RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, born the year the first motorcar bumped through the dusty streets of Riyadh, left a modernizing legacy of cautious social and economic reform.
King Abdullah, thought to have been born in 1924, had ruled Saudi Arabia as king since 2006, but had run the country as de facto regent for a decade before that. State television reported early on Friday that King Abdullah had died.
After outliving two designated heirs, his younger half brothers Sultan and Nayef, Abdullah is succeeded by Crown Prince Salman.
The new king is thought likely to persevere with Abdullah’s efforts over nearly two decades to nudge powerful conservative clerics to accept cautious changes aimed at reconciling Islamic tradition with the needs of a modern economy.
Plain-spoken and avuncular, King Abdullah was born in the court of his father King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud in 1924, according to the Saudi embassy in Washington. The capital Riyadh was at that time a small oasis town ringed by mud-brick walls at the center of an impoverished but rapidly growing kingdom.
By the time he became de facto regent in 1995 when his predecessor King Fahd had a stroke, he was known to foreign diplomats as devout and conservative with strong ties to the kingdom’s Bedouin tribes.
That reputation was soon blown away by the then-crown prince’s reforming zeal as he tried to curb the indulgent habits of his large ruling family and address the alarming problem of youth unemployment by liberalizing the economy to stimulate private sector growth.
However, his response to the Arab spring - a domestic security crackdown, populist economic measures and a hawkish foreign policy - disappointed some liberal Saudis.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, and an al Qaeda bombing campaign against Westerners inside the kingdom, he took on the conservative clergy who had promulgated an intolerant Islamist message in schools and mosques.
“The state is proceeding, with the help of God, in its gradual and studied course of reform,” he said, vowing to ignore both conservatives calling for “stagnation and immobility” and liberals seeking a “leap into darkness and reckless adventure”.
The reforms were slow and only partly successful, but they skewed the dynamic of Saudi policy toward gradual change and made King Abdullah a popular leader among an increasingly young population where 60 percent of Saudis are under the age of 30.
Abdullah left the kingdom’s political system largely untouched, however.
Apart from introducing elections for town councils that hold little real power, his only major political reform was to set up a council of the ruling family to make the royal succession more orderly.
King Abdullah was staunchly opposed to the pro-democracy protests in neighboring countries during the Arab Spring, reflecting Saudi concerns that the fall of old allies might create opportunities for regional rival Iran and al Qaeda.
His order to spend $110 billion on social benefits, new housing and new jobs helped to avert any significant pro-democracy unrest in Saudi Arabia.
In recent years activists who have demanded change through petitions ended up in jail, and political parties and public demonstrations are banned.
Yet even among those Saudis who called for a “day of rage” to protest against the lack of democracy, the king appeared to remain popular. Critics of the ruling family said that was because of his government’s lavish spending during his reign, a period of historically high oil revenue.
In a ruling family known for lavish excesses, his fondness for retreats at his desert camp distinguished him from Saudi princes who prefer to spend summers in Mediterranean palaces.
One of his first acts as king was to rein in spending on the royal family, demanding princes start paying for phone bills and air tickets rather than treating state bodies as a personal valet service.
His efforts to overcome a stutter, supposedly acquired after he was punished as a child, have further cemented his image as a man of the people.
When he visited Saudis living in slum-like conditions shortly after becoming king, he was applauded for a first public recognition by the state that poverty existed.
King Abdullah also aimed to improve the position of women in his ultra-conservative country, trying to offer them better education and employment prospects and saying they will be allowed to take part in municipal elections in 2015.
He said women would be selected as members of the next Shoura Council, the appointed body that advises the government on new laws.
Women are still barred from driving and must seek the approval of a male “guardian” to work, travel abroad, open a bank account or undergo surgery in some cases.
In recent years, the king’s foreign policy was increasingly focused on efforts to contain what the Sunni monarchy sees as the rising influence of Shi‘ite Muslim power Iran across the Middle East.
That policy reached its high point in March 2011 when Saudi Arabia sent troops to Bahrain to support the island’s Sunni Muslim monarchy against an uprising by the Shi‘ite majority.
It was an unpopular decision among Saudi Arabia’s own Shi‘ite minority, but many of the sect’s leaders in the kingdom said that King Abdullah did more than his predecessors to reduce discrimination.
Riyadh feared that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 had already altered the regional balance of power, giving Iran more sway from Beirut to Baghdad.
Those concerns were underpinned by Iran’s nuclear program, which the West suspects is aimed at making nuclear weapons.
In a 2009 diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, King Abdullah was quoted repeatedly as urging the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” by attacking Iran.
Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Sami Aboudi, Sonya Hepinstall and Ken Wills