WASHINGTON — The transition of power in Saudi Arabia from ailing King Fahd to Crown Prince Abdullah is widely assumed to be permanent, despite vehement denials from the oil-rich desert kingdom, senior U.S. officials said Tuesday.
The de facto succession may be the most important since the death of Saudi Arabia's founder more than four decades ago, for the king and his half brother symbolize two starkly different trends within the world's largest royal family.
King Fahd is a former profligate playboy who became a modernizing leader with strong ties to the West but who has also tolerated serious corruption and bribery. Crown Prince Abdullah is a pious traditionalist who heads the elite National Guard and has strong ties to the Arab world.
The transition also comes at a time when the world's largest oil producer faces serious economic and political challenges at home. The dangers are underscored by the November bombing of a National Guard facility run by U.S. military trainers and ongoing threats from what appears to be domestic opposition.
"This is a particularly sensitive time for the kingdom," said a senior Clinton administration official. "Much hinges on perceptions about its stability, which is probably one of the big reasons the king decided to take this unusual step."
Fahd, who suffered a stroke in late November, has not abdicated and, barring further medical complications, Abdullah is not expected to be given the title of king until the death of Saudi Arabia's fifth sovereign, the senior officials said.
But the king's health is now so precarious after bouts with heart problems, diabetes, obesity and lesser ailments that he is not expected to resume full duties even after a long recovery, much of which may be spent in southern Spain, they added.
Since his stroke, which the government has still not announced to the public, a committee of several senior princes has performed day-to-day duties and reported to Abdullah. With the announcement of a temporary hand-over of power, this leadership formula has now been institutionalized.
"The Saudis do not do these kinds of things unless the king is not up to the job of handling the affairs of state," a senior U.S. official said. "This laid the groundwork for a transition."
The Clinton administration was informed last month that the king's poor health necessitated a hand-over of some form.
Prince Sultan ibn Abdulaziz, the defense minister and third in line to the throne, heads the committee. He is a full brother of King Fahd; they are two of the "Sudeiri seven" sons of the same mother.
Ibn Saud, the warrior king who united about a dozen Bedouin tribes to create Saudi Arabia, was survived at his death in 1953 by 43 sons and even more daughters from more than 20 wives. The royal family now boasts about 6,000 princes.
In part because Fahd amended the rules of succession, opening up the throne to the most suitable rather than the most senior prince, there had been some speculation that Prince Sultan might end up succeeding his brother.
The announcement Monday that Abdullah would take over--so the king could "enjoy rest and recuperation" on a medical leave after suffering exhaustion--establishes a firm line of succession, diplomats said.
But the top three Saudi royals are all in their 70s, so the next decade could feature several transitions.
For the outside world, the most critical issue will be Saudi oil policy. After the announcement, benchmark crude oil futures rose by up to 22 cents to $18.55 per barrel Monday on London's oil market, indicating the global impact of Saudi politics.
Fahd supported moderate pricing, often in defiance of Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries allies who wanted to lower output to raise oil profits. And during the Persian Gulf War, the world's largest oil exporter increased output from 5.4 million barrels a day to 8 million barrels a day to compensate for the loss of Kuwaiti and Iraqi oil. It now exports 7 million barrels per day of crude oil and refined products.
Abdullah dabbled in oil policy in the early 1980s, when he criticized production of 10 million barrels a day and urged lower quotas to hold on to the country's sole resource. Despite Saudi economic problems, however, he is expected to follow current practices in part because of close U.S. political and military ties, U.S. analysts say.
But as political challenges grow, he may eventually alter policy. The main threat now is from Islamists who charge that the House of Saud is a U.S. puppet and riddled with corruption.
Over the past year, the regime has launched an unprecedented crackdown on opponents, international human rights groups charge. While Abdullah also may not tolerate dissent, he may quietly agree with some charges of misrule and try to rein in offenders, even within the royal family, experts suggest.
His long-term political intentions will be best determined by his position on the Consultative Council of 60 appointed members introduced by Fahd in 1992, the boldest Saudi reform to date. Abdullah has at times questioned the pace and direction of political modernization.
In contrast to Fahd, who favors big-city life and is famous for keeping U.S. Cabinet ministers waiting, Abdullah is a reserved figure who likes to hunt with falcons and who is known for being on time.