ride out the decrease in revenue from oil with its estimated $750bn in foreign currency reserves, but King Salman is expected to move quickly to advance plans for diversifying the economy.
Fahad Nazer, a Saudi political analyst, said the speed with which King Salman ascended to the throne should reassure both Saudi citizens and allies among the international community.
“I expect continuity in most, if not all, major foreign policy issues, certainly in the short term,” he said. “Down the road, King Salman will likely try to put his stamp on the throne one way or another but it remains to be seen whether that would be in the form of a major reassessment of relations with the US. I think it is unlikely.”
King Abdullah leaves multiple wives and more than a dozen children.
He also served as commander of Saudi Arabia’s National Guard from 1962 to 2010.
Updated: January 23, 2015 04:00 AM