- The Washington Times - Monday, August 1, 2005

JIDDA, Saudi Arabia — King Fahd, a staunch ally of the United States during his tumultuous 23-year reign, died in a Riyadh hospital yesterday at 84 after a long illness.

Crown Prince Abdullah, the late king’s 81-year-old halfbrother, was immediately named his successor.

King Abdullah has been the oil-rich kingdom’s de facto ruler since a 1995 stroke debilitated King Fahd. But the death raises fresh questions about the pace of domestic reforms, political succession among the Saudi royal family and Saudi Arabia’s ties to the United States and its struggle to contain Islamic extremist threats.

In Washington, President Bush called the new king to congratulate him, saying he was saddened by the death of King Fahd.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the late king a “partner in efforts to achieve a just and comprehensive peace in the region.”

The death was announced on state television just after 10 a.m. by Information Minister Iyad Madani, whose voice trembled with emotion as he read the news.

“With all sorrow and sadness, the royal court announces the death of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Fahd,” said the statement.

A three-day mourning period was announced, with government offices expected to be closed until at least Saturday. King Fahd’s funeral will take place today. Mr. Bush will not attend, and U.S. officials were still determining the makeup of their delegation late yesterday.

The political transition has been smooth so far — with members of the ruling royal family pledging allegiance to the new king. King Abdullah’s other half-brother, Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz, was named the new crown prince.

But speculation was rife as to why a new deputy crown prince — third in the line of succession — has not been named. The two main contenders are the powerful Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz and Riyadh Governor Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz.

“Not announcing the third person in the succession indicates a lack of consensus in the royal family,” said Khalid Al-Dukhayil, a political sociologist at King Saud University in Riyadh.

Rihab Massoud, charge d’affaires at the Saudi Embassy in Washington, said the new king had asked all Cabinet members to remain in their current posts “until further notice.”

An eerie quiet settled on the Saudi capital as news of the death spread.

Glitzy malls and traditional Arabian souks were open but deserted. People were seen glued to television sets, catching up on the latest details.

King Fahd, who took the throne in 1982, guided Saudi Arabia through the most turbulent era in its history while maintaining close ties with Washington.

He incurred the hatred of Islamic extremists for allowing U.S. troops into the country in 1990 in the run-up to the first Gulf War against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Saudi national Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network has relentlessly campaigned against the monarchy ever since.

The revelation that 15 of the 19 September 11 attackers were Saudi nationals shook U.S.-Saudi ties in 2001, but U.S. officials have praised Saudi efforts since then to address fundamentalist Islamic threats.

“We’ve had a close working relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia on counterterrorism issues, and we would expect to maintain that,” said State Department spokesman Tom Casey.

The king came to power in June 1982, when Saudi oil power was at its height.

During his reign, the king tried to shore up his own Islamic legitimacy, assuming in 1986 “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” as a sign of his protection of the sacred Muslim sites in Mecca and Medina.

Most ordinary Saudis said they were not shocked by the king’s death because of his lengthy illness, but they wondered openly what changes were in store.

Ola Badeeb, a 20-year-old Saudi woman who is studying in the United States, said, “I think that King Abdullah will be better for everyone as he will use our oil resources wisely, offer more jobs to Saudis and perhaps allow women to drive.”

David R. Sands and Seth Rosen in Washington contributed to this report.

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