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Saudi King's Power, but Not His Crown, Passes to Prince

December 28, 1997|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Two years after Saudi Arabia's monarch suffered a serious stroke, the kingdom has all but completed a quiet but decisive transition from ailing King Fahd to Crown Prince Abdullah, a shift altering issues ranging from Persian Gulf policies to U.S. relations, according to Western envoys in the kingdom and American analysts.

"Abdullah, who was for decades a man of the future, has recently very much become the man of the hour," said a former U.S. official with continuing ties to the region.

"It's increasingly unacceptable to do important business without going to him first," the former official said. "Even important Aramco [the Saudi oil company] correspondence is now signed by the crown prince for the king."

Significant changes in policy are already visible, most notably in economic policy. There is now new emphasis on austerity previously unknown in the oil-rich nation--with a rippling impact on allies.

To help balance the budget, for example, Abdullah is prepared to forgo some of the expensive U.S. military equipment and technology that poured into the kingdom for a quarter of a century--and channeled billions of petrodollars back into American coffers, according to the diplomats and analysts, who include former government officials.

The transition is also now beginning to shift Saudi Arabia's approach to central diplomatic and security issues.

As the kingdom reaches out diplomatically to engage regional rivals once viewed as threats, including Iran, Saudi Arabia could ultimately become less dependent on the U.S. military, the sources say.

"These have always been two very different men," a Western envoy in Riyadh said about the king and his half brother. "Enough time has now passed to be able to see the differences."

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The crown prince was initially hesitant to make decisions for fear of crowding Fahd, who temporarily appointed Abdullah to act on his behalf after a stroke in 1995.

The king is in his mid-70s. Abdullah is just two years younger, but he is in far better health.

Fahd officially resumed power several months after his stroke but unofficially continued to rely on Abdullah because of continuing health complications.

"He has been suffering from memory loss and limited powers of concentration for years," said Simon Henderson, author of a report for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The king still receives visiting dignitaries; last month he saw Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and South African President Nelson Mandela. But diplomats say privately that Fahd's mental capabilities now vary greatly from day to day.

"He's in and out," said a Western official who saw him recently. "Sometimes he doesn't recognize people he's long known, other times he drives his own car."

The transition will increasingly be felt in Washington, the sources say, although not necessarily in negative ways.

Fahd, who served in several Cabinet posts before becoming the fifth Saudi king and who masterminded the modernization of the country, is largely responsible for upgrading relations and then linking Saudi security to the United States.

Although major decisions usually involve family consensus, Fahd is widely said to have unilaterally decided in 1990, during talks with then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, to allow half a million American troops into the kingdom after Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Fahd also spent $1 trillion to build a national infrastructure and a modern army almost from scratch. Central to those efforts were U.S. corporations, including airplane manufacturers, telecommunications firms, architects, health care companies and construction firms.

Saudi purchases became so critical to the U.S. arms industry that certain equipment, including one of the most modern tanks, would not have been cost-efficient without them.

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In contrast to Fahd, Abdullah's main responsibility for the past 30 years has been commanding the National Guard, a force independent of the Defense Ministry that is partly charged with the kingdom's security and protecting its economic installations.

Through U.S. trainers of the National Guard, he developed close ties to Washington. Several U.S. major generals have served as advisors to him, even during tense relations in the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet despite these ties, the crown prince is more of an Arab nationalist than is the king, and he is also a more devout Sunni Muslim and therefore less tolerant of non-Islamic practices. Many of his closest advisors are Syrian and Lebanese, and his wife is Syrian.

Abdullah's mother came from the Bedouin Shammar tribe near the border with Jordan, once a rival to the kingdom's founding Al Saud family. His father, Saudi founder King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, had more than 40 sons with different wives but had only one with Abdullah's mother.

Abdullah is strongly in favor of security based on regional peace, even with long-standing rivals. Just recently he became the highest-ranking Saudi official to travel to Iran since Tehran's 1979 revolution.

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