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Saudi king in hospital again over back trouble

King appears on TV in wheelchair; Crown Prince outside country, also has health issues; Prince Nayef assuming a more prominent role.

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November 20, 2010 3:19 by



Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah was admitted to hospital on Friday after a blood clot complicated a back condition he is suffering from and doctors have recommended more rest, the state news agency said.

Political stability in the monarchy is of global concern. The Gulf Arab state controls more than a fifth of the world’s crude reserves, is a vital U.S. ally in the region, a major holder of dollar assets and home to the biggest Arab bourse.

“The king felt more pain in his back, so further tests were carried out at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh,” SPA said. “It appears he has a blood clot in addition to his slipped disc, which is pressuring the nerves so the medical team advised him to rest and monitor the situation.”

Last Friday authorities in the world’s biggest oil exporter said the king, thought to be 86 or 87, was resting after suffering a slipped disc in his back. Several days later they issued a statement reassuring Saudis he was well.

SPA published a photograph of the king — who was for long de facto ruler before ailing King Fahd died in 2005 — on Friday sitting in a wheelchair surrounded by medics. He was shown meeting wellwishers earlier this week.

The king’s health problems come while Crown Prince Sultan, also in his 80s, has been abroad for unspecified health treatment for much of the last two years. He left in August for what was described as a holiday in Morocco.

Western diplomats in Saudi Arabia said they were concerned, noting the king had cancelled an official visit to France in July without reason. They said it was not clear if his health complaints were solely due to back trouble.

Khaled al-Dakhil, a Saudi political analyst based in Riyadh, said he saw no cause for alarm at present. “I don’t see anything alarming. There is no implication of a serious issue with his health,” he said.

NAYEF IN SPOTLIGHT

With both the king and crown prince indisposed, Interior Minister Prince Nayef has featured heavily in state media over the past week.

Prince Nayef was appointed second deputy prime minister in 2009 in a move which analysts say will avert a power vacuum in the event of serious health problems afflicting the king and crown prince.

The veteran security chief, thought to be around 76, was in an ebullient mood when he met reporters in Mecca before the haj pilgrimage last week and state media made a formal announcement that he would oversee the haj in the king’s place, receiving guests there in recent days.

Nayef is seen as a hawk on a range of issues. Analysts say Nayef appears lukewarm about the social and economic reforms the king has promoted, including attempts to reduce the influence of the hardline clerical establishment in a country that imposes strict Islamic sharia law.

The United States, a decades-long ally of Saudi Arabia, is keen to see reforms continue after the Sept. 11 attacks of 2001 on U.S. cities brought Saudi Arabia’s puritanical Wahhabi form of Sunni Islam to the top of global concerns. Fifteen of the 19 al Qaeda attackers were Saudi.

Saudi Arabia has become key to global efforts to fight al Qaeda. A Saudi intelligence tip-off helped Western governments stop package bombs destined for the United States that were sent on planes out of Yemen last month.

On Wednesday the king transferred control of the National Guard, an elite Bedouin corps that handles domestic security, to his son Mitab. Mitab was also named by the king as a minister of state and a member of the Council of Ministers.

The move suggested the king could be stepping back from some of his roles in guiding the kingdom’s affairs.

“The announcements have added to speculation that rivalry between the king and various senior princes is peaking,” Washington-based analyst Simon Henderson said in a report on Thursday, referring to the National Guard leadership change.

“It remains to be seen whether leadership change in the kingdom will be carefully choreographed or lead to open squabbling,” he said.

Analysts say the ruling Al Saud family, which founded the kingdom with the help of Wahhabi clerics in 1932, needs to promote younger princes to dispel the image of gerontocracy.

So far only sons of state founder Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud can become kings of which about 20 are left, some in ill health.

Dakheel said he saw no move to limit the powers of Nayef in any future division of power. “This could be part of an arrangement to unfold — I don’t know when — about the next generation of the royal family who are going to take over. It’s nothing to do with limiting the power of Nayef,” he said.

(Reporting by Ulf Laessing, Andrew Hammond and Tamara Walid; Writing by Andrew Hammond; editing by Samia Nakhoul)



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