Update: Qatar declares three days of mourning for Saudi’s King Abdullah
Updated at 1:30pm to include comments from Qatar’s government.
Qatar’s Emir has declared three days of mourning following the passing of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, according to the country’s state news agency.
The 90-year-old Saudi monarch died early this morning, raising a new round of speculation about how the transition of power in the Gulf’s largest country will affect the region.
The king will be succeeded by his half-brother, Crown Prince Salman, who is 79 years old. His brother Prince Muqrin, 69, will be the new crown prince, according to a statement from the Saudi Press Agency.
In a statement, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani praised King Abdullah’s work in strengthening Arab solidarity and renouncing violence and extremism in the region.
The Emir, who will travel to Riyadh this afternoon for King Abdullah’s funeral, called the Saudi monarch “one of the greatest and best leaders of our Arab and Islamic Nations who devoted his life to the service of his homeland and nation.”
Qatar has had a strained relationship with Saudi Arabia over the past few years as Doha worked to become a more significant international player.
However, many of Qatar’s top political leaders expressed their condolences in official statements today, joining residents who shared their sympathies on Twitter:
Additionally, several events have been postponed and canceled this weekend in Qatar out of respect for the king’s death.
Last year, Saudi, along with the UAE and Bahrain, had withdrawn its ambassadors from Qatar over a diplomatic spat presumed to involve the Muslim Brotherhood.
Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Qatar had been rising for several years during the so-called Arab Spring, when several popular uprisings in the region threatened to topple the rulers of several countries.
While Saudi Arabia opposed these pro-democracy movements and viewed them as a threat to its own stability and authority, Qatar actively supported many of the opposition factions.
The matters came to a head perhaps most critically when Qatar and Saudi Arabia found themselves backing opposing sides in Egypt.
But that dispute was apparently resolved late last year after Qatar made a number of concessions to appease its neighbors.
That included expelling several seniors members of the Muslim Brotherhood from Doha, tightening laws to outlaw insults to other Gulf leaders in a controversial cybercrime bill and clamping down on charities that send money abroad – a move interpreted as a response to criticism that Qatar was turning a blind eye to individuals raising money for armed groups such as IS.
But how the king’s passing will affect the detente between Qatar and its peers remains to be seen.
According to Michael Stephens, Deputy Director of the Royal United Services Institute Qatar, the health of Gulf relations depended heavily on the leadership of Saudi Arabia.
In an op-ed piece for Al Jazeera English, he writes:
“With regard to bringing Qatar back into the fold, it has been Abdullah, in particular, that has pushed forward the agenda. Without Abdullah, the possibility of fully mending intra-GCC ties, for example by brokering a reconciliation between Qatar and the Sisi government in Egypt, hangs more finely in the balance.”
Elsewhere in the Gulf, the UAE has declared a three-day mourning period after the death. According to the Emirates’ state news agency, President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed said:
“We mourn the death of one of the most notable leaders of the Arab Nation and Muslim Nation who generously gave a lot to his people and his nation and sincerely defended the causes of the Arab Nation and the Muslim Nation.”
Sheikh Khalifa also pledged his allegiance to the new king and ordered the UAE flags to be flown at half mast at all government departments across the country and overseas missions.
And Kuwait’s Amir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah expressed similar sentiments of loss, also praising King Abdullah’s legacy in Saudi Arabia.
So far, analysts have said they expect the leadership transition to be peaceful, and that Salman would broadly continue to adhere to his predecessor’s policies, Reuters reports.
Indeed, in a speech before Friday prayers, Salman vowed to maintain the same approach as his predecessors.
That will likely include continuing to maintain high production levels of oil despite plummeting prices, continuing to be involved in battling IS and extremist groups in Yemen, and supporting social programs to quiet any domestic unrest about unemployment.
But many challenges remain. The first is a question of succession.
Since the modern kingdom was founded in 1932, all six rulers have been brothers of the first king. But due to the advanced age of Salman his successor, there is speculation about how much longer this generation of royals will maintain power in Saudi Arabia.
“Now, with the death of either the new king, who is 79 years old, or the new crown prince, 69 years old, the so-called House of Saud will for the first time have to pick a successor from a younger generation of princes.
That will establish a whole new line of succession, a potentially disruptive moment for the kingdom at a time when it faces many serious challenges, from domestic pressures for reform to regional challenges to its leadership in the Arab world.”
How much say this line of leaders will have could determine whether change in Saudi speeds up or maintains the glacial pace that it has been on for decades, analysts have said.
Here is some of the Twitter reaction from Qatar and abroad about King Abdullah’s death: