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Saudi Arabia's King Abullah Dies At 90


One of the most striking images from the second Bush presidency was of George W. Bush at his ranch in Crawford holding hands with Saudi King Abdullah. It's a little unusual in Texas, but in Saudi Arabia it's a sign of great friendship. And for all the profound differences between the United States and the oil giant, Abdullah remained a close ally. He died yesterday. He was believed to be age 90. Let's remember Abdullah now with Thomas Lippman. He's former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post. His most recent book is "Saudi Arabia On The Edge: The Uncertain Future Of An American Ally." Mr. Lippman, good morning.

THOMAS LIPPMAN: Good morning, how are you?

GREENE: I'm well, thank you. So you met the king. You covered him for decades. Tell us what sort of man he was, and, really, what was his impact on the kingdom?

LIPPMAN: Well, you know, he was - he came across as an avuncular, kindly person, but he was also decisive and, in some ways, he could be quite vindictive. I mean, some of his political and strategic decisions were based on personal feelings including his antipathy to President Assad of Syria. And he led the kingdom the way a king does. That is to say, he was the boss, and at the end of the day, when decisions had to be made he made them. Sometimes not in accordance with what the United States or anybody else might have wanted, but according to his sense of what the best interests of Saudi Arabia were.

GREENE: Just remind us, if you can, where those interests between Saudi Arabia and the United States really lined up and where they just didn't.

LIPPMAN: Well, this was a very strange alliance and has been since the early days back in the 1940s because it's hard to imagine two countries more different than the United States and Saudi Arabia were. But they've always had, since the beginning right after World War II, common interests that made them dependent on each other. Saudi Arabia had oil. The United States had the weaponry and the technology that Saudi Arabia needed for its security. And, one way or another, these two countries always found each other necessary in terms of protecting the national interests, one or the other.

GREENE: So you say the king was really the boss. His half-brother, Crown Prince Salman, now becomes king. What do we know about him? What will this transition be like?

LIPPMAN: Well, you know, he was really not much known to the international community for most of his public life because he was the governor of Riyadh, which was an important position within Saudi Arabia, but very much a domestic position and had hardly any international dimension. Recently, of course, as crown prince he's been better known as representative of his country abroad. But what we know about him is that he derived from the same tradition as his half-brother Abdullah that in which the ruling family is the ruling family. They govern from the top down and his decision, at the end of the day, is final.

GREENE: You know, just before I let you go, I think about the king's legacy. A lot of people in the world critical of Saudi Arabia in terms of the rights of women, among other things - some saw him as a reformer. I mean, how do you see him? Is that the right title?

LIPPMAN: You know, his reputation as a reformer, I think, exceeds what actually happened. He did a lot of things that were presented as reforms, such as the creation of institutions like the National Dialogue, to allow a greater participation of people. But everything that he did reinforced rather than diminished the authority of the ruling family. His purpose was to ensure the people that the house of Saud was the best power or the best source of authority and stability for the kingdom and to ensure their loyalty.

GREENE: Thomas Lippman is the author of "Saudi Arabia On The Edge: The Uncertain Future Of An American Ally." Mr. Lippman, thanks so much for your time this morning.

LIPPMAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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