Written by Vision Africa Magazine   
Friday, 27 March 2015 10:38


US President Barack Obama has led a large, bipartisan US delegation to Saudi Arabia following the death of King Abdullah.

Mr Obama cut short a trip to India to make time for brief visit, during which he met new ruler King Salman. He was accompanied by prominent Republican officials, including former Secretaries of State James Baker and Condoleezza Rice.


Saudi Arabia is a key US ally in a region riven by war and rivalries. President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama were met at the airport in Riyadh by King Salman and driven to Erga Palace, the king's private residence, for dinner. Mr Obama and King Salman held an hour-long meeting in which they discussed a range of issues including the campaign against Islamic State (IS), US officials said.

Saudi Arabia is among the US-led coalition of Western and Arab nations conducting air strikes against IS in Syria and Iraq. But relations between Washington and Riyadh have been strained by differences over US policy on the Syrian conflict and its nuclear diplomacy with Shia power Iran-a regional rival of Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia.


Analysis: Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent

The two countries have been strategic partners for 70 years but recently there have been strains below the surface of their  relationship. The Saudis were dismayed when the US called off their proposed missile strikes against the regime of Syria's Bashar al-Assad in response to his alleged role in a chemical weapons attack in 2013. The Saudis, like most of the Gulf Arab states, want Mr Assad gone.  While they support the US-led coalition against IS, they believe the group can never be defeated while the Syrian president remains in power. But the Saudi way is to avoid any confrontational talk when hosting a leader of Mr Obama's stature. Instead, they are likely to leave tough talking to officials in private. The two leaders also discussed the security situation in Yemen as well as stability in the global oil market. Mr Obama stressed the importance of human rights, US officials added, but did not raise the case of Saudi blogger Raif Badawi.


Mr Badawi was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison last May for “insulting Islam through electronic channes” and “going beyond the realm of obedience.  The sentence provoked an international outcry.

Before his arrival Mr Obama had said one of the main reasons for the visit was to pay respects to the late King Abdullah “who in his own fashion presented some modest reform efforts within the kingdom”.

Mr Obama had been due to visit the Taj Mahal in India on Tuesday, but had to cancel to allow for the four-hour visit to Riyadh. Also among the 30-strong US  delegation were CIA director John Brennan, John McCain, the Republican chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, and Republican former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft.

The new king of Saudi Arabia Salman, moved quickly to project a sense of continuity on Friday after the death his predecessor, Abdullah, as analysts cautioned that he had inherited the worst constellation of political and economic turmoil in the region by any monarch in 50 years. To the immediate south, the government of an impoverished Yemen collapsed even as Abdullah lay dying. To the north, Saudi Arabia's effort to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad of Syria instead helped create a menacing spillover, with fighters from the Islamic State recently carrying out a bloody suicide bombing on the Saudi border with Iraq.

To the west, Egypt, an old ally once wobbling toward chaos, appears to be stabilizing under a new military regime, not least because of Saudi financial support estimated at $12 billion.

Most important, to the east, Iran looms as an ever-larger threat. It has been steadily expanding its influence within the Shiite Muslim crescent from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, and seems on the verge of repairing its abysmal relations with the West if it can conclude a deal over its disputed nuclear program.

On Friday, Salman used a televised address to underscore that, Saudi Arabia would not change course. “We will continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment,” he declared.

The royal family moved quickly to assure a smooth transition of power in the world's largest exporter of oil.


Saudi oil targets are seen stable

The death of King Adbullah is unlikely to prompt a lowering of Saudi Arabia's oil output, analysts said.



King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who came to the throne in old  age and earned a reputation as a cautious reformer even as the Arab Spring revolts toppled  Heads of State and Islamic State militants threatened the Muslim establishment that he represented, died on Friday, according to a statement on state television. He was 90.

The Royal Court said in a statement broadcast across the kingdom that the king had died early Friday. The court did not disclose the exact cause of death. An announcement quoted by the Saudi Press Agency said the king had a lung infection when he was admitted on Dec. 31 to a Riyadh hospital.

The king's death adds yet another element of uncertainty in a region already overwhelmed by crises and as Saudi Arabia is itself a struggle with Iran for regional dominance.

The royal family moved quickly to ensure a smooth transition of power in a nation that is the world's largest exporter of oil, and the religious center of the Islamic faith. In a televised statement, Abdullah's brother, Crown Prince Salman, announced that the king had died and that he had assumed the throne. Salman's as cension appears to signal that the kingdom faces exceptional new challenges.

Although Saudi Arabia a close ally of the United States, has traditionally preferred to push its agenda through checkbook diplomacy, it has taken a far more muscular approach since the Arab Spring, offering generous support to its  allies, like Egypt, while working to oppose adversaries like President  Bashar al-Assad of Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Even as the drop in the price of oil has depleted its own treasury, Saudi Arabia has steadfastly refused to cut the supply, hoping to increase market share at the expense of adversaries that are less able to pump oil at low prices.

President Obama said in a statement issued by the White House: “As our countries worked together to confront many challenges, I always valued King Abdullah's perspective and appreciated our genuine and warm friendship. As a leader, he was always candid and had the courage of his convictions”.

Accidents of birth and geology made Abdullah one of the world's wealthiest and most powerful men. In control of a fifth of the world's known petroleum reserves, he traveled to medical appointments abroad with a fleet of jumbo jets, and the changes he wrought in Saudi society were fueled by gushers of oil money. As king he also bore the title custodian of Islam's holiest sites, Mecca and Medina, making him one of the faith's most important figures.

Abdullah had grown accustomed to the levers of power long before his ascension to the throne in August 2015. After his predecessor, King Fahd, a half brother, had a stroke in November 1995, Abdullah, then the crown prince, ruled in the king's name. Yet he spoke as plainly as the Bedouin tribesmen with whom he had been sent to live in his youth. He refused to be called “your majesty” and discouraged commoners from kissing his hand. He shocked the 7,000 or so Saudi princes and princesses by cutting their allowances. He was described as ascetic, or as someone in the habit of renting out entire hotels could be. Abdullah's reign was a constant effort to balance desert traditions with the demands of the modern world, making him appear at times to be shifting from one to the other.

When popular movements and insurgencies overthrew or threatened long-established Arab rulers from Tunisia to Yemen in 2011, he reacted swiftly. On Abdullah's return from three months of treatment in New York and Morocco for a herniated disk and a blood clot, his government spent $130 billion to build 500,000 units of low-in-come housing, to bolster the salaries of government employees and to ensure the loyalty of religious organizations.

He also created a Facebook page, where citizens were invited to present their grievances directly to him, although it was not known how many entries actually reached him. But in at least two telephone calls, he castigated Mr. Obama for encouraging democracy in the Middle East, saying it was dangerous. He showed no tolerance in his country for the sort of dissent unfolding elsewhere.

The grand mufti, the kingdom's highest religious official, proclaimed that Islam forbade street protests. Scores of protesters who failed to heed that message were arrested in the chiefly Shiite eastern provinces. A new law imposed crippling fines for offenses, like threatening national security, that could be broadly interpreted.

Reaching beyond his borders, Abdullah sent tanks to help quell an uprising in Bahrain.

Abdullah's Saudi Arabia hurtled from tribal pastoralism to advanced capitalism in little more than a generation. The fundamentalist clerics who gave the family legitimacy remained a powerful force. Women who appeared in public without the required covering risked arrest or a beating from the religious police.

Abdullah did make changes that were seen as important in the Saudi context. He allowed women to work as supermarket cashiers and appointed a woman as a deputy minister. At the $12.5 billion research university he built and named for himself, women study beside men.  But he declined to fulfill a promise made to Barbara Walters of ABC News in his first  televised interview as King in October 2005 that he would allow women to drive, a hugely contentious issue in Saudi Arabia.  Although he ordered the kingdom's first elections for municipal councils in 2005, he promised second election, in October 2009, in which women would vote, was postponed until September 2011. Then in March of that year, the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs announced that the question of women voting would be put off indefinitely “because of the kingdom's social customs.”

Abdullah's greatest legacy, however, may prove to be a scholarship program that sent tens of thousands of young Saudi men and women abroad to study at Western universities and colleges. It has been suggested that the changes long resisted by conservative forces  resistance that even a king could not overcome  would one day come about as those young men and women rose in the government, industry and academia.

Perhaps, Abdullah's most daunting challenge arrived in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, with the revelation that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. The royal family at first railed at what it called a vicious public relations campaign against the kingdom, then ruthlessly suppressed known militants not least because the monarchy itself was a main target of Al Qaeda.

Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud was born in Riyadh in 1924 into a vast, complicated family. His father, Abdul Aziz, had as many as 22 wives.

Abdul Aziz, whose ancestors founded a precursor to the present Saudi state in 1744, chose his wives partly to secure alliances with other Arabian tribes. Abdullah's mother, Fahda bint Asi al-Shuraim, was a daughter of the chief of the Shammar, whose influence extended into Syria, Iraq and Jordan.

Abdullah was Fahda's only son. She also had two daughters.

Four of Abdullah's half brothers preceded him to the throne. King Khalid appointed Abdullah as second deputy prime minister in 1975. In 1982, Fahd, Khalid's successor, named him deputy prime minister and crown prince.

After Fah's stroke, Abdullah ran the government at first as regent. Political pressures later forced the removal of the regent title, but Abdullah remained the effective decision-maker until assuming the throne in 2005. He refused to sign any official papers with his own name as long as his stricken brother lived. Fahd died on Aug.1, 2005.


In line with Islamic law, Abdullah kept no more than four wives at once and was married at least 13 times, said Joseph Kechichian, who studies the royal family as a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. Abdullah fathered at least seven sons, nearly all of whom have occupied powerful positions as provincial governors and officers in the national guard, Dr. Kechichian said. Of his 15 known daughters, one is a prominent physician, and another has appeared on television as an advocate for women's rights.  Abdullah may have resembled his warrior father, but he had a modern  sensibility. A diplomatic cable revealed by WikiLeaks in 2010 said he had suggested to an American counterterrorism official that electronic chips be implanted in prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.  He said it had worked with horses and falcons, to which the American replied, “Horses don't have good lawyers.”


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