Saudi Arabia’s elderly King Abdullah died on Friday and was replaced by his half-brother Salman as the absolute ruler of the world’s top oil exporter and the spiritual home of Islam.
Global leaders paid tribute to the late monarch, a cautious reformer who led his kingdom through a turbulent decade in a region shaken by the Arab Spring uprisings and extremism.
The royal court said in a statement that Abdullah, believed to be around 90, died at 1:00 am local time, expressing its “great sadness and mourning”.
Another of the late monarch’s half-brothers, Moqrin, was named the new crown prince.
In his first public statement as the new ruler, the 79-year-old King Salman vowed to maintain a steady course for the kingdom. “We will remain with God’s strength attached to the straight path that this state has walked since its establishment,” Salman said in televised remarks. He called for ‘unity and solidarity’ among Muslims and asked for God to support him in his ‘great responsibility’.
Salman moved quickly to consolidate his hold on power, naming Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef as the new deputy crown prince and one of his own sons, Prince Mohammed, to replace him as defence minister. By making these appointments, Salman has swiftly quelled speculation about internal palace rifts at a moment of regional turmoil.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif joined Gulf leaders for the funeral prayers at the Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque in Riyadh, television pictures showed.
Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, and Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al Ahmad al Sabah were among other leaders at the funeral.
The royal court did not disclose the cause of Abdullah’s death, but he was hospitalised in December suffering from pneumonia and had been breathing with the aid of a tube.
Under Abdullah, who took the throne in 2005, Saudi Arabia has been a key ally of Washington in the Arab world, most recently joining the US-led coalition carrying out air strikes against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.
President Barack Obama was quick to pay tribute to Abdullah as a ‘valued’ ally. “The closeness and strength of the partnership between our two countries is part of King Abdullah’s legacy,” Obama said in a written statement shortly after the monarch’s death.
Other tributes came in from foreign leaders, with French President Francois Hollande hailing Abdullah as “a statesman whose work profoundly marked the history of his country”. Pakistani Prime Minister said the “entire Pakistani nation is with their Saudi brethren in this hour of grief”. He announced a day of mourning in Pakistan.
Several Middle Eastern dignitaries including King Abdullah II of Jordan and Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al-Faisal al-Saud, the half-brother of Abdullah, left the Davos World Economic Forum early on Friday following news of the king’s death.
As the top producer in the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Saudi Arabia has been the driving force behind the cartel’s refusal to slash output to support oil prices, which have fallen by more than 50 per cent since June. Oil prices surged Friday following Abdullah’s death, amid uncertainty over whether the new king would maintain that policy. But the new king pledged continuity in energy and foreign policies.
Saudi Arabia’s role as a spiritual leader for Sunni Muslims has seen it vying for influence with Shia-dominated Iran. Tehran nonetheless offered condolences over Abdullah’s death, saying Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif would travel to Riyadh to take part in official ceremonies.
Abdullah had a shrewd grasp of regional politics. Wary of the rising influence of Islamist movements, Saudi has been a generous supporter of Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah al-Sisi since the army’s ouster of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt declared seven days of official mourning for Abdullah.
Saudi Arabia has also played a key role in supporting opposition to Iran-backed President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, allowing US troops to use its territory to train rebel fighters.
Salman is widely expected to follow closely in Abdullah’s footsteps, in foreign and energy policy as well as in making moderate reforms to the conservative kingdom.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 24th, 2015.