Ailing Saudi king on £4m a day vacation

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The Independent Online

King Fahd, the 82-year-old ruler of Saudi Arabia, who has been in a Geneva clinic since May, has decamped to his marble palace on the Costa del Sol amid mounting fears over his health and speculation about the future of his oil-rich kingdom should he fail to recover.

Diabetic, arthritic and overweight, King Fahd is still suffering the effects of a stroke in 1995 and his condition is said to be unstable after eye surgery in Switzerland. He is attended by hundreds of courtiers, relatives and hangers-on, all dependent on his favour for their political power and ostentatious wealth.

King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz al Saud flew to Malaga airport yesterday in his private 747 jet accompanied by three aircraft, one of them kitted out as a hospital. He was gently lowered from the 747 in a lift, settled in a wheelchair and fussed over by some of his 350 attendants, who manoeuvred him into his armour-plated Mercedes with hydraulic seats and tinted windows, which had been transported on one of the planes.

A caravan of 50 black Mercedes cars, several buses, lorries laden with equipment and a mobile intensive care unit made its way through cleared streets to his Mar Mar palace, a gleaming replica of the United States White House, which nestles in wooded hills along Marbella's golden mile.

The procession was accompanied by Spanish police vehicles, a helicopter and forces of the King's personal guard, many of whom had arrived several days earlier to check the efficiency of the palace's security measures. The 234ft royal yacht, the Al Diriyah, is docked at Marbella's glitzy Puerto Banus marina.

When King Fahd last summered in Marbella in 1999, he and his vast retinue spent €90m. Hoteliers, restaurateurs, jewellers and florists are waiting expectantly after estimates that the royal party will this time spend up to €6m (£4m) a day.

A local florist is to supply €1,500 of fresh flowers to the palace daily during the royal visit. Five hundred mobile phones have been ordered, the palace will receive 50 specially ordered cakes a day and a direct line of credit has been set up with the nearest branch of a leading department store, which is to remain open round the clock to satisfy instantly every royal whim.

News of the largesse of the man locals call King Midas has affected even unemployed Moroccans, 200 of whom queued outside the palace gates yesterday hoping to be employed as a gardener, chauffeur, kitchen hand or cleaner. They seemed undeterred by reports from those who worked for the Saudi royal family last time. They were quoted in the Spanish press as saying that their wealthy employers were generous with salaries and tips but treated them "like dogs".

The palace contains within its grounds a new hospital wing with an operating theatre, a sophisticated telecommunications centre, luxury villas for close family and courtiers, and servants' quarters.

The rest of the King's support network, expected to swell to 3,000 with those flying from Geneva and Ryadh in coming days, will be housed in luxury mansions near by, plus hundreds of rooms and suites in hotels in Marbella, Estepona and Fuengirola. A plane will fly in weekly from Ryadh bringing the King water from Mecca, dates, lamb, rice and spices.

King Fahd usually meets international dignitaries while in Spain, and is expected this time to receive Colin Powell, the American Secretary of State. General Powell is among those most anxious about the health of the ruler of the richest country in the Middle East and America's staunchest ally in the region.

Behind the mind-boggling displays of wealth lurk fears that the glory days of the House of Saud are ending. With no clear line of succession, the death of King Fahd is expected to unleash a power struggle among rival pretenders to the throne that could fatally weaken the ruling family.

Unconfirmed reports say that within Saudi Arabia's hermetic secrecy, anti-American unrest, even revolutionary fervour, is growing. Western expatriates, alarmed by rumours of a royal power struggle after King Fahd's death that could presage upheaval and bloody reprisals, are quietly leaving. This may be the last summer King Midas splashes his money around Marbella.