- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2005

The Royal House of Saud — and, in fact, Saudi Arabia — has long been ruled by the “Sudairi Seven” — seven powerful brothers who control the most important jobs in the kingdom. What will occur after King Fahd’s death is beginning to concern analysts who feel his passing will affect the succession of would-be king, Crown Prince Abdullah.

For the past 10 years, Fahd has suffered ill health. As a result, Abdullah has managed the day-to-day affairs of the kingdom — the world’s largest oil producer. And one may add, given the turmoil of the past decade in the Arabian Peninsula — the rise of al Qaeda and homegrown terrorism threatening the royal family — Abdullah has not fared too poorly.

With the king repeatedly disappearing from public view for extended periods, reports of his death have periodically surfaced, only to be proven false.

Accordingly, last Friday afternoon when the Saudi Institute, a pro-democracy policy institute, issued an “exclusive news bulletin” citing reliable sources in Riyadh that “King Fahd is dead,” the news was only too credible. The report added that Fahd, ill since a stroke in 1995, ceding his royal authority to Abdullah de facto, “had been dead since late Wednesday.”

A spokesman for the Saudi Institute said the information came from “several well-placed sources in the capital Riyadh,” who spoke on condition of anonymity. The statement quoted an unnamed “prominent figure in Riyadh” saying “I am confident he [the king] is dead.” There were additional indications making this report more believable, aside from the fact the king had been absent from public view for some time.

Just under a month ago, a confidential memo was made available to United Press International in which King Fahd was reported to be “brain dead.” This report emerged after the meeting between President Bush and Prince Abdullah in Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch last April. The report said Abdullah went to Texas to brief Mr. Bush about the Saudi king’s health.

The report claimed Fahd was “clinically dead.” When UPI tried to confirm the report with a Saudi intelligence source, the source said the “rumor had been going around for about three weeks.”

Along with Friday’s report of the king’s death, there were also unconfirmed reports of the Saudi government canceling all military leave. Some Western media in Saudi Arabia erroneously reported “heightened security alerts.”

The Saudi government denied both the king’s death and the security alerts. An official at the Royal Saudi Embassy in Washington told UPI Friday King Fahd had been admitted to a Riyadh hospital, but rebutted the death report.

One can safely assume Fahd’s residence is equipped with advanced medical facilities, and his move to a hospital indicates a turn for the worse. However, what made the premature death story believable was the fact it came from the Saudi Institute, an outfit that in the past has had a good track record of reporting on human rights abuses from the kingdom.

What happens after Fahd’s death is of concern. Should Abdullah become king, as only a half-brother of the Sudairi Seven, the powerful brothers might see it as a loosening of their control over their power base.

The Sudairis come from the same mother, Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi, and are: Fahd bin Abd al-Aziz, the king and prime minister; Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz, second vice minister and minister of defense and aviation; Abd al-Rahmam bin Abd al-Aziz, vice minister of defense; Na’if bin Abd al-Aziz, interior minister; Ahmad bin Abd al-Aziz, interior vice minister ; Salman bin Abd al-Aziz, governor of Riyadh; and Turki bin Abd al-Aziz. Together, they form the most powerful alliance in the kingdom.

Abdullah is “only” a half-brother to the Sudairi Seven. His mother was al-Fadha bint Asi al-Shuraim.

Saudi analysts believe Abdullah “will find it impossible to wrest the throne away from the Sudairis, who many feel want to maintain power” within their branch of the family.

According to the Saudi Institute, the struggle between the Sudairis and Abdullah, if one were to occur, “would pose a greater threat to the regime than the violence the government faced from Islamist militants” last summer. That remains to be seen. But it is clear the death of the king of Saudi Arabia will, if nothing else, affect the region’s markets.

Though the news of the king’s ill-health and his admission to hospital with pneumonia and fever was no great surprise, Saudi stocks tumbled nearly 1 percent last Saturday, with the morning session ending more than 12,000 points down.

Strife within the royal family would give insurgents new hope. That is why the passing of power — when it officially happens — should be seamless.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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