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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Service and Installation Engineer

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: SEO / Outreach Executive

£20000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is a global marketin...

Recruitment Genius: Junior Estimator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Negotiator - OTE £24,000

£22000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An enthusiastic individual is r...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?