The reins of government in the secretive oil-rich kingdom pass to a religious crown prince little known outside his country
For years, his health has been so fragile and his weight so excessive that a mini-elevator had to be installed in his palace to allow him to negotiate a single step in a split-level floor. Plagued by diabetes, gall bladder and knee problems, he walked only with the aid of canes. And ever since a fortune-teller’s prediction that he would die in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s notoriously superstitious King Fahd has spent little time in the capital— preferring instead his opulent seaside compounds in Jeddah or Spain’s Costa del Sol, where he often showed less interest in the affairs of state than in his latest passion, Nintendo. Still, in the secretive desert kingdom that harbors one-quarter of the globe’s known oil reserves, the 73-year-old monarch’s frailty was never officially acknowledged—until last week.
On New Year’s Day, the royal House of Saud surprised the world with the announcement that Fahd had transferred authority to his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, 72, while he embarked on “rest and recuperation.” Despite its determined business-asusual tone, the royal edict confirmed rumors that had been swirling through diplomatic circles ever since Fahd was rushed to a Riyadh hospital on Nov. 30 for what the palace termed a checkup. According to a U.S. medical team flown to his bedside, the king had, in fact, suffered a debilitating stroke. And privately, most Western diplomats now predict that he is unlikely to resume governing. But that presumed transfer of power sent shivers of uncertainty through Washington and other capitals at a time when mounting dissent and terrorist bombings have raised questions about the long-term health of the kingdom itself. As one Western diplomat worried last week:
“If the royal family doesn’t control the social changes that are going on, what’s going to happen is what happened in Iran.”
The spectre of an Iranian-style revolution has haunted Saudi Arabia ever since the 1991 Gulf War brought more than 500,000 foreign troops to the insular desert fiefdom, sparking demands for further liberalization from women and the middle class—and a backlash from Islamic fundamentalists. But that very threat may have strengthened Abdullah’s
hand in the Byzantine royal succession process. A conservative, he is known as one of the most religious and least corrupt of the senior princes, whose lavish lifestyles and demands for kickbacks on business deals have made them the targets of criticism.
Unlike Fahd and his predecessors, Abdullah is not one of the “Sudairi Seven”—the powerful sons born to Hassa Sudairi, favorite wife of King Abdul Aziz, who founded the kingdom in 1932. The offspring of another of Abdul Aziz’s 22 wives, the crown prince retains strong ties to the Bedouin clans who fill the ranks of the 57,000-man Saudi national guard under his com-
mand. And while Fahd won a reputation as the “playboy prince,” touring Europe’s nightspots, the shy, stay-athome Abdullah, who suffers from a pronounced stutter, retreated to the desert to hunt with his prized falcons. In fact, in the late 1970s, when the Canadian government presented a rare Alberta-trained gyrfalcon to then-King Khalid, the contrast between the pair seemed painfully clear. “The look on Fahd’s face showed he was just so bored,” recalled one participant, “but Abdullah was almost as excited as the king, who was bouncing up and down.”
For years, those traditional tastes left Abdullah an embarrassment to his half-brothers. But at a time when Fahd’s 13 years of
modernization and unabashed pro-Americanism are increasingly under attack, those very qualities have won the crown prince new clout. Still, as an Arab nationalist whose tribal ties have made him the Saudi point man with Syria, Abdullah is regarded warily in Washington. During the Gulf War, he opposed allowing U.S. forces on Saudi soil. “Abdullah was more inclined to negotiate with Saddam Hussein,” says William Quandt, a Middle Eastern expert at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. “But when Fahd asserted himself, Abdullah didn’t try to fight it.”
Now, scholars predict that any changes in Saudi foreign policy will be confined more to style than substance. And given the kingdom’s dependence on Washington for its defence, Abdullah has little choice. Even his national guard relies on a longstanding training contract with the Virginiabased Vinnell Corp. But on Nov. 13, a terrorist bomb that ripped the facade off the national guard’s Riyadh headquarters and left five Americans dead underlined the mounting risks A of that alliance. Claiming œ responsibility for the at| tack, a group called the Islamic Movement for Change had earlier warned in faxes to the U.S. Embassy that unless an estimated 5,000 American military personnel left the country, it would “evict these forces from the island of Islam.”
Late last week, it became clear that Abdullah may prove tougher than Fahd against those escalating threats to the throne. Bowing to stepped-up pressure from his office, the British government suddenly announced deportation proceedings against Mohammed Masari, a former Saudi physics professor who has been leading one opposition faction by fax and electronic mail from his exile in London since April, 1994. But disgruntled fundamentalists are not the only challenge the crown prince faces as he undertakes the delicate highwire act that has allowed Saudi rulers to straddle both East and West. Should he falter, his longtime rival, Defence Minister Prince Sultan, 68, another Sudairi halfbrother and a Washington favorite, is waiting next in line for power. And last week, Cornell University professor Shibley Telhami threw another curve, urging the budgetobsessed U.S. Congress to reconsider its $50-billion annual commitment to defend the Persian Gulf. “There’s likely to be a reconsideration of the American presence here,” Telhami told Maclean’s, “long before there is in Saudi Arabia.”
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