Fahd's return fails to quell rumours

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The Independent Online
King Fahd of Saudi Arabia has reappeared in public and taken back the reins of power from his half-brother, setting off renewed speculation over tensions within the royal family.

There are rumours among Arab diplomats of an unexplained temporary state of alert recently in the Saudi military and suggestions of conflict between rival princes over ministerial appointments and oil policy.

The King declared himself healthy again after a three-month illness and said he was back in charge of Saudi Arabia, the world's leading oil exporting country.

The national news agency carried a report of his statement yesterday and Saudi state television has shown a videotape of the King meeting the visiting Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri. But the pictures gave little clue to the monarch's health, since he was seen sitting down and clad in a voluminous traditional robe.

King Fahd, an overweight diabetic in his early seventies, has been recuperating since November from an undisclosed ailment.

"Having spent a period of rest and convalescence, God has bestowed on me a cure and good health," he said in a letter to his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, to whom he handed the reins of power on 1 January.

The King's letter, dated Wednesday, said the decree handing over state duties to Abdullah had "expired", the Saudi Press Agency reported.

Crown Prince Abdullah is reported to have adopted a line of conciliation towards militant Islamic dissidents during his period in power. He was also viewed as less instinctively pro-Western than Fahd, more apt to take an Arab nationalist line and perhaps inclined towards a more hawkish policy on oil prices.

Fahd's illness, uncertainty over Abdullah and an innate fear of instability in Saudi Arabia, the key Western ally in the Gulf, sent jitters through oil markets and raised speculation about the country's political future.

The Saudi court never disclosed the nature of Fahd's illness, although United States officials in Washington said he had suffered a stroke and a team of American specialists flew in to treat him. Some diplomats in the kingdom later said the monarch's main symptom was a sharp fall in blood pressure.

During the past 10 days, the King headed a Cabinet meeting presaging his return to full duties. But his comeback surprised some observers, who had seen his handover to Abdullah as a sign of a clear transition to a new head of government - with the ailing King remaining a figurehead.