Empty Throne

Saudi King Dies, and the World Shudders

What’s left of the Middle East’s stability was suddenly thrown into question as the kingdom’s longtime ruler was pronounced dead.

01.23.15 1:15 AM ET

Saudi King and longtime U.S. ally Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud died Friday morning, local time, Saudi television announced. His passing, at 90, marks the end of one the strongest U.S. allies in the region and puts oil prices and the politics of the region in question.

Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz, 80, was declared king, the Royal Court announced in a statement; Prince Muqrin, the Crown Prince and royal heir. Salman has served as defense minister for nearly three years; before that he was the governor of Riyadh province for nearly a half-century. That the kingdom announced his ascension so quickly appeared to be an effort to assuage fears that the oil-rich country would become unstable in the wake of the king’s death.

“His Highness Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and all members of the family and the nation mourn the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who passed away at exactly 1 a.m. this morning,” said the statement.

That an 80-year-old with health issues of his own—he reportedly suffers from dementia—is now taking over means Abdullah’s grandsons could soon be jostling over who should be the long term successor. In the meantime, Salman is expected to maintain the kingdom’s alliance with the United States. But how exactly he will put his stamp on the kingdom creates great uncertainty for the U.S., the Middle East and the world’s oil markets, largely defined by Saudi Arabia.

Most importantly for the United States will be how Salman reacts to U.S. efforts to strike a deal with Iran.

“This comes out an interesting time because we may be on the verge of a U.S. overture to Iran which the Saudis have been skeptical about. If the new leadership is willing to give that it a chance, it could affect the region in an important way,” long time Middle East scholar and National Security Council veteran William Quandt told the Daily Beast.

The kingdom is responsible as much as 15 percent of the world’s oil supply and what defines its barrel prices. U.S. crude prices rose about 1.5 percent immediately after the kingdom announced the news Thursday evening. Oil futures jumped by more than three percent. The kingdom reportedly delayed the announcement so that his date of death would fall on a Friday, the Muslim holy day of the week.

The ailing king’s heath has been an issue of major concern for U.S. officials and the Middle East as well. For the Middle East, his death marked the demise of one of the stalwarts of the region whose reach extended from the al-Sisi’s regime in Egypt period to the war in Syria and Iraq to Arab relations with Iran.

Abdullah ruled the kingdom since 2006. He leaves behind a kingdom confronting growing population, rising economic stability and an increasingly frustrated Shiite minority that lives in its oil rich provinces and is seeking more voice in their country. Abdullah was seen to have made moderate overtures to loosen conservative Islamists of Wahabbi’s grip on social issue in the kingdom. Yet the strain of Islam there often seemed deeply retrograde; the kingdom beheaded ten people this month—and then arrested the man who filmed the executions.

The king’s passing made Thursday one of the most tumultuous days in recent history for the Gulf.  Earlier in the day, the Yemeni government was in shambles after the president and cabinet resigned in the face of pressure from the Houthis, backed by Iran. It is unclear who will lead Yemen; the Houthis said Thursday they will form a presidential council.

In single day, two of the United States’ most important partners in the region are gone. What follows next is unclear.