Succession to Saudi Throne Eyed Closely by Oil-Buying US Leadership of the World's Largest Oil Producer Is in Transition, with the Aging Monarchy Facing Change

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON is watching closely as one of its most stable Arab allies enters a season of change.

The desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long been a pillar of American interests in the Middle East, a conservative but moderate Islamic state that in recent years has helped maintain stable oil prices and even given cautious support to the US-backed Arab-Israeli peace process.

But mounting financial woes stemming from declining oil prices, reckless spending, and the 1991 Gulf war - plus restive Muslim fundamentalists - have afflicted a nation that once used oil profits to hold adversity at bay. Now, with the country's monarch at least temporarily indisposed, the kingdom's aging leadership is in transition.

In the short term, a coincidence of US and Saudi interests in maintaining a strategic alliance to deter threats from the dominant military powers in the Gulf region - Iran and Iraq - seems unshakable.

Over the long term, King Fahd's recent decision to hand the reigns of power to his half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, has implications that are less clear. Power was transferred Jan. 1.

"There's nothing to worry about now, but how is it going to pan out if Abdullah becomes king?" asks one expert on Saudi Arabia who requested anonymity. "In the worst case, it could lead to increased uncertainty in the US-Saudi relationship."

The crown prince is one of 25 surviving sons of Abdul Aziz (Ibn Saud), who established the Saudi kingdom in 1932. To become king, Abdullah would need the approval of his 24 half-brothers, some of whom consider him, at age 72, too old for the job. One possible alternative: the popular, capable, and younger Prince Salman, the governor of Riyad.

As head of the country's 57,000-man National Guard security force, Abdullah is used to working closely with American military advisers.

But he is described as less reflexively pro-American than King Fahd and, to a degree, less supportive of Middle East peace moves. In a speech last October he declared that Jerusalem - which Israel claims as its capital - should be an Arab and Islamic city forever. The comment was not warmly received in Washington.

But State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said last week that it was "absolutely untrue" that the US regards the crown prince as "anti-Western, anti-American, and anti-peace with Israel."

Analysts speculate that for health reasons Fahd may not return to power, meaning that Abdullah will reign as de facto monarch until Fahd dies or formally abdicates. Without the full authority of a de jure monarch, they say, Abdullah could have a harder time arbitrating disputes among members of the royal family.

Even as the future of the monarchy grows clouded, the restiveness of Muslim militants appears on the increase. Last November, Islamic elements were suspected of planting a bomb that destroyed a facility in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, where Americans were training Saudi military personnel. …