PZ BREAKING NEWS
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, dead at 90
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, the powerful U.S. ally who joined Washington’s fight against al-Qaida and sought to modernize the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom with incremental but significant reforms, including nudging open greater opportunities for women, has died, according to Saudi state TV. He was 90.
More than his guarded and hidebound predecessors, Abdullah assertively threw his oil-rich nation’s weight behind trying to shape the Middle East. His priority was to counter the influence of rival, mainly Shiite Iran wherever it tried to make advances. He and fellow Sunni Arab monarchs also staunchly opposed the Middle East’s wave of pro-democracy uprisings, seeing them as a threat to stability and their own rule.
He backed Sunni Muslim factions against Tehran’s allies in several countries, but in Lebanon for example, the policy failed to stop Iranian-backed Hezbollah from gaining the upper hand. And Tehran and Riyadh’s colliding ambitions stoked proxy conflicts around the region that enflamed Sunni-Shiite hatreds – most horrifically in Syria’s civil war, where the two countries backed opposing sides. Those conflicts in turn hiked Sunni militancy that returned to threaten Saudi Arabia.
Abdullah’s death was announced on Saudi state TV saying the king died after midnight on Friday. His successor is his 79-year-old half-brother, Prince Salman, who has recently taken on the ailing Abdullah’s responsibilities, according to the official Saudi Press Agency.
Abdullah was born in Riyadh in 1924, one of the dozens of sons of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. Like all Abdul-Aziz’s sons, Abdullah had only rudimentary education. Tall and heavyset, he felt more at home in the Nejd, the kingdom’s desert heartland, riding stallions and hunting with falcons. His strict upbringing was exemplified by three days he spent in prison as a young man as punishment by his father for failing to give his seat to a visitor, a violation of Bedouin hospitality.
Abdullah was selected as crown prince in 1982 on the day his half-brother Fahd ascended to the throne. The decision was challenged by a full brother of Fahd, Prince Sultan, who wanted the title for himself. But the family eventually closed ranks behind Abdullah to prevent splits.
Abdullah became de facto ruler in 1995 when a stroke incapacitated Fahd. Abdullah was believed to have long rankled at the closeness of the alliance with the United States, and as regent he pressed Washington to withdraw the troops it had deployed in the kingdom since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The U.S. finally did so in 2003.
In 2000, Abdullah convinced the Arab League to approve an unprecedented offer that all Arab states would agree to peace with Israel if it withdrew from lands it captured in 1967. The next year, he sent his ambassador in Washington to tell the Bush administration that it was too unquestioningly biased in favor of Israel and that the kingdom would from now on pursue its own interests apart from Washington’s. Alarmed by the prospect of a rift, Bush soon after advocated for the first time the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
The next month, the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks took place in the United States, and Abdullah had to steer the alliance through the resulting criticism. The kingdom was home to 15 of the 19 hijackers, and many pointed out that the baseline ideology for al-Qaida and other groups stemmed from Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
After the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in particular, Saudi Arabia clamped down on any dissent. Riot police crushed street demonstrations by Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority. Dozens of activists were detained, many of them tried under a sweeping counterterrorism law by an anti-terrorism court Abdullah created. Authorities more closely monitored social media, where anger over corruption and unemployment – and jokes about the aging monarchy – are rife.
Regionally, perhaps Abdullah’s biggest priority was to confront Iran, the Shiite powerhouse across the Gulf.
Worried about Tehran’s nuclear program, Abdullah told the United States in 2008 to consider military action to “cut off the head of the snake” and prevent Iran from producing a nuclear weapon, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic memo.
In Lebanon, Abdullah backed Sunni allies against the Iranian-backed Shiite guerrilla group Hezbollah in a proxy conflict that flared repeatedly into potentially destabilizing violence.
In Syria, Abdullah stepped indirectly indirectly into the civil war that emerged after 2011. He supported and armed rebels battling to overthrow President Bashar Assad, Iran’s top Arab ally, and pressed the Obama administration to do the same.
From the multiple conflicts, Sunni-Shiite hatreds around the region took on a life of their own, fueling Sunni militancy. Syria’s war helped give birth to the Islamic State group, which burst out to take over large parts of Syria and Iraq. Fears of the growing militancy prompted Abdullah to commit Saudi airpower to a U.S.-led coalition fighting the extremists.
Abdullah had more than 30 children from around a dozen wives.
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