King Abdullah assumes Saudi throne in quick succession after Fahd’s death |

King Abdullah assumes Saudi throne in quick succession after Fahd’s death

Associated Press

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – King Abdullah quickly assumed the Saudi throne Monday after the death of his long-ailing half brother, giving a smooth transition to the leadership of this key U.S. ally and oil giant already grappling with extremists and debating the need for reform.After a decade as de facto ruler and the prime mover of recent reforms, the popular 81-year-old Abdullah is expected to seek to consolidate his power by bringing more allies into government and perhaps open the door for younger, more modern princes to play a role.Some people expect him to face behind-the-scenes competition from a clique of half brothers who hold their own powerful posts and have close ties with Saudi Arabia’s conservative Muslim clerics, although the royal family’s swift backing for the new king hinted at some consensus.With oil markets already jittery because of rising consumption and strained production capacity, prices for crude jumped after the death of King Fahd early Monday even though Saudi oil policy is expected to be unchanged under Abdullah.Fahd, the country’s absolute monarch since 1982 until he was debilitated by a 1995 stroke, died early Monday at age 84 after nearly two months in a Riyadh hospital.The mechanism of succession moved quickly along tracks laid down long ago: Abdullah stepped in as king, while Fahd’s brother Prince Sultan, the 77-year-old defense minister, became crown prince and next in line to the throne.Abdullah has been the main force behind unprecedented reforms and a heavy crackdown on al-Qaida-linked militants following a series of terror attacks in May 2003.Now armed with the power of the throne after years in the more tenuous position of de facto ruler, Abdullah will likely move to advance supporters into key positions and push forward on the reform and anti-terror tracks.But he must tread carefully: Prince Sultan and others in the close-knit circle of Fahd’s full brothers known as the “Sudairi Seven” hold key security posts and are seen as resistant to swift change.Few expect the current generation of rulers – the sons of Abdul-Aziz bin Saud, the Bedouin chief who welded the kingdom together under his name in 1932 – to hold the throne as long as Fahd’s 22-year reign. That opens the door to the next generation of numerous grandsons, but beyond Sultan there is no clear line of succession.As the family installed Abdullah, Saudis prepared to bury their longest-ruling monarch Tuesday with a mix of the austerity dictated by their puritanical Wahhabi version of Islam and the grandiosity befitting a kingdom whose oil riches fueled investment across the Muslim world.By Monday afternoon, hotels in Riyadh were packed as Saudis flocked to the capital to express their condolences to the royal family and congratulate the new king. Numerous Arab leaders – including Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah – also were coming.Foreign leaders planned to attend prayers for the dead at a mosque Tuesday afternoon. But Fahd was to be buried in an unmarked grave at a cemetery alongside previous kings and commoners – the tradition in Wahhabism, which frowns on the visiting of graves of family or revered figures.State-run television ran Quranic verses in mourning, and Information Minister Iyad bin Amin Madani’s voice wavered with emotion as he announced Fahd’s death Monday morning: “With all sorrow and sadness, the royal court … announces the death of the custodian of the two holy mosques, King Fahd bin Abdul-Aziz.”The White House was informed of Fahd’s death about 2:30 a.m. President Bush called Abdullah to express condolences and also offered congratulations to the new king, spokesman Scott McClellan said.The capital’s streets remained busy, and many Saudis said they had prepared themselves for Fahd’s death during his long illness.”We will all pray for Fahd, who was a father figure to us all,” said Ibrahim al-Qahtani, who was shopping at a Riyadh mall with his children.Before becoming de factor ruler, Abdullah had been less inclined than Fahd to see the kingdom intwined in the decades-old alliance with the United States, but he has preserved close ties with Washington. After the Sept. 11 attacks, which were carried out by 15 Saudis and four other Arabs, Abdullah decided he had to initiate changes in his deeply conservative country.Abdullah emphasized stability Monday, issuing a decree that all government ministers would retain their positions for now.But in the coming months, he will be watched carefully for signs he is strengthening his position in the complicated politics of the royal family.Abdullah, who has no full brothers among the dozens of children thought to have been fathered by the kingdom’s founder, will have to rely on half brothers for support if he is challenged by Fahd’s “Sudairi Seven” clan.Sultan, the new crown prince and still in charge of the Defense Ministry, is one of the surviving brothers in that clan, which gets its name from their mother. So is Interior Minister Prince Nayef, head of the internal security forces, and Prince Salman, the powerful governor of Riyadh.Abdullah, who had a different mother, heads the National Guard. It once was a largely ceremonial unit, but he has built it into a modern 75,000-strong force as a counterweight to the army.The Sudairi Seven, with close ties to the kingdom’s conservative Islamic clerics, have been criticized by some as too slow to crack down on militant groups and to introduce political reforms.The next generation of royals – including the sons of Abdullah and the Sudairis – may also be itching for a greater role. One key post to watch will be that of intelligence minister, which has been empty since another of Abdullah’s half brothers stepped down in January.Prince Bandar, the son of Sultan and the urbane Saudi ambassador to Washington for two decades until last month, has been rumored as one candidate for the post. But Abdullah may seek to install someone closer to himself.Abdullah may have to strike deals with the Sudairis and other half brothers to push forward on reform and the terror crackdown. His main reform so far was to call the kingdom’s first elections earlier this – votes for local councils.With the authority of the throne, he can push for more and heighten an anti-corruption campaign he began over the past decade.”Now the political vacuum is over. We have one monarch and more decisiveness in the realm of reform. The world will witness positive changes in Saudi Arabia,” said Turki al-Hamad, a newspaper columnist and political scientist. “Things that took many years to be decided will only take months.”Vail – Colorado

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