TIME Baseball

Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ernie Banks Dies at 83

Though he was an 11-time All-Star from 1953-71, Banks never reached the postseason

Even as the Chicago Cubs lost one game after another, Ernie Banks never lost hope.

That was the charm of “Mr. Cub.”

Banks, the Hall of Fame slugger and two-time MVP who always maintained his boundless enthusiasm for baseball despite decades of playing on miserable teams, died Friday night. He was 83.

The Cubs announced Banks’ death, but did not provide a cause.

Banks hit 512 home runs during his 19-year career and was fond of saying, “It’s a great day for baseball. Let’s play two.” In fact, that sunny finish to his famous catchphrase adorns his statue outside Wrigley Field.

And on a cold winter night Friday in Chicago, the ballpark marquee carried the sad news for the entire town to see: Ernie Banks. “Mr. Cub.” 1931-2015.

“Words cannot express how important Ernie Banks will always be to the Chicago Cubs, the city of Chicago and Major League Baseball. He was one of the greatest players of all time,” Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said in a statement. “He was a pioneer in the major leagues. And more importantly, he was the warmest and most sincere person I’ve ever known.”

“Approachable, ever optimistic and kind hearted, Ernie Banks is and always will be Mr. Cub. My family and I grieve the loss of such a great and good-hearted man, but we look forward to celebrating Ernie’s life in the days ahead.”

In a statement Saturday, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama expressed their condolences “to the family of Ernie Banks, and to every Chicagoan and baseball fan who loved him.” The president said Banks became known as much for his optimism and love of the game as his home runs and back-to-back National League MVPs.

“As a Hall-of-Famer, Ernie was an incredible ambassador for baseball, and for the city of Chicago,” President Obama said. “He was beloved by baseball fans everywhere, including Michelle, who, when she was a girl, used to sit with her dad and watch him play on TV. And in 2013, it was my honor to present Ernie with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“Somewhere, the sun is shining, the air is fresh, his team’s behind him, and Mr. Class — “Mr. Cub” — is ready to play two.”

Though he was an 11-time All-Star from 1953-71, Banks never reached the postseason. The Cubs, who haven’t won the World Series since 1908, finished below .500 in all but six of his seasons and remain without a pennant since 1945.

Still, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977, the first year he was eligible, and was selected to baseball’s All-Century team in 1999.

Banks’ infectious smile and non-stop good humor despite his team’s dismal record endeared him to Chicago fans, who voted him the best player in franchise history. One famous admirer, actor Bill Murray, named his son Homer Banks Murray.

In 2013, Banks was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom — by a noted Chicago White Sox fan, President Barack Obama. The award is one of the nation’s highest civilian honors.

“Ernie Banks was more than a baseball player. He was one of Chicago’s greatest ambassadors. He loved this city as much as he loved — and lived for — the game of baseball,” Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said. “This year, during every Cubs game, you can bet that No. 14 will be watching over his team. And if we’re lucky, it’ll be a beautiful day for not just one ballgame, but two.”

Banks’ No. 14 was the first number retired by the Cubs, and it hangs on a flag from the left-field foul pole at the old ballpark.

“I’d like to get to the last game of the World Series at Wrigley Field and hit three homers,” he once said. “That was what I always wanted to do.”

But even without an opportunity to play on the October stage, Banks left an indelible mark that still resonates with fans and athletes from all sports.

“Ernie Banks… We are going to all miss you. #Legend,” quarterback Russell Wilson tweeted as he and the Seattle Seahawks were getting ready to defend their Super Bowl title.

Banks was playing for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues when the Cubs discovered him in 1953, and purchased his contract for $10,000. He made his major league debut at shortstop on Sept. 17 that year, and three days later hit his first home run.

Tall and thin, Banks didn’t look like a typical power hitter. He looked even less so as he stood at the plate, holding his bat high and wiggling it as he waited for pitches. But he had strong wrists and a smooth, quick stroke, and he made hitting balls out of the park look effortless.

When he switched to a lighter bat before the 1955 season, his power quickly became apparent. He hit 44 homers that season, including three against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Aug. 4. His five grand slams that year established a major league record that stood for more than 30 years before Don Mattingly hit six in 1987.

Banks’ best season came in 1958, when he hit .313 with 47 homers and 129 RBIs. Though the Cubs went 72-82 and finished sixth in the National League, Banks edged Willie Mays and Hank Aaron for his first MVP award. He was the first player from a losing team to win the NL MVP.

Banks won the MVP again in 1959, becoming the first NL player to win it in consecutive years, even though the Cubs had another dismal year. Banks batted .304 with 45 homers and a league-leading 143 RBIs.

He led the NL in homers again in 1960 with 41, his fourth straight season with 40 or more. His 248 homers from 1955-60 were the most in the majors, topping even Aaron and Mays.

“Mr Cub. What you have done for the game of baseball the city of Chicago and everyone you have ever touched will never be forgotten. RIP,” tweeted Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

Though Banks didn’t break the 40-homer barrier again after 1960, he topped the 100-RBI mark three more times, including 1969, his last full season. Then 38, he hit .253 with 23 home runs and 106 RBIs, and was chosen an All-Star for an 11th time.

On May 12, 1970, he hit his 500th home run at Wrigley Field, becoming only the eighth player at the time to reach the plateau.

Banks retired after the 1971 season. He owned most of the Cubs’ career slugging records, some of which still stand today.

Known mostly for his power at the plate, Banks was a solid fielder, too. He is best known as a shortstop, where he won a Gold Glove in 1960, but he switched to first base in 1962. He played 1,259 games at first and 1,125 games at shortstop.

Born and raised in Dallas, Banks would be bribed to play catch by his father, who always wanted him to be a baseball player. Banks grew to love the game and was a standout in high school, along with participating in football, basketball and track and field.

He joined a barnstorming Negro Leagues team at 17 and was spotted by Cool Papa Bell, who signed him to the Monarchs in 1950. Banks played one season before going into the Army. He returned to Kansas City after he was discharged, playing one more season before joining the Cubs.

“He was one of the great crossover baseball players of his day,” the Rev. Jesse Jackson said. “His personality was a racial bridge builder. He treated all people with dignity and respect. He never stopped reaching out to bridge the racial chasms.”

TIME

Federal Judge Strikes Down Gay-Marriage Ban in Alabama

(MONTGOMERY) A federal judge has struck down Alabama laws banning gay marriage.

U.S. District Judge Callie V.S. Granade ruled Friday in favor of two Mobile women who sued to challenge Alabama’s refusal to recognize their marriage performed in California.

Plaintiffs Cari Searcy and Kimberly McKeand said that they had been a couple for more than a decade and had a child together with the help of a sperm donor. However, an Alabama court refused to let Searcy be recognized as the child’s adoptive parent because state law did not recognize the couple as spouses.

Granade said a state statute and 2006 amendment to the Alabama Constitution were both in violation of the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.

TIME

Justices Will Review Use of Midazolam as Execution Drug

(WASHINGTON) — The Supreme Court is stepping into the issue of lethal injection executions for the first time since 2008 in an appeal filed by death row inmates in Oklahoma.

The justices agreed Friday to review whether the sedative midazolam can be used in executions because of concerns that it does not produce a deep, comalike unconsciousness and ensure that a prisoner does not experience intense and needless pain when other drugs are injected to kill him. The order came eight days after the court refused to halt the execution of an Oklahoma man that employed the same combination of drugs.

Oklahoma uses midazolam as one of three drugs in lethal injection executions. The second drug serves to paralyze the inmate and the third one is used to stop his heart.

The case probably will be argued in April, with a decision expected by the end of June.

The appeal was brought to the court by four Oklahoma inmates with execution dates ranging from January to March. The justices allowed Charles Warner to be put to death on January 15 and denied stays of execution for the other three.

At the time, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a dissent that was joined by three other justices, calling on the court to examine whether the drug could be used in accordance with the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Friday’s order does not formally call a halt to those scheduled procedures. But it is inconceivable that the court would allow them to proceed when the justices already have agreed to a full-blown review of the issue.

In 2008, the justices upheld the use of a different three-drug combination in a case from Kentucky and set a high bar for challenges to lethal injections. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote then that the court probably would not stop executions unless “the condemned prisoner establishes that the state’s lethal injection protocol creates a demonstrated risk of severe pain.”

What has changed since 2008 is that states have been forced to change the drugs they use in executions after drug manufacturers took steps to ensure their products are not used in executions.

The inmates are trying to stop their executions, arguing that the state would essentially be experimenting on them by injecting them with unproven and untested drugs.

“The drug protocol in Oklahoma is not capable of producing a humane execution, even if it is administered properly,” said Dale Baich, a lawyer for the three surviving inmates.

Last April, Oklahoma used midazolam for the first time in a grisly procedure. Inmate Clayton Lockett clenched his teeth, moaned and writhed on the gurney before a doctor noticed a problem with the intravenous line and the execution was called off. Lockett died 43 minutes after the procedure began.

Oklahoma revamped its procedures in response to the Lockett execution, including a tenfold increase in the amount of midazolam used. In last week’s execution, Warner showed no signs of physical distress.

Florida used the same procedure in an execution carried out the same night.

TIME Crime

Magnets Used to Plant Drugs Under Cars From Mexico

Smugglers target "Trusted Travelers"

SAN DIEGO — Drug smugglers are turning “trusted travelers” into unwitting mules by placing containers with powerful magnets under their cars in Mexico and then recovering the illegal cargo far from the view of border authorities in the United States.

One motorist spotted the containers while pumping gas after crossing into Southern California on Jan. 12 and thought it might be a bomb.

His call to police prompted an emergency response at the Chevron station, and then a shocker: 13.2 pounds of heroin were pulled from under the vehicle, according to a U.S. law enforcement official. San Diego police said the drugs were packed inside six magnetized cylinders.

The driver had just used a “trusted traveler” lane at the San Ysidro border crossing, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because some details of the case have not been made public.

Authorities have learned of at least three similar incidents in San Diego since then, all involving drivers enrolled in the enormously popular SENTRI program, which stands for Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection. There were 12.6 million SENTRI vehicle crossings in fiscal 2013, more than double the 5.9 million four years earlier.

The program enables hundreds of thousands of people who pass extensive background checks to whiz past inspectors with less scrutiny. Signing up can reduce rush-hour wait times from more than two hours to less than 15 minutes at San Diego’s San Ysidro port of entry, the nation’s busiest crossing, where SENTRI users represented 40 percent of the 4.5 million vehicle crossings in fiscal 2013, the Government Accountability Office found.

But like other prescreening programs, there’s a potential downside: the traveler can become a target, and such cases can be tricky for investigators when people caught with drugs claim they were planted.

Using magnets under cars isn’t new, but this string of cases is unusual.

The main targets are people who park for hours in Mexico before returning to the U.S., authorities say. Smugglers track their movements on both sides of the border, figuring out their travel patterns and where they park. It takes only seconds to attach and remove the magnetized containers when no one is looking.

“It’s a concern for everyone, not as big a concern for me because I’m careful,” said Aldo Vereo, a SENTRI user and office assistant at the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency who parks in a garage when home in Tijuana and varies his routes. “People should be worried because they go straight home and straight to work.”

“Trusted travelers” were issued windshield decals for years, but they are no longer needed to identify vehicles approaching the inspection booths. New stickers haven’t been issued since 2013, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency says existing stickers can be removed.

Many haven’t heeded the call, which can make them a target. The Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce in San Diego told newsletter readers last week that decals should go.

“It’s basically demonstrating that you are a SENTRI user,” said Alejandra Mier y Teran, the chamber’s executive director. “Criminals are savvy, and they know they are part of a program where they are not checked as much.”

CBP says frequent crossers also should vary their travel routines and keep a closer eye on their cars.

There have been 29 cases of motorists unwittingly carrying drugs under their cars in the San Diego area since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement identified the trend in July 2011, including six drivers who made it past inspectors, said spokeswoman Lauren Mack.

Any driver who suspects something’s amiss under their car should immediately report it, to better show their innocence, authorities say.

Officer Matthew Tortorella, a San Diego police spokesman, said “it would be inappropriate” to make public more details about the Jan. 12 seizure, and CBP spokeswoman Jacqueline Wasiluk also declined to comment, calling it a local police investigation.

There have been three seizures since, all involving SENTRI drivers who were not charged:

—On Jan. 13, inspectors at the Otay Mesa border crossing found 35 pounds of marijuana in seven packages attached by powerful magnets to the bottom of a 2010 Kia Forte.

—On Tuesday, a driver alerted an inspector at Otay Mesa to a package under a 2010 Nissan Murano, and 8 pounds of methamphetamine were found in three packages underneath.

—On Wednesday, a dog at San Ysidro alerted inspectors to a 2000 Toyota Corolla with 18 pounds of marijuana underneath. That driver was enrolled in SENTRI but using a regular lane.

Pete Flores, CBP’s San Diego field office director, acknowledged that it’s unusual to have so many cases in fewer than two weeks.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” Flores said. “Each change they make prompts a change from law enforcement, which in turn prompts them to again change their tactics.”

TIME Saudi Arabia

New Saudi King Moves Fast to Name Second-in-Line to Throne

Saudi King Salman gives a speech following the death of King Abdullah in Riyadh, Jan. 23, 2015.
Saudi King Salman gives a speech following the death of King Abdullah in Riyadh, Jan. 23, 2015. Reuters

King Abdullah died early Friday at the age of 90 after nearly two decades in power

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabia’s new king moved swiftly Friday to name the country’s interior minister as deputy crown prince, making him the second-in-line to the throne, as he promised to continue the policies of his predecessors in a nationally televised speech.

King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud’s actions came as the oil-rich, Sunni-ruled kingdom began mourning King Abdullah, who died early Friday at the age of 90 after nearly two decades in power.

Salman’s royal decree puts Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in line to ascend to the throne after his designated successor, Crown Prince Muqrin. Mohammed is the son of late King Abdullah’s half brother Nayef.

“We will continue adhering to the correct policies which Saudi Arabia has followed since its establishment,” Salman said in the speech aired on the state-run Saudi 2 television station.

Salman also made an oblique reference to the chaos gripping the greater Middle East as the extremist Islamic State group now holds a third of both Iraq and Syria.

“The Arab and the Islamic nations are in dire need of solidarity and cohesion,” the king said.

Salman, 79, had increasingly taken on the duties of the king over the past year as his ailing predecessor and half brother, Abdullah, became more incapacitated.

Abdullah is expected to be buried Friday afternoon following a funeral at the Imam Turki bin Abdullah mosque in the capital, Riyadh.

Leaders from around the world expressed their condolences.

U.S. President Barack Obama described the late Saudi king as a candid leader who had the courage of his convictions, including “his steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East and beyond.”

The president of the neighboring United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said in a statement that Abdullah “generously gave a lot to his people and his nation,” while Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said “the Saudi kingdom and the Arab nation have lost a leader of its best sons.”

Salman has served as defense minister since 2011. That made him the head of the military as Saudi Arabia joined the United States and other Arab countries in carrying out airstrikes in Syria in 2014 against the Islamic State group, the Sunni militant group that the kingdom began to see as a threat to its own stability. He is expected to relinquish that post now that he is king.

He takes the helm at a time when the ultraconservative Muslim kingdom and oil powerhouse is trying to navigate social pressures from a burgeoning youth population — over half the population of 20 million is under 25 — seeking jobs and increasingly testing boundaries of speech on the Internet, where criticism of the royal family is rife.

Salman’s health has been a question of concern. He suffered at least one stroke that has left him with limited movement on his left arm.

TIME Ukraine

Ukraine Rebels Say 24 Fighters Killed By Rockets at Airport

A Russian backed separatist rebel takes cover in a shelter from shelling in the Kievsky district, 2 miles from the airport, in Donetsk, Jan. 22, 2015.
A Russian backed separatist rebel takes cover in a shelter from shelling in the Kievsky district, 2 miles from the airport, in Donetsk, Jan. 22, 2015. Manu Brabo—AP

The loss of the airport after months of fighting represents a major setback for pro-Kiev forces

DONETSK, Ukraine — Russian-backed separatists in east Ukraine say 24 of their fighters have been killed in a rocket attack on the recently captured airport outside their main stronghold city of Donetsk.

Rebel defense spokesman Eduard Basurin said the terminal was targeted by Ukrainian government forces Friday with Uragan multiple rocket launchers.

The separatist seizure of the virtually obliterated airport this week after months of bitter battles was a major blow for beleaguered Ukrainian offensives in the east.

Diplomats from Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany met this week to thrash out a tentative dividing line from which the warring sides would pull back their heavy weapons.

Separatists have warned, however, that they intend to continue their advances and take more territory.

TIME Japan

ISIS Say Countdown for Japan’s Hostages Has Begun

A TV news program reports on the two ISIS held Japanese hostages in Tokyo, Jan. 23, 2015.
A TV news program reports on the two ISIS held Japanese hostages in Tokyo, Jan. 23, 2015. Eugene Hoshiko—AP

Japanese officials have not said whether they are considering paying any ransom

TOKYO — Militants affiliated with the Islamic State group have posted an online warning that the “countdown has begun” for the group to kill a pair of Japanese hostages.

The posting which appeared Friday shows a clock counting down to zero along with gruesome images of other hostages who have been beheaded by the Islamic State group.

The militant group gave Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe a 72-hour deadline — which expired Friday — to pay a $200 million ransom for the two hostages. The posting on a forum popular among Islamic State militants and sympathizers did not show any images of the Japanese hostages.

In the past the website has posted Islamic State group videos very quickly, sometimes before anyone else. Nippon Television Network first reported the message in Japan.

The status of efforts to free the two men was unclear. Government spokesman Yoshihide Suga, when asked about the latest message, said Japan was analyzing it.

“The situation remains severe but we are doing everything we can to win the release of the two Japanese hostages,” Suga said. He said Japan is using every channel it can find, including local tribal chiefs, to try to reach the captors.

He said there has been no direct contact from the hostage takers.

At Tokyo’s largest mosque, worshippers included the hostages in their Friday prayers.

“All Muslims in Japan, we want the Japanese hostages to be saved as soon as possible,” said Sandar Basara, a worker from Turkey.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe convened his National Security Council to discuss how to handle the crisis, as the mother of one of the captives appealed for her son’s rescue.

“Time is running out. Please, Japanese government, save my son’s life,” said Junko Ishido, the mother of 47-year-old journalist Kenji Goto.

“My son is not an enemy of the Islamic State,” she said in a tearful appearance in Tokyo.

Ishido said she was astonished and angered to learn from her daughter-in-law that Goto had left less than two weeks after his child was born, in October, to go to Syria to try to rescue the other hostage, 42-year-old Haruna Yukawa.

In very Japanese fashion, Ishido apologized repeatedly for “all the trouble my son has caused.” She said she had not had any contact with the government.

Lacking clout and diplomatic reach in the Middle East, Japan has scrambled for a way to secure the release of the two men, one a journalist, the other an adventurer fascinated by war. Japanese diplomats left Syria as the civil war there escalated, adding to the difficulty of contacting the group holding the hostages.

Yasuhide Nakayama, a deputy foreign minister sent to Amman, Jordan, to coordinate efforts to save the hostages, told reporters he had no new information.

“We want to work until the very end, with all our power, to secure their release,” he said.

Suga, the government spokesman in Tokyo, said Thursday that the government had confirmed the identity of the two hostages, despite discrepancies in shadows and other details in the ransom video that suggest it may have been altered.

Japanese officials have not directly said whether they are considering paying any ransom. Japan has joined other major industrial nations in the Group of Seven in opposing ransom payments, and U.S. and British officials said they advised against paying.

Two Japanese who said they have contacts with a leader in the Islamic State group offered Thursday to try to negotiate, but it was unclear if the government was receptive to the idea.

Ko Nakata, an expert on Islamic law and former professor at Kyoto’s Doshisha University, and freelance journalist Kousuke Tsuneoka are both converts to Islam. They said they have a contact in the Islamic State group and are prepared to go.

TIME obituary

Shoe Designer Vince Camuto, Nine West Co-Founder, Dies at 78

2014 Father Of The Year Awards
Vince Camuto attends the 2014 Father Of The Year Awards at the New York Hilton on June 4, 2014 Slaven Vlasic—Getty Images

Camuto had been battling cancer

Legendary women’s footwear designer Vince Camuto, who co-founded shoe company Nine West Group, has died in Connecticut at age 78.

Camuto died Wednesday at his home in Greenwich, said Matthew Murphy, director of the Fred D. Knapp & Son Funeral Home, which is handling the arrangements. Camuto had been battling cancer.

The designer is best known for co-founding Nine West Group in 1978. He served as creative director there for two decades and was named CEO in 1993. Nine West was sold in 1999 to Jones Apparel Group.

Camuto founded the Camuto Group, which owns his namesake footwear line, in 2001. The company also licensed products for Tory Burch, BCBG and others.

The privately held company, based in Greenwich, did not respond to multiple calls and emails seeking comment on Thursday.

The designer, whose products are sold at the company’s own stores and other retailers, expanded his fashion empire to include clothing, accessories and fragrances.

TIME real estate

Monthly U.S. Rents Keep Climbing, Especially in San Francisco

Rents increased 3.3% countrywide, climbing 15.4% in San Francisco alone

(WASHINGTON, D.C.) — U.S. home rental prices continued to climb at a modest pace in December, but rapidly escalating costs in cities such as San Francisco and Denver suggest that apartment dwellers are facing more financial pressure.

Real estate data firm Zillow says prices increased 3.3 percent in December compared with 12 months earlier. That’s less than the recent appreciation in home values. But a surge in apartment costs in several of the hottest markets suggests that there will be financial challenges for renters who hope to eventually buy homes of their own.

Rents jumped 15.4 percent in the San Francisco area and 10.5 percent in Denver. Tenants elsewhere are catching a break. In Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC, rents rose by less than 2.2 percent over the past 12 months.

TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudi King Abdullah Dies at 90

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah receives U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the king's Riyadh Palace on April 6, 2011 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah receives U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates at the king's Riyadh Palace on April 6, 2011 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

Powerful U.S. ally joined the fight against al-Qaeda and sought to modernize the ultraconservative kingdom

(RIYADH, Saudi Arabia) — 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. 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. His strict upbringing was exemplified by three days he spent in prison as a young man as punishment by his father for failing to give his seat to a visitor, a violation of Bedouin hospitality.

Abdullah was selected as crown prince in 1982 on the day his half-brother Fahd ascended to the throne. The decision was challenged by a full brother of Fahd, Prince Sultan, who wanted the title for himself. But the family eventually closed ranks behind Abdullah to prevent splits.

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.

When President George W. Bush came to office, Abdullah again showed his readiness to push against his U.S. allies.

In 2000, Abdullah convinced the Arab League to approve an unprecedented offer that all Arab states would agree to peace with Israel if it withdrew from lands it captured in 1967. The next year, he sent his ambassador in Washington to tell the Bush administration that it was too unquestioningly biased in favor of Israel and that the kingdom would from now on pursue its own interests apart from Washington’s. Alarmed by the prospect of a rift, Bush soon after advocated for the first time the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

The next month, the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks took place in the United States, and Abdullah had to steer the alliance through the resulting criticism. The kingdom was home to 15 of the 19 hijackers, and many pointed out that the baseline ideology for al-Qaida and other groups stemmed from Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.

When al-Qaida militants in 2003 began a wave of violence in the kingdom aimed at toppling the monarchy, Abdullah cracked down hard. For the next three years, security forces battled militants, finally forcing them to flee to neighboring Yemen. There, they created a new al-Qaida branch, and Saudi Arabia has played a behind-the-scenes role in fighting it.

The tougher line helped affirm Abdullah’s commitment to fighting al-Qaida. He paid two visits to Bush — in 2002 and 2005 — at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

When Fahd died in 2005, Abdullah officially rose to the throne. He then began to more openly push his agenda.

His aim at home was to modernize the kingdom to face the future. One of the world’s largest oil exporters, Saudi Arabia is fabulously wealthy, but there are deep disparities in wealth and a burgeoning youth population in need of jobs, housing and education. More than half the current population of 20 million is under the age of 25. For Abdullah, that meant building a more skilled workforce and opening up greater room for women to participate. He was a strong supporter of education, building universities at home and increasing scholarships abroad for Saudi students.

Abdullah for the first time gave women seats on the Shura Council, an unelected body that advises the king and government. He promised women would be able to vote and run in 2015 elections for municipal councils, the only elections held in the country. He appointed the first female deputy minister in a 2009. Two Saudi female athletes competed in the Olympics for the first time in 2012, and a small handful of women were granted licenses to work as lawyers during his rule.

One of his most ambitious projects was a Western-style university that bears his name, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, which opened in 2009. Men and women share classrooms and study together inside the campus, a major departure in a country where even small talk between the sexes in public can bring a warning from the morality police.

The changes seemed small from the outside but had a powerful resonance. Small splashes of variety opened in the kingdom — color and flash crept into the all-black abayas women must wear in public; state-run TV started playing music, forbidden for decades; book fairs opened their doors to women writers and some banned books.

But he treaded carefully in the face of the ultraconservative Wahhabi clerics who hold near total sway over society and, in return, give the Al Saud family’s rule religious legitimacy.

Senior cleric Sheik Saleh al-Lihedan warned against changes that could snap the “thread between a leader and his people.” In some cases, Abdullah pushed back: He fired one prominent government cleric who criticized the mixed-gender university. But the king balked at going too far too fast. For example, beyond allowing debate in newspapers, Abdullah did nothing to respond to demands to allow women to drive.

“He has presided over a country that has inched forward, either on its own or with his leadership,” said Karen Elliot House, author of “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines.”

“I don’t think he’s had as much impact as one would hope on trying to create a more moderate version of Islam,” she said. “To me, it has not taken inside the country as much as one would hope.”

And any change was strictly on the royal family’s terms. After the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in particular, Saudi Arabia clamped down on any dissent. Riot police crushed street demonstrations by Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority. Dozens of activists were detained, many of them tried under a sweeping counterterrorism law by an anti-terrorism court Abdullah created. Authorities more closely monitored social media, where anger over corruption and unemployment — and jokes about the aging monarchy — are rife.

Regionally, perhaps Abdullah’s biggest priority was to confront Iran, the Shiite powerhouse across the Gulf.

Worried about Tehran’s nuclear program, Abdullah told the United States in 2008 to consider military action to “cut off the head of the snake” and prevent Iran from producing a nuclear weapon, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic memo.

In Lebanon, Abdullah backed Sunni allies against the Iranian-backed Shiite guerrilla group Hezbollah in a proxy conflict that flared repeatedly into potentially destabilizing violence. Saudi Arabia was also deeply opposed to longtime Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whom it considered a tool of Iran oppressing Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority.

In Syria, Abdullah stepped indirectly indirectly into the civil war that emerged after 2011. He supported and armed rebels battling to overthrow President Bashar Assad, Iran’s top Arab ally, and pressed the Obama administration to do the same. Iran’s allies Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias rushed to back Assad, and the resulting conflict has left hundreds of thousands dead and driven millions of Syrians from their homes.

From the multiple conflicts, Sunni-Shiite hatreds around the region took on a life of their own, fueling Sunni militancy. Syria’s war helped give birth to the Islamic State group, which burst out to take over large parts of Syria and Iraq. Fears of the growing militancy prompted Abdullah to commit Saudi airpower to a U.S.-led coalition fighting the extremists.

Toby Matthiesen, author of “Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t,” said Abdullah was not “particularly sectarian in a way that he hated Shiites for religious reasons. … There are other senior members of the ruling family much more sectarian.” But, he said, “Saudi Arabia plays a huge role in fueling sectarian conflict.”

Abdullah had more than 30 children from around a dozen wives.

____

Batrawy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser