King Abdullah Dies, Disrupting Saudi Arabia at a Sensitive Time

Plunging oil prices, the Islamic State, and a shadow war throughout the Middle East. The next ruler of the House of Saud has a full plate.


Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud died early Friday, Jan. 23, roiling a key U.S. ally just as Washington increases its reliance on Riyadh on issues ranging from the faltering fight against the Islamic State to the on-again, off-again push to oust Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.*

Abdullah, 90, had technically ruled the kingdom since August 2005, but had largely been overseeing its domestic agenda, internal security efforts, and foreign policy since shortly after his half brother King Fahd suffered a stroke in late 1995.* Saudi state television reported that Abdullah would be succeeded by his brother, Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, 79.

The king’s death comes at a delicate time for the oil-rich kingdom, which is struggling with the impact of plunging oil prices domestically, the rise of the Islamic State, and an Iran whose influence is growing across the Mideast as its proxies take on increasingly powerful roles in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Abdullah’s successor will also face an intensifying crisis in Yemen, whose Saudi-backed government has been effectively overthrown by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. A Saudi official said in a recent interview that Riyadh sees the future of Yemen as “an existential threat.”

Saudi-U.S. relations have been strained in recent years because of Riyadh’s anger at Barack Obama’s administration over its ongoing nuclear talks with Tehran. Saudi Arabia and Iran have been waging a shadow war for years, and Abdullah and his aides believe that the President Obama has been willing to concede too much to Tehran as part of his quest for a nuclear deal.

In a strange-bedfellows alliance, Abdullah’s fears are shared by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will be coming to Washington soon to address a joint session of Congress to effectively lobby against a legislative effort to impose new sanctions on Iran if the talks fail. Obama has threatened to veto the bill, which has the quiet support of many Saudi and Persian Gulf diplomats, and issued a public rebuke to Netanyahu by announcing that he wouldn’t meet with the visiting Israeli leader.

In the near term, however, no issue may prove more complicated for the next Saudi ruler than the sustained and significant drop in world oil prices. Crude has plunged to roughly $50 a barrel, dealing a massive blow to the Saudi government, which is almost entirely dependent on oil revenues. The decline will push Saudi Arabia into a budget deficit in 2015 for the first time in years.

Falling oil prices will present a pair of challenges to Salman. First, the kingdom has for decades effectively bought itself internal stability by putting in place a highly generous social welfare system that offers citizens free health care, education, and other perks. That will be more difficult to maintain with oil trading at its lowest price in decades.

Second, Saudi Arabia has used its oil to build one of the Middle East’s most powerful militaries by buying reams of advanced American weaponry and hiring thousands of American and Western troops to train its forces. The kingdom has in recent years also massively ramped up its financial commitments to the rebels working to unseat Assad and to the new Egyptian government, which it sees as a bulwark against a return of the Islamists who controlled the country during the short reign of former President Mohamed Morsi.

For the moment, many Saudis will wonder about the future of the reform efforts Abdullah launched but was unable to fully see through. He worked to reduce the country’s own reliance on oil by promoting the use of nuclear power and other forms of renewable energy. The king had also taken modest steps to give women more freedoms, though a promise to allow women to vote in municipal elections was indefinitely postponed amid criticism from the country’s religious and social conservatives.

Salman has spent years in the circles of power, but it’s far from clear what kind of ruler he will prove to be. Former CIA analyst Bruce Riedel noted almost two years ago that Salman “has been reported to be increasingly ill … and often not up to the job.” Rumors about Salman’s health have swirled for years, but he and his aides have consistently denied that he suffers from any significant problems.

The new king will have to forge his own relationship with Obama and decide how hard to push back against Iran on the battlefields of the Mideast and in the negotiating rooms of Vienna and Geneva. Abdullah kept his country relatively stable at a time when much of the region was racked by violence and rapid political change. The future of Saudi Arabia will be shaped by how well his brother will be able to do the same.

Photo credit: Getty Images

*Corrections, Jan. 23, 2015: King Abdullah died early Friday, Jan. 23, local time. An earlier version of this article said he died Thursday, Jan. 22, which was the day in the United States when he died. King Fahd had a stroke in late 1995; an earlier version of this article mistakenly said the stroke happened in 1996. (Return to reading.)

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