Saudi Arabia’s elderly King Abdullah will leave for the United States Monday for medical checks for a back ailment, and Crown Prince Sultan is returning from holiday abroad, state media said today.Western diplomats in Riyadh said the prince’s return indicate that kingdom, the which has no political parties or elected parliament, is trying to prevent a power vacuum and reassure Washington and other allies.
A day before his departure, the king reappointed several officials close to his reform course, including Saudi Arabia’s relatively moderate top Islamic scholar and the ambassador to Washington.
In a rare move, Saudi Health Minister Abdullah al-Rabeeah appeared late Sunday on state television to assure the public that the king was healthy and would return to lead the country.
Prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi said the fourth medical bulletin in little more than a week showed the desert kingdom, known for its secrecy, wanted to dispel any rumors.
“They want to make a point that there is no room for rumors … Everybody should know that we do have a system to resolve all unexpected situations,” he added, pointing to an allegiance council set up by Abdullah to regulate the succession.
However, the princes at the top of the hierarchy are all in their 70s and 80s and the Al Saud family, which founded the kingdom with clerics in 1932, will remain a gerontocracy unless it soon promotes younger princes.
The king is thought to be 86 or 87 and Sultan is only a few years younger. Many technocrat ministers such as Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi are in their 70s.
Saudi Arabia’s political stability is of global concern. It 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.
Abdullah, valued by Washington as a moderate at the helm of a pivotal Muslim country, went into hospital Friday after a blood clot complicated a slipped disc suffered the week before.
“The king will leave Monday for the United States to complete medical tests,” the Saudi Press Agency SPA said.
Health minister Rabeeah said the king “is healthy and will return to lead this proud nation.” But diplomats say there has been uncertainty about Abdullah’s health since he canceled a visit to France in July.
In a brief report the Saudi state news agency SPA said Crown Prince Sultan, who has had unspecified health problems over the past two years, had returned to Riyadh Sunday evening from Morocco, where he had been since August.
Saudi officials say Sultan, who is also defense minister, has been working normally since returning in December from an extended medical absence. Diplomats say he was treated for cancer and has been much less active in public since.