King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia dead at 90

NEW YORK (CNN) – Saudi Arabian authorities are preparing to bury their late king, in accordance with Islamic tradition.

King Abdullah passed away Thursday at the age of 90.  He’d been suffering from pneumonia and recently had a breathing tube put in place.  King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud’s ascent to the Saudi throne ushered in great expectations.

It was August 2005, but he’d been running Saudi Arabia since 1996 following his half brother King Fahd’s stroke the previous year.  Now was the time modernizers hoped Saudi Arabia would slowly shed some of its ultra conservative values.

King Abdullah was the sixth Saudi monarch, his father King Abdulaziz al Saud was the country’s first ruler unifying the desert kingdom in 1932.  On his death in 1953 succession passed to his sons the eldest or most capable first by the time he took the throne king Abdullah was already in his 80’s.

In nearly a decade of ruling on behalf of his brother he began opening the door to reform.  The events of September 11th 2001 crystallized the choice before the Saudi royal family.  15 of the 19 al Qaeda hijackers who attacked the United States were Saudis and al Qaeda was also targeting the Saudi establishment and its allies.

Under Abdullah’s leadership the country slowly squashed al Qaeda, capturing or killing its leaders in the kingdom, forcing the remnants underground and sidelining radical preachers.

At the same time, the king unlike some of his predecessors began investing the country’s oil wealth in creating jobs for the future.  Embarking on a massive building program the King Abdullah Economic City was just one of several such mega projects creating cities from the ground up.

Providing not just accommodation for a workforce, but new industries, an acknowledgment that oil money wouldn’t last for ever.  The king focused on ramping up education too, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology designed to be the first co-ed university in the country.

When conservatives criticized his reforms some were removed, but he was creating ripples of discontent.  Some of his more conservative ministers, his half brothers, bridled at his changes.  They weren’t the only Saudis disappointed with his leadership.

Many women had hoped for greater independence under his rule, the right to drive, but their dreams were not realized during his lifetime.  He had initiated forums for women to debate issues, but failed in the face of conservative critics to give them real freedom.

Inside Saudi there were limits to what he could achieve, but beyond its borders he saw the kingdom’s stature grow.  The only Arab nation with a seat at the G20 also becoming the lead Arab nation in a U.S. led coalition to eradicate the ultra radical ISIS group from Iraq and Syria.

He bolstered the desert kingdoms defense forces with a massive $150 billion dollar spend and backed Egypt’s military rulers.  Crushing the pan-national political Islamists the Muslim brotherhood whom he saw as a threat to Saudi Arabia’s future.  He became the first guardian, as Saudi monarchs are known, of Islam’s two holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.

Despite Saudi Arabia’s own relatively conservative and seemingly xenophobic interpretation of Islam he preached religious tolerance.  Criticized for being out of step by some, he will be remembered by many as being a few paces ahead.

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