Biker prince becomes Belgian king

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'WHY ALBERT?' the Belgian newspaper Le Soir asked in a banner headline this week as the country grappled with the news that its new king would be Albert, the Prince of Liege, brother of the late King Baudouin.

Yesterday thousands of grieving Belgians came from Flanders and Wallonia to line the streets of Brussels in silent tribute to the dead king as his cortege was brought to the royal palace to lie in state. One Belgian woman was so distraught that she committed suicide by throwing herself into a canal in Bruges.

In this divided nation, rapidly drifting apart along linguistic lines, King Baudouin was a rare symbol of national unity. During his 42-year reign he helped restore the monarchy's credibility after his father, King Leopold III, was forced to abdicate because of his relations with the German occupiers in the Second World War.

Federal-minded Belgium is concerned about the crisis affecting the European Community and the parallel federal crisis affecting this country of 10 million Flemings and Walloons. The government opted for stability in choosing Prince Albert over his son.

But Prince Albert, 59, (full name: Albert Felix Humbert Theodore Christian Eugene Marie van Saxe-Coburg, Prince of Liege) remains an enigma to the Belgian public. Little is known about him.

The media have largely supported the selection of Prince Albert, who is to be known as King Albert II when he takes over on Monday, two days after his brother's funeral.

Some newspapers have commented on Prince Albert's jet-set image and his love of high-powered motorbikes. Many a Belgian policeman has had the shock of his life after pulling the prince over for speeding, not knowing there was a royal under the helmet and leathers.

The newspaper Het Volk praised him, but said 'Albert does not have the moral authority' of Baudouin. Others only hinted at a whiff of scandal over work he did in Saudi Arabia as president of Belgium's foreign trade office in 1979.

The scandal concerned Belgium's then biggest conglomerate, Societe Generale de Belgique, (a large but unknown slice of whose shares are owned by the Belgian royal family) and its alleged involvement in a Saudi Arabian hospital building scandal. A government investigation found that 30 per cent of the original contract money went in kickbacks, and that the company that was to provide staff and training for the hospitals hired a ring of 200 call girls, under the cover of nurses, to entertain visiting Saudis.

It had long been expected that Albert's Oxford-educated son, Philippe, 33, would succeed his uncle to the throne. He was being groomed for the job, working most recently with the Belgian mission to the UN.

Prince Albert's wife, Paola Ruffo di Calabria, who becomes queen on Monday, is from a prominent Italian family.

(Photograph omitted)

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