King Abdullah, center, of Saudi Arabia arrives to his palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Friday, Nov. 19, 2010. The Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said that King Abdullah entered a hospital on Friday due to complications in the back pain suffered by them and the doctors advised him to rest. (Getty Images / AP Photo/Saudi Press Agency)
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November 21, 2010 KUWAIT/JEDDAH (KATAKAMI / Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s elderly King Abdullah will leave for the United States on Monday for medical checks for a back ailment, and Crown Prince Sultan is returning from holiday abroad, state media said on Sunday.
Political stability in the monarchy is of global concern. The Gulf Arab state controls more than a fifth of the world’s crude reserves, is a vital U.S. ally in the region, a major holder of dollar assets and home to the biggest Arab bourse.
Western diplomats in Riyadh said the king’s departure and the crown prince’s sudden return indicate the kingdom, which has no political parties or elected parliament, is trying to prevent a power vacuum and reassure Washington and other allies.
Prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi said the royal court’s fourth medical bulletin in little more than a week showed the desert kingdom, known for its secrecy, wanted to dispel any rumors.
“They want to make a point that there is no room for rumors … Everybody should know that we do have a system to resolve all unexpected situations,” he added, pointing to an allegiance council set up by Abdullah to regulate the succession.
But analysts say the ruling Al Saud family, which founded the kingdom with clerics in 1932, will remain a gerontocracy unless it soon promotes younger princes, as those at the top are all in their 70s and 80s.
The king is thought to be 86 or 87 and Sultan is only a few years younger. Many technocrat ministers such as Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi are in their 70s.
Abdullah, seen by Washington as a moderate at the helm of a pivotal Muslim country, was admitted to hospital on Friday after a blood clot complicated a slipped disc he suffered the week before.
“The king will leave on Monday for the United States to complete medical tests,” the Saudi Press Agency SPA said.
Diplomats said there has been uncertainty about the extent of his health problems since Abdullah canceled a visit to France in July.
Crown Prince Sultan, who has had unspecified health problems over the past two years, will return to Riyadh on Sunday evening from Morocco, where he has been since August.
Saudi officials say Sultan, who is also defense minister, has been working normally since returning in December from an extended medical absence. Diplomats say he was treated for cancer and has since then been much less active in public.
During his stay in Morocco, the Saudi cabinet approved a rare salary increase for soldiers, a classic domain of Sultan.
The United States is keen to see reforms continue after the September 11 attacks of 2001 on U.S. cities brought Saudi Arabia’s puritanical Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam to the top of global concerns. Fifteen of the 19 al Qaeda attackers were Saudi.
Saudi Arabia has become key to global efforts to fight al Qaeda. A Saudi intelligence tip-off helped Western governments stop package bombs destined for the United States that were sent on planes out of Yemen last month.
Interior Minister Prince Nayef, comparatively youthful at around 76, was appointed second deputy prime minister in 2009 in a move which analysts say will secure leadership in the event of serious health problems afflicting the king and crown prince.
The position does not guarantee that Nayef would become king but places him in a strong position to shape policy. Most diplomats expect it as he has steadily expanded his influence into other areas, discussing even inflation or economic policy.
In some government offices Nayef’s picture has been added to that of Abdullah, Sultan and state founder Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud.
Analysts and diplomats see this as part of the jostling for position at the top of the ruling family.
Last week the king transferred control of the National Guard, an elite Bedouin corps that handles domestic security, to his son Mitab, and diplomats expected more royal moves.
“This appears to be the sign that changes are coming and younger princes are now getting promoted,” said Dubai political analyst Theodore Karasik.
So far only sons of the state founder can become kings, of which about 20 are left, some in ill health.
With both the king and crown prince indisposed, Prince Nayef has featured heavily in state media over the past week.
The veteran security chief was in an ebullient mood when he met reporters in Mecca before the haj pilgrimage last week and state media made a formal announcement that he would oversee the haj in the king’s place, receiving guests there in recent days.
Nayef is seen as a hawk on a range of issues. Analysts say he appears lukewarm about the social and economic reforms the king has promoted, including attempts to reduce the influence of the hardline clerical establishment in a country that imposes strict Islamic sharia law.
Another key royal, Riyadh governor Prince Salman, in his 70s, will return to the country on Tuesday to resume duties as governor of Riyadh, SPA also said on Sunday.
Salman, who underwent spine surgery in the United States in August and remained long outside the kingdom for recuperation, is a full brother of both Sultan and Nayef and has shown ambition for top jobs, diplomats say. (*)