Analysis: Fahd dead, Abdullah is new king

By CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI International Editor  |  Aug. 1, 2005 at 9:08 AM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 1 (UPI) -- The king is dead. Long live the king.

Saudi King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz died Monday in a Riyadh hospital after a long illness, sending oil prices soaring over $61.02 a barrel. The royal palace immediately announced the appointment of Crown Prince Abdullah, declaring him the new king and custodian of the two holy shrines -- Mecca and Medina.

Fahd's death was announced on official Saudi television early Monday. The funeral will take place Tuesday.

Fahd bin Abdul Aziz ruled the oil-rich kingdom since 1982, succeeding his late brother, King Khalid.

The new king, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, appointed Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz as his crown prince, Information Minister Ayad Madani said.

Abdullah has been Saudi Arabia's de-facto ruler since Fahd suffered a severe stroke in 1995 that left him weakened, both physically and mentally. Fahd entered hospital last May 27 after suffering severe pneumonia.

The new king is viewed as a charismatic leader. Upon the death of Fahd, he inherits not only one of the richest countries in the world with the planet's largest oil supplies, but also severe internal problems not least of which is home-grown Islamist terrorism.

Many analysts agree Saudi security forces have the upper hand in the kingdom's ongoing war on Islamist terrorism whose aim is the overthrow of the royal House of Saud and replace it with a strict Islamic theocracy.

While it is clear the Saudi government had made giant strides -- and enjoyed major successes in its own fight on terrorism -- the war against the pro-al-Qaida insurgency is not entirely over.

Indeed, the Saudis have gone on the offensive against homegrown Islamist terrorism, launching a campaign last December across the nation to reach out to its citizens. Saudi television ran short docudramas depicting Islamist terrorists trying to recruit young Saudis, interlacing the programs with messages of nationalism, such as military parades, and footage showing the horrors caused by terrorist acts.

Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst and intelligence specialist with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the Saudis have been overall very successful at fighting the threat of Islamist terror.

"They have systematically been able to roll up the terror threat," Cordesman told United Press International, adding, "by and large, al-Qaida in Arabia," the Saudi branch of the pro-Osama bin-Laden terrorist network "has not been convincing."

"We are fighting terrorism, those who support it and those who condone it," Abdullah said at the opening session of a first Counter-Terrorism International Conference in February.

Once one of the safest countries in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia has been shaken by a slew of bloody attacks perpetrated by pro-al-Qaida Islamist militants. The attacks left a trail of terror and blood across the country. The violence reached a crescendo last summer with multiple car bombs and assaults by armed gunmen on compounds housing foreign workers, and government buildings.

Abdullah's task will be to guide Saudi Arabia into the 21st century, tackling issues such as rising unemployment, equal rights for women and introducing a more democratic system through elections, something he has already started to do while crown prince.

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.

The Sudairis come from the same mother, Hassa bint Ahmad al-Sudairi, and are: Fahd, the late 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; Naif bin Abd al-Aziz, minister of Interior; Ahmad bin Abd al-Aziz, vice minister of Interior; Salman bin Abd al-Aziz, governor of Riyadh; and Turki bin Abd al-Aziz, now ambassador to Washington. Together, they form the most powerful alliance in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

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

For the past 10 years, Fahd suffered from ill health. As a result, Abdullah managed the day-to-day affairs of 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-Qaida and homegrown terrorism threatening the royal family -- Abdullah has not fared too poorly.

With Fahd disappearing from public view for extended periods, reports of his death periodically surfaced, only to be proven false. Several past reports claimed he was "clinically dead."

Abdullah, 82, is the son of Saudi Arabia's founder King Abdul Aziz al-Saud. He received a traditional Islamic education in Saudi Arabia, and his first public office was mayor of the holy city of Mecca.

He served as deputy defense minister and commander of the National Guard before being appointed crown prince in 1982.

Abdullah is one of the most influential men in the kingdom and is highly respected for his honesty and is untainted by corruption. He is a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause, and has been a strong critic of U.S. support for Israel and the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

In March 2002, Abdullah attracted world attention when he proposed at an Arab summit in Beirut normalization of Arab relations with Israel in return for the latter's withdrawal from Arab territories captured in the June 1967 Middle East war. The summit adopted what became to be known as Abdullah's initiative.

Within Saudi Arabia, Abdullah is regarded as the driving force behind the shy reform movement, one that will likely now grow.

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(Samar Kadi in Beirut contributed to this report. Comments may be sent to Claude@upi.com.)

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