Saudi king's illness stirs succession fears

MICHAEL SHERIDAN

Diplomatic Editor

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who is 73, was being treated in hospital yesterday for an undisclosed medical condition, prompting speculation on the international oil markets about a succession crisis.

The Saudi monarch was taken to the King Faisal specialist hospital in Riyadh on Thursday morning. He had just returned to the capital after several days in the desert.

"We are pleased to announce that all the check-ups conducted this morning on the Custodian of the two Holy Shrines are reassuring and, thank God, he is enjoying health and fitness," a statement from the royal court said late on Thursday.

King Fahd is overweight, suffers from diabetes and uses a stick for walking because of a painful knee. He underwent gall bladder surgery last year.

In a departure from tradition, the monarch's admission to hospital was publicised on the front pages of Saudi newspapers, broadcast on state television and was carried by the official news agency. But his ailment was not revealed.

The uncertainties about Saudi Arabia beyond King Fahd stem more from the inner politics of the royal family than an external threat, although the potential for instability in the region was emphasised by the recent car bomb in Riyadh which killed five Americans. The succession to the throne is brokered between the survivors among the 43 sons born by several wives to King Abdul Aziz, the founder of the kingdom, who lived from 1876 to 1953.

King Fahd's departure from the scene could cause uncertainty, because his brother and heir apparent, Crown Prince Abdullah, may face opposition among the 6,000 princes of the ruling dynasty.

In practice, modern court politics have been dominated by Fahd and his six full brothers born to Abdul Aziz's favourite wife, Hassa bint Ahmad Sudairi. The "Sudairi Seven" include the Defence Minister, Prince Sultan, the Interior Minister, Prince Nayef, and the governor of Riyadh, Prince Salman.

Some analysts believe the remaining Sudairi brothers would resist the succession of Crown Prince Abdullah, who is outside their ranks. Others believe the royal family could skip a generation and hand the throne to a figure such as theWestern-educated Foreign Minister, Prince Saud, son of the assassinated King Faisal.

"I think Fahd's death means instability for the country because his designated successor, Abdullah, is also old and unwell himself," said Said Aburish, author of a recent critical book about the kingdom.

King Fahd was shortly due to meet King Hussein of Jordan for the first time in five years, marking an important act of reconciliation after Jordan's estrangement from Saudi Arabia during the 1990-91 Gulf war. Responding to a message of good wishes from King Hussein, the Saudi monarch said last night that his medical tests had been "reassuring".

Although in poor health, he appeared vigorous at a late night meeting three weeks ago with the Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind. King Fahd complained about the activities of Saudi dissidents who have taken refuge in London, from where they campaign against his rule, denouncing it as corrupt.

Despite the abuse from the exiles, there is little sign of opposition in Saudi Arabia itself. The secret police and special security forces, armed and trained by the United States, keep hold of internal affairs. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy whose constitution is the Koran, permitting neither freedom of assembly nor religious dissent.

But King Fahd has overseen a measure of liberalisation, channelling the views of prominent families and merchant interests through an appointed consultative assembly. His chosen title, "Custodian of the two Holy Shrines", or "Servant of the two Holy Places", was selected to emphasise the royal family's rule over Mecca and Medina, an important source of prestige in the Muslim world.

Saudi Arabia is the world's largest petroleum exporter, with about a quarter of global oil reserves, and is a close ally of the US and Britain. The royal family is criticised by religious purists and has acted to deal with an economic crisis caused by declining oil revenues.

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