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— Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, the powerful U.S. ally who joined Washington’s fight against al-Qaida and sought to modernize the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom with incremental but significant reforms, including nudging open greater opportunities for women, has died, according to Saudi state TV. He was 90.

More than his guarded and hidebound predecessors, Abdullah assertively threw his oil-rich nation’s weight behind trying to shape the Middle East. His priority was to counter the influence of rival, mainly Shiite Iran wherever it tried to make advances. He and fellow Sunni Arab monarchs also staunchly opposed the Middle East’s wave of pro-democracy uprisings, seeing them as a threat to stability and their own rule.

He backed Sunni Muslim factions against Tehran’s allies in several countries, but in Lebanon for example, the policy failed to stop Iranian-backed Hezbollah from gaining the upper hand. And Tehran and Riyadh’s colliding ambitions stoked proxy conflicts around the region that enflamed Sunni-Shiite hatreds — most horrifically in Syria’s civil war, where the two countries backed opposing sides. Those conflicts in turn hiked Sunni militancy that returned to threaten Saudi Arabia.

And while the king maintained the historically close alliance with Washington, there were frictions as he sought to put those relations on Saudi Arabia’s terms. He was constantly frustrated by Washington’s failure to broker a settlement to the Israel-Palestinian conflict. He also pushed the Obama administration to take a tougher stand against Iran and to more strongly back the mainly Sunni rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Abdullah’s death was announced on Saudi state TV by a presenter who said the king died at 1 a.m. on Friday (5 p.m. Thursday, Detroit time). His successor was announced as 79-year-old half-brother, Prince Salman, according to a Royal Court statement carried on the Saudi Press Agency. Salman was Abdullah’s crown prince and had recently taken on some of the ailing king’s responsibilities.

Abdullah was born in Riyadh in 1924, one of the dozens of sons of Saudi Arabia’s founder, King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud. Like all Abdul-Aziz’s sons, Abdullah had only rudimentary education. Tall and heavyset, he felt more at home in the Nejd, the kingdom’s desert heartland, riding stallions and hunting with falcons.

Abdullah was selected as crown prince in 1982 on the day his half-brother Fahd ascended to the throne. Abdullah became de facto ruler in 1995 when a stroke incapacitated Fahd. Abdullah was believed to have long rankled at the closeness of the alliance with the United States, and as regent he pressed Washington to withdraw the troops it had deployed in the kingdom since the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The U.S. finally did so in 2003.

His aim at home was to modernize the kingdom to face the future.

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