King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has died aged 90 after a short illness, state television announced late on Thursday. He has been succeeded by Crown Prince Salman, his half-brother.
The news came after the king was admitted to hospital on 31 December suffering from pneumonia. His condition was said to have improved a few days later.
Rumours of the king’s death circulated on social media before Saudi TV began broadcasting Qur’anic verses – often a harbinger of bad news – and the announcement was made. He is to be buried on Friday afternoon.
Beyond confirmation that Salman has ascended the throne lie troubling questions about the succession, the stability of an unreformed absolute monarchy and the prospects for its younger generation of royals at a time of turmoil in the region – including the destabilising crisis in Yemen.
Abdullah bin Abdulaziz – the king since 2005 and effectively in charge since his brother Fahd’s stroke in 1995 – accepted limited change after 2011 in response to the events of the Arab spring. Yet Saudi women are still unable to drive, citizens are unable to vote except in municipal elections and public beheading by sword remains a standard feature of the judicial system. Political parties are banned.
Salman is widely believed to be unwell, with speculation he is suffering from dementia or Parkinson’s disease, though Saudis deny that. He is 79, so there is bound to be uncertainty about his rule. Stability and continuity are likely to be his guiding principles, especially at a time of alarm over the rise of Isis in Iraq and Syria, turmoil in neighbouring Yemen, the kingdom’s rivalry with Iran and controversy over its resisting calls for Opec production cuts as the price of oil has plummeted.
In recent months, Salman has begun to play a more active role and has represented the country at important meetings abroad, including a high-octane Gulf summit. He also serves as deputy prime minister and defence minister.