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King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia dies at age 90

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who led his country through years of regional tumult and internal strife, has died. He was 90.

Abdullah died Friday, Saudi state television reported. No other details were given, but he had undergone a series of back operations in the United States in the last few years.

His 79-year-old half brother, Prince Salman, succeeded him.

Heading one of the world’s most strategically delicate nations at a time when the Middle East convulsed with upheaval and violence, Abdullah attempted to steer Saudi Arabia in an often ill-defined middle direction among conflicting pressures: its relationship with America and domestic demand for independence; the corrupting influence of massive oil wealth amid the enforced austerity of the kingdom’s strict Wahhabism; and the homegrown social ferment of hard-line religious zealots and eager reformers.

Abdullah, born in the Saudi capital of Riyadh in 1924, was one of more than 30 sons born to Abdul Aziz al Saud, who founded the modern Saudi state in 1932. In the early years of the 20th century, the man known as Ibn Saud overcame rival tribes and fought off the Ottomans to unify a stretch of earth that would soon prove to contain oil wealth beyond dreaming.

Abdullah sprang from the bitter tribal fault lines that cracked the kingdom in its founding days. His father was the venerated conquering hero; his mother was a bride claimed from one of the conquered tribes.

Educated by a mix of Islamic scholars and military training, the young Abdullah also spent years living in the desert with Bedouin tribes, according to his official biography.

He rose to command the kingdom’s National Guard, an institution that long served as his seat of power in the bitter and largely hidden power struggles waged among the feuding scions of the House of Saud.

In 2005, the death of King Fahd, who had been incapacitated by a stroke 10 years earlier, cleared the way for Abdullah to ascend to the throne. But by that time, Abdullah had been the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia for a decade.

His challenges were many. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, had badly dented friendly relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia, which regards itself as the de facto guardian of the interests of Sunni Muslims. Subsequent American-led wars in Afghanistan and neighboring Iraq stirred Saudi hearts and raised fear of sectarian imbalance. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict raged on. Worries over a potentially nuclear-armed Iran shadowed Riyadh. And, meanwhile, rising world powers such as China came calling, courting Saudi Arabia for its vast oil resources.

At home, Abdullah contended with intense social pressures of a poorly educated, disaffected and massive youth population; women who languished with few rights or freedoms; poverty in the shadow of oil opulence; and the continuing struggle between conservative clerical thought and the thirst for greater freedom.

The Saudi-American friendship, founded on a decades-old co-dependence of oil and strategic necessity, took a bad hit with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Fifteen of the 19 men who carried out the attacks were Saudi citizens, a fact that pushed many American to take a more critical look at the depth and quality of Riyadh’s friendship.

Ties were further strained by the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Saudi Arabia has long feared that the war destabilized the region by giving too much political power to Iraq’s Shiites while strengthening the hand of Shiite Iran.

Despite gnawing anxiety over growing Shiite power, Abdullah publicly touted improved ties with Iran in recent years. But leaked diplomatic cables released by the WikiLeaks website in 2010 show that, behind closed doors, Abdullah lobbied hard for the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” by attacking Iran’s nuclear program.

Meanwhile, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remained a festering source of tension, both in the Arab region and in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.

In 2002, Abdullah unveiled a plan for peace between Israel and Palestinian territories. The proposed deal included full Arab recognition of the state of Israel in exchange for Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders.

The Saudi ruler was reportedly offended by what he regarded as a tepid American response to the initiative, which was largely ignored or discounted outside the Arab world.

Over the years, Abdullah gained a reputation as a moderate reformer, a leader who guided Saudi Arabia into the World Trade Organization and began to address some of the kingdom’s most intransigent social troubles.

But his strokes of reform were tentative.

There was the election that allowed Saudi men to vote for just half of the representatives on relatively powerless municipal councils.

Abdullah’s time also saw the much-touted appointment of the kingdom’s first female minister to oversee the education of girls, even as Saudi women continued to be forbidden from driving, traveling without permission from a male guardian, and lacking a slew of rights that are regarded throughout much of the world as basic to all humans.

For Saudis, the years under Abdullah left no doubt that the kingdom’s fundamental power structure remained unshaken and seemingly unmovable.