King Fahd of Saudi Arabia handed over the reins of power yesterday to his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, in a dynastic reshuffle prompted by his ill-health. The move could signify a subtle change in Saudi Arabia's relations with the West and may cause tension within the royal family.
The King, 73, had a stroke in November. He remains monarch and ''Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques'' at Mecca and Medina, but day-to-day government will be run by the Crown Prince, 71. King Fahd said: "Because we wish to spend some time resting and recuperating ... we entrust you in this decree to take over management of government affairs while we enjoy rest and recuperation.'' Prince Abdullah accepted: ''I shall return to you whenever I find myself in need of guidance from your directives and recommendations.''
King Fahd left hospital on 7 December. A statement referred to a "health emergency" brought on by exhaustion and said: ''All check-ups ... are reassuring and, thank God, he is enjoying health and fitness''. However, American doctors were flown in to treat the King, leading to speculation that his condition was more serious.
Should King Fahd quit the political scene, Saudi Arabia may face much uncertainty. It continues to suffer the economic consequences of low crude-oil prices; fundamentalist opposition to the royal family has emerged and a car-bomb in Riyadh killed five Americans.
Prince Abdullah, who was appointed first deputy prime minister and Crown Prince when King Fahd succeeded his brother, Khaled, in 1982, is considered a traditionalist. He, too, is elderly and unwell, but still a powerful figure. Since King Fahd's illness he has been running the country and commands the National Guard, which oversees internal security. The Riyadh car-bomb was aimed at a National Guard building where American trainers instructed Saudi personnel.
Few details of political debate emerge from the reticent Saudi court, but the Crown Prince is believed to be more conservative than King Fahd on religion and less inclined to take an automatic pro-Western stance on matters of policy.
News of King Fahd's ''rest'' came as the 1996 budget, retaining last year's spending freeze, was released. The 150bn-riyal (pounds 26bn) budget forecasts an 18.5bn riyal deficit, slightly higher than last year's.
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