Arab and Western leaders have mourned Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who died early Friday, while international media reported a surge in oil prices following the news.
Although official reports say King Abdullah died at age 90 or 91, cables made public by Wikileaks state that he was born in 1916, making him 98 or 99 years old.
Abdullah’s brother, King Salman, thought to be 79, has taken over as the ultimate authority in a country that faces unprecedented tumult in the region and difficult long-term domestic challenges compounded by the plunging price of oil.
In his first public address, King Salman pledged on Friday no change in the ultra-conservative kingdom’s direction.
“We will remain with God’s strength attached to the straight path that this state has walked since its establishment by King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, and by his sons after him,” Salman said in televised remarks.
King Salman has named his half-brother Muqrin, 69, as his crown prince and heir. He also appointed the kingdom’s Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who led the country’s war on al-Qaeda, as second in line to the throne, according to a royal decree on Friday.
He also named one of his sons, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, as defense minister, who was also appointed as the head of the royal court and special adviser to the monarch, said a decree published by state news agency SPA. The king decided to keep other ministers, including in the foreign, oil and finance portfolios, in their positions, television reported.
For more than eight decades since the founding of the modern kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, the title of king has passed along a line of brothers born to the first king, Abdulaziz ibn Saud. The al-Saud family has ruled the majority of land constituting modern Saudi Arabia since the mid-18th century.
Abdul Aziz had 45 recorded sons and Abdullah, Salman and Muqrin were all born to different mothers.
Abdullah had ruled Saudi Arabia as king since 2006, but had run the country as de facto regent for a decade before that, after his predecessor King Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke.
Salman must navigate a white-hot rivalry with Iran playing out in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Bahrain, open conflict in two neighboring states, a threat from Islamist militants and bumpy relations with the United States.
Reputedly pragmatic and adept at managing the delicate balance of clerical, tribal, royal and Western interests that factor into Saudi policy making, Salman appears unlikely to change the kingdom’s approach to foreign affairs or energy sales.
During his five decades as Riyadh governor, he was reputedly adept at managing the delicate balance of clerical, tribal and princely interests that determine Saudi policy, while maintaining good relations with the West.
But Salman is believed to be suffering from serious health problems, including Alzheimer’s and dementia, which raise serious questions about his capacity to rule.
By appointing his youngest half-brother Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, as crown prince, King Salman decisively moved to end speculation about the direction of the royal succession and splits in the ruling family.
Saudi Arabia, which holds more than a fifth of the world’s crude oil, also exerts some influence over the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims through its guardianship of Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest sites. It has also spread its rigid Wahhabi Salafi interpretation of Islam across the world.
Abdullah played a guiding role in Saudi Arabia’s support for Egypt’s government after the military toppled President Mohammed Mursi in 2013, after having initially supported dictator Hosni Mubarak, and drove his country’s support for groups seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, allowing US troops to use its territory to train rebels.
Saudi Arabia’s strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam is mirrored in the ideology of some of the jihadist groups that have emerged during the Syrian conflict, notably the al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
World leaders react
Foreign leaders gathered in a cavernous mosque in the Saudi Arabian capital on Friday for Abdullah’s funeral.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the leaders of Sudan and Ethiopia joined Gulf rulers for the funeral prayer at Riyadh’s Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque.
They prayed alongside Salman.
Television pictures showed Abdullah’s covered body borne on a simple litter carried by members of the royal family following prayers. Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, the National Guard minister and a son of the late king, was among the litter-bearers.
The body was quickly moved to nearby al-Ud public cemetery.
In keeping with the kingdom’s strict traditions, he was to be buried in an unmarked grave as was his predecessor King Fahd, who died in 2005.
Bahrain’s King Hamad, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani, a high-level delegation from the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah were among other leaders at the funeral.
Under Abdullah, Saudi Arabia has been a key ally of Washington in the Arab world, most recently joining the so-called US-led coalition carrying out airstrikes against ISIS.
US President Barack Obama paid tribute to late Abdullah, describing him “as a leader” who “was always candid and had the courage of his convictions.”
“As our countries worked together to confront many challenges, I always valued King Abdullah’s perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship,” said Obama.
“The closeness and strength of the partnership between our two countries is part of King Abdullah’s legacy.”
During Abdullah’s nearly decade-long reign — which spanned the 2011 uprisings in the region and multiple wars that roiled the Middle East — Saudi Arabia and the United States remained staunch allies.
Obama praised Abdullah’s “steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the US-Saudi relationship.”
The 41st US president George H. W. Bush hailed a “dear friend and partner” whom he described as a “wise and reliable ally.”
Abdullah will be buried Friday following afternoon prayers, according to the Saudi government.
Obama also praised Abdullah’s efforts to foster peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
“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, Obama said the king was “dedicated to the education of his people and to greater engagement with the world.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry paid tribute to Abdullah saying “the world has lost a revered leader.”
“He was so proud of the Kingdom’s journey, a brave partner in fighting violent extremism who proved just as important as a proponent of peace,” Kerry said in a statement.
Members of the US Congress also paid tribute.
Republican Senator John McCain described Abdullah as an “important voice for reform in Saudi Arabia.”
“He pushed for the modernization of the education system, curbed the authority of the religious police, and extended women the right to vote and run in municipal elections.”
Saudi women were officially told in 2011 that they would be given the right to vote in municipal elections, which have been postponed until 2015.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said the late king “was an example of grounded, considered and responsible leadership.”
“His wise policies contributed greatly to our region and to the stability of the Middle East,” Rivlin said in a statement.
Israel’s former president Shimon Peres said Abdullah’s death was “a real loss for the peace of the Middle East”.
“He was an experienced leader and a wise king. He had the courage … to stand up and introduce a peace program for the Middle East,” Peres said on Friday, referring to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.
“I’m not sure that we could have accepted all the items in the peace process but the spirit, the strength and the wisdom invested in it” led to a process that serves still as “a powerful base for making peace,” the former Israeli president told reporters on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The peace initiative put forward by Abdullah offered Israel blanket recognition from 22 Arab states in return for a Palestinian state alongside a Zionist Israeli state. Many pro-Palestine activists have criticized the two-state solution, which they see as unlikely to solve the economic and security issues faced by Palestinians.
Iran offered condolences Friday to the people and government of Saudi Arabia, and said Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif would travel to Riyadh.
In a statement on its foreign ministry website, Iran said Zarif “will take part in an official ceremony” in the Saudi capital on Saturday, without giving further details.
Iran and Saudi, seen as the region’s foremost Shia and Sunni powers, have had long-standing troubled relations.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he has postponed Friday’s planned trip to Somalia to attend the funeral of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, a day after a bomb targeted a Turkish delegation in the capital Mogadishu.
“We’ve decided to go (to Riyadh) and are heading there now. But we are also going to continue our program and go to Djibouti and Somalia,” Erdogan told reporters in comments broadcast live by state television TRT.
Erdogan said he will travel to Djibouti after the funeral, and sources in his office said the Turkish leader is expected to go to Somalia on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Arab leaders also mourned the late Saudi king.
Lebanese former Prime Minister Saad Hariri called on fellow Lebanese to mourn the death of Saudi Arabia King Abdullah “who has continually offered support for Lebanon.”
“The Arab and Muslim nations have lost in the absence of King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz a brilliant leader and an exceptional figure that printed the history of the Saudi Arabia kingdom and the region with great achievements and initiatives, which will remain the benchmarks for political interaction and economic and social growth to the Kingdom and its Arab environs,” Hariri said in a statement.
Hariri called on the Lebanese people “who had a special place in the heart of Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz at the level of father-son relationship” to declare a day of mourning in all areas “in an expression of popular loyalty to the man who never failed to support Lebanon and to stand by its side in the toughest conditions.”
Lebanon’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam announced three official days of mourning for King Abdullah, the National News Agency, with flags flying at half-mast.
Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, meanwhile, declared a 40-day official mourning, during which government institutions will be closed for three days and the flag flown at half-mast.
“The Kingdom of Bahrain, the Arab and Islamic nations have lost, with the death of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, a wise leader who dedicated his life to serving his people, nation, religion and humanity,” the Bahraini Royal Court said.
The United Arab Emirate’s Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan has also ordered an official mourning for three days starting Friday, during which the flag will be flown at half-mast.
“We mourn one of the most prominent leaders of the Arab and Muslim nations who dedicated himself to serving Islam and the Arab cause,” Nahyan said in a statement broadcast by the official Emirati news agency.
Jordan’s King Abdullah pulled out of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, early following the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah.
Other Arab delegates also left Davos prematurely to head of the funeral of the Saudi king. The early departure of Jordan’s king forced the forum to change a session at which he was due to speak on Friday about Middle East security.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi also mourned the Saudi monarch.
“The Egyptian people will never forget King Abdullah’s historic stances towards them, which reflected his wisdom and faith in the importance of Arab cooperation,” the Egyptian presidency said.
A source told Anadolu news agency that Sisi will cut down a current visit to Switzerland, in which he had taken part in Davos international economic forum, to attend King Abdullah’s funeral.
Meanwhile, the Cairo-based al-Azhar — Sunni Islam’s highest seat of learning — also mourned the deceased king and praised his efforts in developing the Two Holy Mosques, at which millions of Muslims perform pilgrimage every year.
Al-Azhar also hailed King Abdullah’s “huge financial contributions allocated to the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip and aiding the people of Syria and Iraq.”
Surge in Oil Prices
In a country where the big ministries are dominated by royals, successive kings have kept the oil portfolio reserved for commoners and insisted on maintaining substantial spare output capacity to help reduce market volatility.
Oil prices jumped on Friday as news of the death Abdullah added uncertainty in energy markets already facing some of the biggest shifts in decades.
Brent crude futures rose to $49.70 a barrel by 0808 GMT, up from $1.18 a barrel. US WTI crude futures were at $47.31, up one dollar.
“This little spike in prices is understandable. But this is a selling opportunity in our view. It should be sold off quickly and it won’t last long at all,” said Mark Keenan of French bank Societe Generale.
After seeing strong volatility and price falls earlier in January, oil markets have moved little this week, with Brent prices range-bound between $47.78 and $50.45 a barrel.
The new king is expected to continue an OPEC policy of keeping oil output steady to protect the cartel’s market share from rival producers.
“When King Salman was still crown prince, he very recently spoke on behalf of the king, and we see no change in energy policy whatsoever,” Keenan said.
Analysts said almost equally as important as the royal succession to energy markets would be whether Saudi oil minister Ali al-Naimi, in office since 1995, might step down.
“The real question is if there is a new oil minister soon,” asked FGE analyst Tushar Bansal, adding that Naimi had reportedly wanted to step down but been convinced by King Abdullah to stay on.
Abdullah’s death comes amid some of the biggest shifts in oil markets in decades.
Oil prices have more than halved since peaking last June as soaring supplies clash with cooling demand.
Booming US shale production has turned the United States from the world’s biggest oil importer into one of the top producers, pumping out over 9 million barrels per day.
Data from the Energy Information Administration on Thursday showed the biggest build in US crude inventory in at least 14 years, driving Brent and WTI prices apart.
To combat soaring output and falling prices, many oil exporters, such as Venezuela, wanted the 12-member Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to cut output in order to support prices and revenues.
Yet, led by Saudi Arabia, OPEC announced last November it would keep output steady at 30 million barrels per day.
In the long term Saudi rulers have to manage the needs of a rapidly growing population plagued by structural unemployment, an economy that remains overly dependent on oil revenue and undermined by lavish subsidies, and growing demands for more freedoms and rights.
Social Media and Human Rights
Many Saudis took to the Internet to praise the deceased monarch, but some, including campaigners for free speech and women’s right to drive, were less flattering.
Abdullah was “loved by the Saudi people and the entire Muslim population. We did not lose a king today, we all lost a father,” Ameera al-Taweel said in one of thousands of Twitter messages.
Saudi Army News, an official account, expressed condolences and said: “This Twitter account will stop tweeting for three days in mourning of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, may God rest his soul.”
Some talked of the development Abdullah fostered in the kingdom.
“Spending was generous and golden projects in all regions,” wrote Naif al-Qarni.
In a country where official media are tightly controlled, the Internet offers more freedom for Saudis to communicate.
The kingdom’s abysmal record on free speech was highlighted multiple times during Abdullah’s rule by the case of opposition leader Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who was sentenced to death for demanding reforms and more rights for Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, and Raif Badawi, a blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail.
Badawi’s Twitter account retweeted a comment on Abdullah’s death saying: “God forgive him and have mercy on him.”
Rights group Amnesty International said on Thursday that Saudi Arabia had postponed Badawi’s flogging for a second time on medical grounds, which had been due to resume on Friday. He has already received 50 lashes.
Meanwhile, campaigners for women’s right to drive referred only in passing to the king’s death, saying on their Twitter account: “For all creatures whether big or small — nothing remains but your deeds and your grave — and only God lasts forever.”
They posted a picture of the king but then followed it with photographs of Loujain Hathloul and Maysaa Alamoudi, two women’s rights activists detained since early December.
Saudi Arabia, with a population of about 29 million including around 20 million Saudis, is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive.
Saudi women have taken to social media in protest of the ban on female driving.
Activists say women’s driving is not actually against the law, and the ban is linked to tradition and custom ultra-conservative Wahhabi nation, and not backed by Islamic text or judicial ruling.
In October, dozens posted images online of themselves behind the wheel as part of an online campaign supporting the right to drive.
In response, the Ministry of Interior said it would “strictly implement” measures against anyone undermining “the social cohesion.”
Abdullah pushed cautious changes in the conservative Islamic kingdom including superficial advances for women’s rights and economic deregulation, but made no moves towards democracy.
Some of those posting comments were unimpressed by his accomplishments.
He was “neither a reformer nor leader,” Usamah Mohammad said in a tweet
Human Rights Watch said that analysis of trials of a number of human rights workers, peaceful dissidents, activists and critics of the Saudi regime revealed “serious due process concerns” such as “broadly framed charges,” “denial of access to lawyers,” and “quick dismissal of allegations of torture without investigation.”
Riyadh has taken a zero tolerance approach to all attempts at protest or dissent in the kingdom, including by liberal rights activists, Islamists, and members of the Shia minority.
“We condemn the Saudi government’s repressive policies towards dissidents who are increasingly using the Internet,” Reporters Without Borders (RSF) deputy program director Virginie Dangles said late last year.
The watchdog urged authorities to “release all the citizens and human rights activists who are being denied their right to freedom of expression and information, and to abandon all judicial proceedings against them.”
In February, RSF said that Gulf monarchies, fearful of unrest, have stepped up efforts to monitor and control the media, particularly online.
Saudi Arabia, which is on the group’s “Enemies of the Internet” list, has been particularly aggressive in policing the Internet, including by arresting those who post critical articles or comments, RSF said.
Scores of Saudis have been arrested over the years for posting content critical of the Wahhabi regime on Twitter and other social media outlets.
Besides political activism, rape, murder, apostasy, armed robbery and drug trafficking are punishable by death in Saudi Arabia, which has executed 12 people so far in 2015, 87 people last year, and 78 in 2013, according to an AFP tally. The Western-backed kingdom has faced international criticism for its frequent use of the death penalty.
(Reuters, Al-Akhbar, AFP)