Viewpoint: Saudi ruler's illness raises serious questions

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-111765346811898.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of’, ‘King Fahd Bin Abdel Aziz and Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdel (left).’);

Saudi Arabia’s nominal ruler, King Fahd, entered the hospital last Friday for medical tests after he developed difficulty breathing. On Sunday, Interior Minister Prince Nayef said the King’s health is steadily improving after treatment for pneumonia and complications.

A statement from the royal family said: “His health condition is stable and reassuring,” according to reports on the BBC. The statement added that the King would have additional tests, but gave no details.

When the official news agency, SBA, announced the King’s admission to the hospital Friday, there were reports the kingdom had declared a state of alert with Reuters reporting a Saudi official stated leaves of security forces were cancelled.

Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki denied that report, according to Aljazeera. “This is absolutely not true,” said al-Turki. “There’s no cancelling of leaves, and no state of emergency or anything.”

“King Fahd was running a high temperature for three days, and this caused concern and required scans, tests and some treatment,” a Saudi official told Reuters.

Reports on Sunday said the King’s condition had worsened and said he was drifting in and out of consciousness. The King has been comatose since 1996 after suffering a stroke in 1995. Doctors said he had developed pneumonia and water in his lungs and had respiratory problems.

Speculation is rampant among Riyadh’s ruling elite of King Fahd’s clinical death. There is no confirmation if that is true. Sources close to the royal family said they noted the “suspicious” disappearance of the King from public view in the last 10 days, as reported by Adnkronos International.

At the same time, the same sources said they noticed feverish activity among the Seven Sudaris—the seven sons of the wife of King Abdul Aziz, who come from Saudi Arabia’s Sudari tribe, which centers on the question of succession to the throne.

Fahd’s half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, has long been thought as the most likely successor. In fact, he has been the de facto ruler of the country since the king has been incapacitated. Informed sources said, however, some opposition exists from other Sudaris who want closer ties with the West, something Abdullah does not appear to want.

Three years ago, Abdullah set up a Royal Council, including the 65 sons of the late King Abdul Aziz, to resolve all disputes about the monarchy. Abdul is believed to be favored by the Council to succeed Fahd.

The Washington Times said King Fahd is believed to be 82. The paper said reports of his declining health had been blamed for a 5 percent drop in the Saudi stock market earlier last week. The news that the King was hospitalized pushed crude oil futures up 84 cents to almost $52 a barrel just ahead of the U.S. Memorial Day holiday weekend, which is the start of the summer driving season.

As the Saudi King was a mere figurehead in the past 10 years, it was Crown Prince Abdullah who directed a crackdown on Islamic extremists after followers of Osama bin Laden triggered a round of attacks inside Saudi Arabia. Abdullah tried to rebuild relations with the U.S. after the attacks of Sept. 11. Fifteen of the 19 alleged hijackers were Saudis.

Bin Laden, who is Saudi-born, cited the presence of American troops inside Saudi Arabia as his reason for the attacks of 9/11 as well as the attacks inside Saudi Arabia. U.S. forces were withdrawn after the completion of major combat operations in Iraq in 2003.

So what’s the big deal about an old Arab king getting sick? It could have significant effects for this country. Saudi Arabia is the chief supplier of U.S. oil. Just how things will play out remains unknown. Better relations could occur between the two claimants to the throne, Crown Princes Sultan and Abdullah. That would make it safe to announce the King’s passing. Otherwise, an announcement would be withheld until the question of succession is solved.

Or the King’s symptoms could be a really new condition, which would set off unpredictable developments beyond the control of either prince or the Royal Council or the CIA. In that event, the popular support for bin Laden could be an important factor.

The major risk is that a civil war will develop that could pit pro-Western forces led by Sultan against ambivalent forces headed by Abdullah and another force that is against the Saudi royal family on chiefly religious grounds.

As the owner of the world’s largest oil reserves and home to Islam’s two holiest shrines—Mecca and Medina—the country’s strategic importance means even a smooth and stable succession could affect global markets and have widespread political repercussions.

If civil war breaks out, the side with the greater strength is likely to retain its cash flow by guarding the oil infrastructure, while the side that trails may try to sabotage that flow by destroying oil wells. They may get strong support from bin Laden. The whole state of affairs must make Aramco and major U.S. oil companies very nervous.

Fromt he June 1-7, 2005, issue

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