- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2005

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — King Fahd, whose efforts to strengthen ties between Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, and the United States provoked the wrath of Islamic militants, was hospitalized yesterday, apparently with pneumonia.

The king’s half brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, has been Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler since the monarch suffered a debilitating stroke in 1995 and is expected to become the de jure ruler of the kingdom should King Fahd die.

King Fahd’s hospitalization triggered reports that an emergency had been declared in the kingdom. Officials said on the condition of anonymity that an alert had been declared and that military leaves had been canceled or at least discouraged. However, this was firmly denied by the Interior Ministry.

“This is absolutely not true,” ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki said. “There’s no canceling of leaves and no state of emergency or anything.”

Early today, the official Saudi Press Agency quoted an unidentified Saudi source as saying that the king’s health was good and examinations were continuing normally. The news agency said earlier only that King Fahd, who is believed to be 82, was admitted to King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh for unspecified medical tests.

Reports of the monarch’s deteriorating health had been blamed for sending the Saudi stock market tumbling 5 percent earlier in the week.

Yesterday’s news that he was taken to a hospital helped push crude oil futures up 84 cents to near $52 a barrel ahead of the U.S. Memorial Day holiday weekend, the start of the American summer driving season.

Saudi Arabia’s strategic importance as the holder of the world’s largest oil reserves and the fact that it is home to Islam’s two holiest shrines means even a stable succession could affect world markets and create widespread political fallout.

Asked about the king after a speech in San Francisco, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she did not know the extent of his health problems.

“He has in fact had some health problems for quite a long time. We have an excellent relationship with Crown Prince Abdullah,” Miss Rice said.

With the portly, goateed Saudi king only a figurehead in the past decade, it has been Crown Prince Abdullah who has overseen the kingdom’s crackdown on Islamic militants after followers of Saudi-born Osama bin Laden launched a wave of attacks in the kingdom. The Saudi de facto chief tried to rebuild relations with the United States in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Of the 19 hijackers, 15 were Saudis.

At one Riyadh coffee shop yesterday, patrons flipped from channel to channel on a television set, intently seeking information on the hospitalized Saudi ruler’s condition.

“This is all we’re talking about tonight,” said one man who would give his name only as Khaled. “Everyone is talking about what is going on. … We’re waiting for more news.”

On the streets, there was no sign of an increased security presence.

One official said doctors believe the monarch has pneumonia. The official requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of his position.

A royal office official said the king had a fever and “water in his lung” but was expected to leave the hospital soon. He did not elaborate.

“We ask God to keep and protect the Custodian of the Two Holy Shrines, grant him health and well-being,” said the royal office statement announcing the hospitalization, which was carried by the Saudi Press Agency.

King Fahd, who rose to the throne in 1982, suffered short-term memory loss and an inability to concentrate for long stretches after his stroke in 1995. Visitors who saw him after the stroke reported that the king was barely aware of what was going on around him and could not recognize those who shook his hand.

The king is the son of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdul-Aziz.

During his rule, King Fahd brought the kingdom closer to the United States. His most significant action was a step that enraged many Islamic extremists — allowing the basing of U.S. troops on Saudi soil after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Bin Laden, the al Qaeda leader, cited the U.S. troops’ presence as a main provocation for launching the September 11 attacks as well as a wave of violence inside the kingdom.

The U.S. military withdrew all its combat forces from Saudi Arabia in 2003 after major combat operations in Iraq were declared over. But a small military contingent stayed behind in a training and advisory role to the Saudi armed forces.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have been talking in recent months about organizing joint training exercises for U.S. and Saudi ground combat forces in Saudi territory.

During his rule, King Fahd tried to balance overtures to the West with concessions to hard-liners, hoping to boost his Islamic credentials. He had himself named the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites, in the western Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina.

In 1981, when he was still a crown prince, he proposed a plan calling for Israel to withdraw from all Arab territory occupied in 1967, including Arab East Jerusalem. According to that plan, Israeli settlements built on Arab lands after 1967 would be dismantled. The West Bank and Gaza Strip would come under U.N. control for a limited period, after which an independent Palestinian state would be set up with Jerusalem as its capital.

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