Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, Who Promoted Stability and Limited Reform, Dies at 90

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Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

Shortly after the American-backed government of Yemen fell, there was another development in the Middle East that could bring significant changes to the balance of power in the region. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah died on Friday at the age of 90, according to a statement on state television. The exact cause of death was not disclosed, but the king was hospitalized last month with a lung infection. Abdullah’s half-brother, 79-year-old Crown Prince Salman, is his successor.

Abdullah essentially ran Saudi Arabia since 1995, when his brother Fahd suffered a stroke, and he assumed the throne when Fahd died a decade later. Though he worked to reinforce his family’s control over Saudi Arabia, he also embraced some reforms. Considering that Saudi Arabia is a place where beheadings are routine and a man was arrested recently for filming one, Abdullah’s push toward modernization may not be apparent to foreigners. However, he did make significant changes, such as improving the country’s educational system, bringing Saudi Arabia into the World Trade Organization, pushing for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and easing some restrictions on women (though they still can’t vote or drive and must have a male guardian throughout their lives).

While Abdullah disagreed with the Obama administration’s handling of the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, and secret nuclear talks with Iran, under his rule Saudi Arabia remained a strong U.S. ally. The country has aided in the U.S.-led fight against ISIS by letting American forces train moderate Syrian fighters on its soil, contributing aircraft and weapons, and conducting air strikes on the terror group.

The White House announced that Vice-President Biden will lead a U.S. delegation to Saudi Arabia in the coming days.

King Abdullah’s life spanned from before the birth of modern Saudi Arabia through its emergence as a critical force within the global economy and a leader among Arab and Islamic nations,” President Obama said in a statement. “He took bold steps in advancing the Arab Peace Initiative, an endeavor that will outlive him as an enduring contribution to the search for peace in the region. At home, King Abdullah’s vision was dedicated to the education of his people and to greater engagement with the world.”

The new king, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, is 79 years old, and while he’s an experienced leader and his policies are likely to be in line with his brother’s, he’s rumored to have serious health problems. Salman has already appointed his youngest brother, 69-year-old Prince Muqrin, crown prince. Still, changes in Saudi Arabia’s leadership may affect various issues involving the Middle East, from the price of oil to the war against ISIS.