By Roman Orsini
Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud died during treatment for pneumonia on Friday, Jan. 23. The 90-year-old led the Saudi monarchy since the death of his half brother, King Fahd, in 2005. Abdullah’s half brother, Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, is to succeed him as King, according to Aljazeera.
King Abdullah controlled the top oil producing country in the world, amassing a fortune of $21 billion, according to Forbes. He is credited with diversifying the oil dependent economy by opening the country to foreign investment projects. Moreover, Abdullah modernized the educational system – orienting toward maths and sciences – against the wishes of religious conservatives.
The Saudi royal family came to power under its first king, Ibn Saud, who founded the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Prior to the Kingdom’s founding, the Arabian peninsula was home to various tribes, under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Saud led a military campaign to unite the tribes and end Ottoman control. He fathered 45 sons, creating a succession of leadership up to the present day.
After the discovery of vast oil reserves in Saudi Arabia in the late 1930s, the Kingdom would begin to wield greater leverage in international politics. Saudi Arabia has long enjoyed a key strategic relationship with the United States, underpinned by the need to secure its store of oil.
In 1990, when Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait, the U.S. launched the Gulf War to protect Saudi Arabia from an Iraqi takeover. Today, Saudi Arabia remains a close U.S. partner in counterterrorism and regional security.
The Kingdom is one of the largest customers for the American and British arms trade. According to the New York Times, in 2011 alone, the U.S. sold Saudi Arabia $33.4 billion in weapons systems. The tremendous sales were based on fears of Iranian nuclear development.
Saudi Arabia receives much international rebuke for its human rights record and treatment of women. Human rights groups like Freedom House and Amnesty International continually rank the authoritarian government as among the worst abusers of rights.
The government routinely breaks up peaceful protests with force and arrests dissidents. A State Department report released in 2013 describes systemic use of torture and arbitrary killings by authorities. According to BBC, a Saudi blogger named Raif Badawi was recently sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for posts criticizing Islam.
The Kingdom is based on the Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam – an orthodox teaching that requires women to have a male guardian in public. Laws also forbid women from driving and working alongside men, according to CBS.