Saudis look to change of direction from King Fahd's successor

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Saudi Arabia remained on edge yesterday amid conflicting reports about the health of King Fahd, its ruler since 1982, and claims that the country, which is the world's largest oil exporter and in the forefront of the struggle against terrorism, had been put on military alert.

Saudi Arabia remained on edge yesterday amid conflicting reports about the health of King Fahd, its ruler since 1982, and claims that the country, which is the world's largest oil exporter and in the forefront of the struggle against terrorism, had been put on military alert.

Saudi officials said yesterday that the king, in his early 80s and incapacitated by a stroke since 1995, was in a stable condition after being taken to hospital on Friday with pneumonia. But medical sources said his condition was more serious, and the royal palace, which urged Saudis on Friday to pray for his recovery, issued no further update on his health.

Initial reports that Saudi armed forces had been put on alert and leave cancelled were denied. Security has been stepped up since a spate of attacks by al-Qa'ida militants seeking to overthrow the royal family, but life appeared normal yesterday in the capital, Riyadh, with no sign of extra security measures, and leaders from other Gulf states arrived for a scheduled summit.

The question of succession is not expected to cause disruption. The designated heir, Crown Prince Abdullah, has been running the kingdom's day-to-day affairs since his half-brother's stroke. But once he is king there may be a sharp change in the style and direction of Saudi policy.

Since King Fahd's stroke more than nine years ago, Saudi Arabia has been handicapped by a power struggle between the old guard, led by the Defence Minister, Prince Sultan, who would become Crown Prince in any succession, and the reformist wing, led by Prince Abdullah. While any conflict in the world's biggest oil producer might spark a short-term increase in prices, Abdullah's ascent to the throne is expected to improve the prospects for greater stability in the Middle East.

He has overseen a crackdown on al-Qa'ida, which has waged a campaign of suicide attacks, hostage-taking and assassinations, often against Western targets. The struggle has intensified since the network and its leader, Osama bin Laden, who himself had links to the Saudi royal family, were ousted from their strongholds in Afghanistan in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The crown prince represents the Bedouin, conservative, tribal interests in the kingdom, out of sympathy with the often corrupt and pro-Western outlook of much of the royal family. He would be a pragmatic king who would seek to reduce Saudi Arabia's dependency on America in order to improve the prospect of peace in the Middle East.

As an upholder of "true Islam", it is hoped that he would be in a better position to deal with the Islamist militants who denounce the royal family as venal American puppets. He is popular with the Saudi public, which views him as straight-talking and honest.

Comments