Traditionalist's tribal links may keep West at bay

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The Independent Online


Dubai - Crown Prince Abdullah, who was handed the running of government by his half-brother King Fahd yesterday, is widely seen as a tough traditionalist who could prove to be less open to the West.

The King issued a decree handing affairs of state to the Crown prince so that he can rest after suffering a stroke in November.

The prince, 71, "is not outgoing with foreigners like King Fahd", a diplomat said. Many Arab analysts say the difference between the two is in style rather than policy. "The outlook will be very similar, or else he would not have become Crown Prince," one said.

Arab analysts say if a consensus within the family had not been reached in 1982, when he replaced King Fahd as Crown Prince, Abdullah could have been dropped from the running for the kingdom's highest post.

Diplomats refer to Prince Abdullah's pan-Arab leanings, especially his close ties to Syria, which could produce a shift in the Saudi emphasis on relations with the United States and the West. Ties with Washington date from 1932, when the father of Fahd and Abdullah, King Abdul-Aziz (popularly known as Ibn Saud), founder of Saudi Arabia, granted an oil- exploration concession to a US firm.

Prince Abdullah has the handicap of having only half-brothers in the Saudi royal family. Full brothers and their sons tend to side together at family meetings when a consensus is sought on crucial issues. But as head of the well-armed 57,000-strong National Guard, drawn from the Bedouin, he enjoys tribal backing. In charge of the Guard since 1963, he has built it up from a largely ceremonial unit into a modern, well- equipped fighting force that is a counterweight to the regular army.

The mainly US-trained Guard is charged with defending strategic installations, including oil-producing and exporting facilities. Its US-run training centre in Riyadh was the target of a car-bomb attack on 13 November in which five Americans were killed.

Crown Prince Abdullah has rejected pressure to merge the National Guard with the regular armed forces, headed by his half-brother, Prince Sultan.

Prince Abdullah is one of the more than 30 surviving sons of Ibn Saud, who had 44 sons by 22 wives and died in 1953. Since then the throne has moved from brother to brother among Ibn Saud's sons, although some were excluded: Ibn Saud was succeeded by Saud; then came Faisal, who was stabbed to death in 1975; next was Khaled, who died in 1982; and finally Fahd, the main architect of Riyadh's policies for the past two decades and a dominant force in Gulf Arab affairs.

An official profile says the Crown Prince acquired many virtues from his father: "Probity, correct conduct, munificence, charity, love for his fellow countrymen, humility and religious devotion." The latter is of great importance in the conservative, mainly Sunni Muslim kingdom, home to the shrines in Mecca and Medina.

Unlike many of the 6,000 princes of the ruling al Saud family, Prince Abdullah eschews ostentation and profligacy. He is reserved in public and is said to stutter.

While the urbane King Fahd is most comfortable in the cosmopolitan society of Jeddah, his summer capital, Prince Abdullah is at home in the desert heartland of Saudi Arabia, hunting with his falcons and living among his beloved Bedouin.

He has married frequently, following Muslim tradition that allows him four wives at a time. He rented entire hotels in Riyadh for reunions with his various wives and children.

He received a comprehensive religious education from Saudi Arabia's ulema, or Muslim scholars, and military training, but is not believed to have had a formal education.

Neither is Crown Prince Abdullah known to speak English. At celebrations, he often joins tribesmen in Bedouin dances. He has six sons, including Prince Mitab, who is deputy chief of the National Guard.

Prince Sultan, 68, is one of six full brothers to King Fahd and is the top candidate to become Crown Prince once Abdullah assumes the throne. He has been Minister of Defence and Aviation since 1962. King Fahd is Prime Minister, with Crown Prince Abdullah first deputy and Prince Sultan second deputy prime minister.

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