Biography of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia

King Abdullah
King Abdullah. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud took power at the beginning of 1996, after his half-brother, King Fahd, suffered a massive stroke. Abdullah acted as regent for his brother for nine years. Fahd died in 2005, and Abdullah ruled in his own right until his death in 2015.

During his reign, a growing chasm opened in Saudi Arabia between conservative Salafi (Wahhabi) forces and modernizers. The King himself seemed to be relatively moderate, but he didn't make many substantive reforms. In fact, Abdullah's tenure included some atrocious human rights violations in Saudi Arabia.

Early Life

Little is known about King Abdullah's childhood. He was born in Riyadh in 1924, the fifth son of Saudi Arabia's founding king, Abdul-aziz bin Abdulrahman Al Saud (known as "Ibn Saud"). Abdullah's mother, Fahda bint Asi Al Shuraim, was Ibn Saud's eighth wife of twelve. Abdullah had between fifty and sixty siblings.

At the time of Abdullah's birth, his father was Amir Abdul-aziz, and his realm included only the northern and eastern sections of Arabia. The Amir defeated Sharif Hussein of Mecca in 1928 and declared himself King. The royal family was quite poor until about 1940 when Saudi oil revenues began to flow.


Details of Abdullah's education are sparse, but the official Saudi Information Directory states that he had "a formal religious education." According to the Directory, Abdullah supplemented his formal schooling with extensive reading. He also spent a long stint living with the desert Bedouin people in order to learn traditional Arab values.

Early Career

In August of 1962, Prince Abdullah was appointed to lead the Saudi Arabian National Guard. The National Guard's duties include providing security for the royal family, preventing coups, and guarding the Muslim Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. The force includes a standing army of 125,000 men, plus a tribal militia of 25,000.

As king, Abdullah commanded the National Guard, which is composed of the descendants of his father's original clan.


March of 1975 saw Abdullah's half-brother Khalid succeed to the throne upon the assassination of another half-brother, King Faisal. King Khalid appointed Prince Abdullah Second Deputy Prime Minister.

In 1982, the throne passed to King Fahd after Khalid's death and Prince Abdullah was promoted once more, this time to Deputy Prime Minister. He presided over meetings of the king's cabinet in that role. King Fahd also officially named Abdullah the Crown Prince, next in line to the throne.

Rule as Regent

In December of 1995, King Fahd had a series of strokes that left him more-or-less incapacitated. For the next nine years, Crown Prince Abdullah acted as regent for his brother, although Fahd and his cronies still wielded considerable influence over policy.

King Fahd died on August 1, 2005, and Crown Prince Abdullah became king, taking power in name as well as in practice.

Rule in His Own Right

King Abdullah inherited a nation torn between fundamentalist Islamists and modernizing reformers.

The fundamentalists sometimes use terrorist acts (such as bombing and kidnapping) to express their anger over issues like the stationing of American troops on Saudi soil. The modernizers increasingly use blogs and international pressure groups to call for increased women's rights, reform of Sharia-based laws, and greater press and religious freedoms.

Abdullah cracked down on the Islamists but didn't make the significant reforms for which many observers both inside and outside of Saudi Arabia had hoped.

Foreign Policy

King Abdullah was known throughout his career as a staunch Arab nationalist, yet he reached out to other countries.

For example, the king put forth a 2002 Middle East Peace Plan. It received renewed attention in 2005, but has languished since then and has yet to be implemented. The plan calls for a return to the pre-1967 borders and a right of return for Palestinian refugees. In return, Israel would control the Western Wall and some of the West Bank, and receive recognition from Arab states.

To placate Saudi Islamists, the king disallowed U.S. Iraq War forces to use bases in Saudi Arabia.

Personal Life

King Abdullah had more than thirty wives and fathered at least thirty-five children.

According to the Saudi Embassy's Official Biography of the King, he bred Arabian horses and founded the Riyadh Equestrian Club. He also loved to read, and established libraries in Riyadh and Casablanca, Morocco. American ham radio operators also enjoyed chatting on the air with the Saudi king.

The King has a personal fortune estimated at $19 billion US, making him among the top 5 richest royals in the world.