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Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah is dead. He left his successor with a lot of problems.

Now-deceased Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud speaks before a meeting with the US Secretary of State at his private residence on June 27, 2014.
Now-deceased Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud speaks before a meeting with the US Secretary of State at his private residence on June 27, 2014.
(Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.
  1. The king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz, passed away on Thursday evening, according to the Saudi government. He was 90 years old and has been in ill health for some time.
  2. Saudi Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who is 79 years old, has been named the new king. The new crown prince is Muqrin bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is 69 years old. Both Salman and Muqrin are younger brothers of Abdullah.
  3. Saudi Arabia has clear lines of succession so the world can expect an orderly of transition of power. However, 69-year-old Muqrin is the youngest brother in his immediate family's generation, so at some point soon the crown will need to pass to the next generation, which has many dozens of members jockeying for power. This sets up Saudi Arabia for a possible succession crisis at a fragile time in the country's history.

What this means for Saudi Arabia

Don't expect any chaos or instability in the immediate term. There's no evidence that anyone will challenge new King Salman's claim to the throne, and Salman has a new crown prince already lined up behind him. You shouldn't expect major changes to Saudi Arabia's notoriously repressive practices, either: "Salman is thought of as a conservative, which is saying something in Saudi Arabia, and [new crown prince] Muqrin is an Abdullah loyalist," Slate's Joshua Keating explains.

But there's trouble on the horizon. Given Salman's age, he probably won't be able to hold onto power for too long. And Muqrin is only ten years younger, which makes him the youngest of Abdullah's brothers. It's not clear who in the next generation would take power after him, or when that question will be forced.

Meanwhile, the new Saudi king has a lot of problems on his hands. Saudi Arabia has an extremely young population; "64 percent of its 19.4 million citizens [are below the age of 30," Caryle Murphy writes for the Wilson Center. IMF projections suggest it will be difficult for Saudi Arabia's private sector to grow fast enough to provide enough jobs for them. Moreover, the younger generation of Saudis is somewhat more skeptical of the regime's theocratic legal system than are their parents.

It'll be up to Saudi Arabia's aged leadership to ensure these youth are successfully integrated into Saudi society. Saudi Arabia hasn't faced a major Arab-spring like uprising, partly because the Kingdom's immense wealth has helped it buy the loyalty of its younger citizens. That may not be sustainable forever.

The international environment is also tough. Saudi Arabia, one of the world's three-largest oil producers, is dealing with record-low oil prices. It's jockeying for influence against Iran — and other Gulf states such as Qatar — in Syria, where Saudi Arabia has supported the rebellion against leader Bashar al-Assad. Saudi Arabia is also deeply concerned about Iran's nuclear program, and the American effort of negotiating with the Iranian government.

So congratulations, King Salman: you'll have to hit the ground running.

Further reading

What King Abdullah's death could mean for oil prices

The new Saudi King is so old that his father was born in 1876