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Future rests on next Saudi leader


Future rests on next Saudi leader

Since King Fahd had a stroke, his more traditional half brother has been de facto ruler.
Interim ruler Crown Prince Abdullah has pushed reform, upheld tradition.
Some fear the despised Prince Sultan could try to seize the throne when Fahd dies.

Future rests on next Saudi leader

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 25, 2002

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Saudi Arabia has one of the world's youngest populations -- 70 percent of its people are under 19 -- but some of the world's oldest rulers.

Now almost 80, King Fahd suffered a serious stroke several years ago. Since then, most of his official duties have been carried out by his half brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, himself in his late 70s.

Although the ruling regime is stable today, the advanced age of the country's leaders and the fuzzy lines of succession create concerns about the future.

"We have this feudal institutional system and the royal family is not on good terms with each other," says Saad Al-Fagih, a Saudi dissident living in London. "Each person (who dies) will make a complete shift in the balance of power."

As the country's de facto ruler, Abdullah is next in line for the throne. He is thought to have the support of most of the royal family, assuring a smooth transition if Fahd precedes him in death. Although more traditional than the present king, Abdullah seems to be trying to steer Saudi Arabia toward economic, social and political reforms while preserving its conservative brand of Islam.

"On balance, the crown prince seems likely to maintain Saudi Arabia's long-standing strategic and economic ties with the United States," a U.S. Congressional report says.

Considered highly moral and incorruptible, Abdullah has repeatedly condemned terrorism, including the Sept. 11 attacks. He also advanced a Mideast peace proposal that would give Israel full diplomatic relations with the Arab world in return for recognizing Palestinian statehood and withdrawing from occupied territories.

But Abdullah can be prickly to deal with. In June 2001 he turned down an invitation to visit America to show displeasure over what he considered insufficient U.S. efforts to restrain Israeli military action against the Palestinians. And he canceled a visit to Canada to protest media coverage of a Canadian accused of a fatal bombing in Saudi Arabia.

Prince Sultan, the Saudi defense minister and King Fahd's full brother, is widely despised. Many Saudis consider the prince, in his mid 70s, to be corrupt and power-hungry, and there are fears he could try to seize the throne when Fahd dies.

Some worry, too, that followers of Osama bin Laden or other Islamic extremists might try to assassinate any Saudi ruler deemed too pro-Western.

If something happens to Abdullah or Sultan, the line of succession gets blurry. Possible contenders include some 25 brothers and half brothers of King Fahd along with numerous sons and nephews.

One thing is certain -- whoever ends up in charge, Saudi Arabia will remain a conservative Islamic nation.

"There is very clear consensus on that -- Islam is the umbrella for everything," Al-Fagih says. "Even the most liberal Saudi would not dare say we want a secular or non-Islamic government."