King Abdullah, Saudi Monarch Who Modernized Economy, Dies

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Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP

King Abdullah, the monarch who oversaw a fivefold increase in the size of the Arab world’s biggest economy and met the Arab Spring with a mixture of force and largesse, has died after almost a decade on the throne. He was born in 1924.

Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, Abdullah’s half-brother, will succeed him, state television announced early on Friday in Riyadh. Abdullah had been in hospital in the Saudi capital since last month, receiving treatment for pneumonia. He became Saudi Arabia’s sixth king in August 2005, after years as de facto ruler since 1996 when King Fahd was incapacitated by a stroke.

Abdullah used oil wealth to spur economic growth and address unemployment of as much as 12 percent. He improved women’s rights while doing little to advance political freedoms. The monarch poured $130 billion into the economy to head off the revolts that shook the Arab world from 2011, while curbing press freedoms and passing a terrorism law to crackdown on dissent.

These tactics have maintained stability. Saudi Arabia has been left mostly unscathed by the Arab turmoil while the Al Saud rulers have addressed succession issues following the deaths of then-Crown Prince Sultan in October 2011 and his successor, Prince Nayef, nine months later.

“Abdullah’s reign has shown some signs of reform in a Saudi sort of way, but very careful reform,” said Paul Sullivan, a political scientist specializing in Middle East security at Georgetown University in Washington. “He put great efforts into stopping his country from falling into the Arab Spring.”

Economic Growth

Under his guidance, first as de facto ruler and later as king, Saudi Arabia’s economy grew from $163 billion in 1996 to a projected $778 billion in 2014, according to International Monetary Fund data.

Abdullah recognized the importance of exporting energy to Asia. He picked China over the U.S. as the first destination on his maiden foreign tour months after becoming king. China in 2009 overtook the U.S. as the main buyer of Saudi oil.

“Oil demand has shifted tremendously to Asia over the last 10 years,” Fahad al-Turki, senior economist at Jadwa Investment Co., said in a phone interview. “With Saudi Arabia’s level of oil production, rising demand from Asia has been met.”

Under Abdullah, Saudi Arabia raised its production capacity by about a third to 12.5 million barrels a day. Abdullah supported cooperation between consuming and producing countries in 2008 when oil prices peaked at about $147 a barrel.

OPEC Philosophy

He countered a call by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2007 for the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries to become a “political agent” at the group’s heads of states summit in Riyadh in 2007. “Oil is an energy for building and prosperity, it shouldn’t become a means of conflict,” Abdullah said.

In recent months, Saudi Arabia has resisted calls by other OPEC nations for production cuts in response to plunging crude prices.

As part of his drive to get Saudis to work, Abdullah imposed quotas in June 2011 to induce employers to cut foreign staff. At least 700,000 jobs were added to the Saudi economy since, with 70 percent going to Saudis, according to government statistics.

Although Abdullah improved the status of women by opening up work and education opportunities, the kingdom remains the only country in the world where women can’t drive. Women also can’t travel or get an education without male approval under the guardianship system.

Critic’s View

Before being sentenced to prison in March 2013, Mohammed al-Qahtani, a democracy advocate, said “only a minimum has happened” under Abdullah to advance civil society.

“He should have made more changes to institutions and to the rule of law,” he said by phone from Riyadh. “This country doesn’t have either. The rights of women are still horrible.”

The government enacted a law in February 2014 that defines terrorism as any act with criminal motive that undermines public order or endangers national unity. Security forces can arrest and hold suspects for as long as six months.

The law created “a legal framework that appears to criminalize virtually all dissident thought or expression as terrorism,” Human Rights Watch said in a March report.

A royal decree in April 2011 banned media deemed to violate Islamic law and threaten internal security, the official Saudi Press Agency reported. Publications that break the rules can be fined or closed.

Al-Qaeda Attack

Abdullah had been king for less than a year when Islamic militants linked to al-Qaeda tried to penetrate the southern gate of Abqaiq, the world’s biggest oil plant, with twin car bombs on Feb. 24, 2006. In response, the government started a 35,000-strong Facilities Protection Force to guard oil pipelines, refineries and desalination plants.

Islamic militants carried out a violent campaign against Saudi Arabia from 2003, seeking to weaken the ruling family’s control of its oil reserves and end ties with the U.S. Western nationals were targeted by kidnappings and bombs, until a crackdown by the Interior Ministry subdued the militants.

Saudi militants fled the government crackdown to Yemen, making the rugged mountainous country a haven for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. This has raised concerns that it will disintegrate into a failed state and destabilize the kingdom.

Last year, Saudi Arabia announced it was joining the U.S.- led coalition against Islamic State, the al-Qaeda offshoot that has seized parts of Iraq and Syria. While it’s not clear how much military action Saudi forces are involved in, the move raised concern that militants may retaliate against the kingdom.

Abdullah was also de facto ruler when al-Qaeda struck the U.S. on Sept. 11. The attacks, organized by Osama Bin Laden and carried out mostly by Saudi citizens, strained the historic relationship between the two countries.

U.S.-Saudi Ties

Since King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, Abdullah’s father and the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, met President Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy in 1945, the U.S. and the Al Saud monarchy have been strategic partners. Oil for security underpinned the relationship.

U.S.-Saudi ties have been tested by political unrest in the Middle East since 2011, with differences over how to respond to Syria’s civil war and political turmoil in Egypt. Beyond these disagreements, Abdullah has maintained strong security ties with the U.S. In 2011, Saudi Arabia concluded $33.4 billion in arms transfer agreements with the U.S., which represented 99 percent of the kingdom’s total arms agreements that year, according to the Congressional Research Service in Washington.

“The U.S.-Saudi military relationship has remained robust under Abdullah,” said Theodore Karasik, a senior adviser with Risk Insurance Management in Dubai.

Stimulus Spending

The social spending in the wake of the Arab Spring wasn’t the only time Abdullah used the nation’s wealth to maintain stability at home.

In late 2008, the Gulf nation announced a $400 billion spending program to counter the effects on the Saudi economy of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. It was the largest stimulus package in the Group of 20 nations as a percentage of gross domestic product.

“Regardless of the economic tremors that the world witnessed, Saudi Arabia was able to continue its economic development with firm feet,” the king said on March 7, 2010, in his annual speech to the consultative Shoura Council.

Saudi Arabia then announced in August 2010 a $384 billion, five-year spending plan. The economy expanded 7.4 percent that year and 8.6 percent in 2011.

Political Changes

Abdullah went to the U.S. for medical treatment in November 2010. When he returned in February the following year, the Middle East had changed. Popular movements forced leaders from power from Egypt to Yemen. Abdullah sent troops to Bahrain while domestic security forces prevented Shiite unrest in the oil-producing Eastern Province.

Abdullah was born in Riyadh in 1924, the 13th son of Abdul Aziz, according to the website of the Saudi Embassy in Washington. His exact date of birth, at a time when Saudis often didn’t have birth certificates, hasn’t been officially disclosed.

Abdullah was a keen horseman, spent much of his 20s and 30s with his father in the royal court and had strong ties with the kingdom’s desert tribes, according to author Mark Weston, who wrote the 2008 book “Prophets and Princes.”

In September 2011, Abdullah granted women the right to vote in municipal elections for the first time in modern Saudi history.

Women’s Rights

“We refuse to marginalize the role of women in Saudi society in every field of work,” Abdullah said in a Sept. 25, 2011, speech in Riyadh to the Shoura Council. “Women have the right to submit their candidacy for municipal council membership.”

Abdullah, who never went to college, opened the kingdom’s first mixed-gender university in September 2009 as part of his plan to expand educational opportunities for his citizens.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology near the Red Sea fishing village of Thuwal allows women to work and study alongside men. Women don’t have to wear the “abaya,” a black robe that covers all but the face.

Abdullah turned to his security forces and the religious establishment during the Arab Spring unrest, and rewarded them for their support. He boosted funding for homes and salaries, and vowed to create 60,000 new jobs at the interior ministry.

During his reign, the kingdom, which is majority Sunni, also fought Yemeni Shiite Muslim rebels in a three-month war along its southern border. Apache helicopters and F-15 jet fighters were deployed to dislodge the Shiite Houthi rebels after they killed a national guardsman and seized territory inside the kingdom in November 2009.

“He’s a king who has faced some extreme problems and given the constraints he has faced, he has done well,” Georgetown’s Sullivan said.

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