Over recent months, Saudi Arabia has found itself in the unaccumstomed - and uncomfortable - position of being headline news. The latest revelation that deputy prime minister and King Fahd's half brother Crown Prince Abdullah would be taking over "management of government affairs" ended speculation over the subject of succession but has fuelled other concerns. Kathy Evans examines the issues confronting the House of Saud.
Never in the 64-year history of the kingdom has the country and its ruling family faced such a barrage of questions, and sometimes criticism, about the internal political situation and the ability of its ruling family, the Al Sauds to manage the economy. The new year saw the monarch, King Fahd withdraw from day to day government and hand the reins of power to his half brother, Crown Prince Abdullah. For a kingdom used to secrecy and discretion about its internal affairs, the experience of such exposure has been traumatic.
The decision of King Fahd to take a rest from his duties as head of state ends - for the moment - an involvement in government stretching back to 1959. Born in 1923 the fifth of 47 sons born to the kingdom's founder, King Abdul Aziz, Fahd has been the main architect of the state's transformation from a society emerging from its tribal roots to the modern superstate it is today. In his earlier years in government first as education minister, then interior minister, Fahd was known as the family's workaholic. But in his later years as king, Fahd gained the reputation as the great procrastinator, often preferring to put off decisions until a water-tight family concensus had been achieved.
Last December, the ailing king suffered his second stroke. Unwisely, the Saudi authorities tried to downplay the seriousness of his illness. Their caution only served to rattle the world oil markets, and so it was left to Washington to announce the news of the King's stroke.
On January 1st, a royal decree was issued by King Fahd to formally hand over day to day affairs to Crown Prince Abdullah. In many ways, the decree ended speculation which had been growing about the succession. Rumours had been percolating in the West that other, younger princes were jostling to jump the family queue and a chance at real power. A perception had also grown that Saudi Arabia's closest ally, the United States, was looking to the defence minister, Prince Sultan or the Riyadh governor, Prince Salman as the most suitable heir. Prince Abdullah, so the speculation went, was viewed as a traditionalist with close ties to the Arab world rather than the kingdom's key Western allies. In the end such speculation was ill-founded, for both Washington and Riyadh know full well that the kingdom's future stability will...