Saudi Arabian King Abdullah Dies, Prince Salman Named King

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King Abdullah
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah waits before a meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State at his desert encampment in Rawdat al-Khuraim on Jan. 5, 2014. Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud died on Friday and was succeeded by his half-brother Salman on the throne of the world’s biggest oil exporter.

King Abdullah, who was born in 1924, died at 1 a.m. in Riyadh, the royal court said in a statement. He became Saudi Arabia’s sixth king in August 2005 and was de facto ruler for almost a decade before that, after King Fahd was incapacitated by a stroke in 1996. Prince Muqrin, 69, another half-brother, has been named Crown Prince, the state-run Saudi Press Agency said. Oil prices surged after the announcement.

The transition “will be smooth,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of Cornerstone Global Associates, which advises clients on risk in the Middle East. When power starts moving to the next generation of the ruling family, “that’s when tension could start brewing,” he said by phone after the announcement.

Salman, 79, was named as crown prince in 2012 and takes over as ruler of the Arab world’s biggest economy amid turbulence across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia has joined the U.S. coalition against Islamic State and faces a growing threat from militant attacks within the kingdom, as well as unrest sweeping the Arab world outside its borders. Regional rival Iran and its Shiite allies are gaining influence, while plunging oil prices are curbing Saudi Arabia’s capacity to invest.

‘Greater Engagement’

President Barack Obama expressed condolences to the royal family and the Saudi people, calling Abdullah a ruler who “took bold steps.”

“King Abdullah’s vision was dedicated to the education of his people and to greater engagement with the world,” Obama said in an e-mailed statement. “The closeness and strength off the partnership between our two countries is part of King Abdullah’s legacy.”

Japan’s government praised Abdullah as a peace keeper.

“King Abdullah had played a big role in maintaining peace and stability in the Kingdom, the Islamic world, the world, for many years,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a press briefing in Tokyo. “He first visited our country in 1998 as Crown Prince and consolidated the friendship between the two nations. We will develop the relationship between the two nations on top of the foundation built by King Abdullah.”

West Texas Intermediate for March delivery gained as much as $1.45 and traded at $47.20 at midday in Hong Kong. Crude prices have plunged more than 50 percent since June, and Saudi Arabia led a group of OPEC members resisting calls for production cuts to halt the decline.

Abdullah, whose funeral will be held in Riyadh later on Friday, is the third senior member of the royal family to die since 2011. Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz Al Saud died in October that year and his successor, Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, died nine months later.

Younger Generation

Moving up in the hierarchy is a younger generation of Saudi royals granted senior government roles by Abdullah. Among the most prominent is Nayef’s son Mohammed, who was appointed interior minister in November 2012.

Abdullah’s spending helped Saudi Arabia remain mostly unscathed by the Arab revolts. He allocated $130 billion in social spending in February and March of 2011 as popular uprisings spread across Tunisia, Egypt and other regional countries, toppling longtime leaders.

The spread of unrest led to rifts between Saudi Arabia and its longtime U.S. ally. Abdullah backed the military ouster of a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, and Saudi leaders criticized the U.S. decision to pull back from strikes against President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Abdullah had earlier urged the U.S. to take military action against Iran, telling American diplomats to “cut off the head of the snake,” according to diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks, an anti-secrecy group that publishes leaked documents on its website, in 2010.

‘Fundamental Rupture’

The emergence of Islamic State, which has seized control of parts of Iraq and Syria and declared a caliphate there, helped repair ties, with Saudi Arabia among the Arab nations to join airstrikes against the group in Syria.

“There have been tensions between the countries,” said Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “I don’t think this transition will either resolve the tensions or result in a fundamental rupture.”

Riyadh Governor

Salman is well known to U.S. officials from his long tenure as governor of Riyadh, Alterman said. During his tenure, Riyadh was transformed from a desert oasis into a thriving modern city of 5 million people, with office towers, sprawling villas and shopping malls.

Robert Jordan, who was U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, described the new king in an interview earlier this month as “a very intellectually curious person.”

“He’s also very fond of inquiring of world leaders their opinions of the threats that are out there, the threats to particularly the Middle East,” said Jordan, who’s now diplomat in residence at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

The new king will face an immediate foreign-policy challenge in neighboring Yemen, whose President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi, a close Saudi ally, announced his resignation on Thursday after his palace was seized by Shiite rebels.

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