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King Abdullah passes away; Saudi Arabia modernisation push halted

When Abdullah took the unprecedented step of opening a new university where men and women could mix in classrooms, part of his gradual campaign to modernize Saudi Arabia, grumbling arose among the hard-liners who form the bedrock of the powerful religious establishment. One sheikh dared to openly say that the mingling of genders at the king’s university was “a great sin and a great evil.”

Abdullah sent a tough signal: He fired the critic from the state-run body of clerics who set the rules for Saudi life. As one of the world’s largest oil exporters, Saudi Arabia is governed by a mix of tribal traditions and perhaps the world’s strictest interpretation of Islam. Its royal family prefers to act quietly in the background, shies away from direct confrontation, avoids putting itself on the line and prefers slow-paced change to radical reform.

But Abdullah, who died on Friday at the age of 90 after nearly two decades in power, acted at times with unusual forcefulness for a Saudi monarch. At home, the results were reforms, including advancements for women, that were startling - for the kingdom at least - and a heavy crackdown against al-Qaeda militants. Abroad, his methods translated into a powerful assertion of Saudi Arabia’s influence around the Middle East.

Backed by the kingdom’s top ally, the United States, the king was aggressive in trying to put up a bulwark against the spreading power of Saudi Arabia’s top rival, mainly Shiite Iran, thus shaping the Arab world along new lines, an anti-Iran camp and a pro-Iran camp. According to a leaked US diplomatic memo, Abdullah urged Washington in 2008 to consider military action against Iran to “cut off the head of the snake” because of its nuclear advances.
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