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Saudi rift feared with death of king
Toronto Globe and Mail


August 03, 2005

World leaders converged on Riyadh for Tuesday's funeral of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia as oil prices rose to record levels amid concerns over the political future of the world's largest petroleum exporter and the impact of the royal succession on stability in the Middle East.

King Fahd, who for 23 years led his desert kingdom on a tightrope walk between promoting conservative Islam and courting friendship with the West, died Monday and was immediately succeeded by his half-brother Abdullah.

King Abdullah has been the country's de facto ruler since King Fahd suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995. King Fahd, whose death has been expected since he was rushed to hospital in May, was believed to have been 82. Abdullah is 81. Both are sons of King Abdul-Aziz, who founded modern Saudi Arabia in 1932.

King Abdullah is expected to maintain his brother's policy of cautious reform while fighting the al Qaeda-inspired terrorism that has plagued the kingdom for the past two years. Yet despite signs of a smooth transition, oil markets are clearly worried about generational issues involving the Saudi throne and the impact of divisions within the royal family between reformers and conservatives.

Crude oil rose to a record $62.30 a barrel after the death of King Fahd heightened concern about the stability of the world's largest oil exporter.

The price of U.S. light sweet crude oil jumped $1.73 to $62.30 a barrel Monday before closing up $1 or 1.7 per cent at $61.57 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Texas oil consultant William Edwards figured the bump resulted from "spookiness or opportunism by traders," but wasn't worried about a long-term impact. "I don't see any reason to expect added uncertainty because of this."

Other analysts are more concerned. There is a split between the reform-minded King Abdullah and his conservative half-brothers, Prince Sultan, the Defense Minister, and Prince Naif, the Interior Minister.

"The question now is whether the schism within the royal family will come to a head," Mai Yamani, research fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London, said in an interview.

Despite apparently stormy relations with King Abdullah, Prince Sultan was immediately appointed Crown Prince, which indicates that the succession in the secretive family has been determined but gives no hint as to where the kingdom's policies will head in the short term.

And King Abdullah's accession leaves open the future of Saudi Arabia when the dynasty moves to the next generation of Western-educated princes who have been jockeying for influence.

Prince Bandar, the son of Prince Sultan, recently returned to Saudi Arabia after more than 20 years as the kingdom's influential ambassador to Washington.

Some say he returned home in an effort to grab a job in the new government.

His cousin, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who is designated to succeed Bandar in Washington, is also believed to be ambitious. He was previously head of Saudi intelligence and the kingdom's chief intermediary with the Taliban in Afghanistan before the regime's collapse.

Asked what changes will result from King Abdullah's accession, Joseph Kechichian, a Mideast consultant and author of a study on the Saudi royal succession, responded succinctly, "None whatsoever."

For the past 50 years, people have been predicting the imminent collapse of the Saudi royal family, but in fact the transitions have been largely smooth and uneventful.

"Indications are that very little will change in the foreseeable future," he said. "The Saudis are consistent people. They hold on to their traditions over several hundred years and there is nothing to indicate that there will be a break with the past."

During the past 10 years, Abdullah has won praise in the West for cracking down on Islamic militants after a May 2003, attack on Westerners living in Riyadh. He also led the country into a limited experiment with democracy: municipal elections that were held earlier this year. Women, however, were not allowed to vote.

Wajeha al-Huwaider, an independent-minded woman journalist who has been banned from publishing in Saudi newspapers for the past two years, is hoping that Abdullah's ascension to the throne will revive stalled reform measures.

"The people are with him," she said. "We always look at Abdullah as a father. He has a good heart. He is a down-to-earth person and is really close to people."

"We need real things to happen," al-Huwaider said in an interview from Bahrain, where she now lives with her family.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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