Written by C Raja Mohan
January 7, 2015
King Abdullah, 90, has been hospitalised with pneumonia, setting off speculation about the kingdom’s stability.
At a moment when the world is marvelling at the bold Saudi strategy of driving down oil prices — this week they dipped for a moment below $50 a barrel — King Abdullah, 90, has been hospitalised with pneumonia, setting off speculation about the kingdom’s stability and the international consequences of a political transition in Riyadh.
Abdullah acceded to the Saudi throne in 2005, when his half-brother King Fahd passed away. But Abdullah had been the crown prince since 1982 and was in charge of the kingdom during Fahd’s prolonged illness in his final years.
The king of Saudi Arabia is more than a mere monarch. He is the custodian of the Muslim holy places in Mecca and Medina, and exercises great political influence in the Islamic world. Since the fall of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser in the late 1960s, Saudi Arabia has acquired a decisive influence in shaping the regional order in the Middle East. The kingdom has been a strong ally of the Anglo-Saxon powers and enjoyed great clout in shaping the world economy.
With nearly a fifth of the world’s proven oil reserves and the very low costs of exploiting them, some have described the king of Saudi Arabia as the “custodian of the world’s oil prices”. As has been demonstrated in the last few weeks, Saudi Arabia remains the swing producer that can unilaterally determine the international price of oil.
Unlike in other monarchies, the Saudi succession has moved horizontally from one brother to another among the 40-odd sons that the founder of the kingdom, Abdul Aziz, fathered. Abdullah’s designated crown prince, Salman, is 79 years old; but he is said to be ill. The deputy crown prince Muqrin, the youngest of the second generation, is 69.
Some analysts worry that Abdullah’s death might generate considerable internal jockeying for power in Riyadh.