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While King Abdullah is in New York for treatment, royal family jockeys for power at home.
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Suffering from a painful slipped disc, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz pointed out to a recent group of well-wishers that the Arabic name for his ailment is awfully close to the phrase “women’s nerve.”
So he was puzzled at his affliction, he joked, since “we have not seen but only good things from women.”
The king, who is in his late 80s, is now convalescing at New York Presbyterian Hospital after a “successful” Nov. 23 operation to treat a blood clot that formed around the herniated disc, the royal court has said.
The king’s good humor about his back pain, as well as a string of official updates on his condition — issued because of what the royal court called the king’s “principle of transparency” — appear aimed at reassuring Saudis and foreigners that his health setback is not a cause for major concern.
That may be true. But it has not halted renewed speculation among Saudis and diplomats here over royal succession in this oil-rich kingdom, throwing into high relief critical issues for the future of this key U.S. ally and leading oil producer.
The kingdom at present is ruled by an aging royal elite, several of whom are plagued by ill health. Meanwhile, a second-generation of ambitious, middle-aged princes are eager to move into key positions.
Underlying these generational realities is the question of how a royal succession — inevitable in the not-so-distant future — will affect the tentative reforms launched by King Abdullah.
Those reforms — in schools, courts, the job market and press freedom — are aimed at positioning Saudi Arabia to better cope with what is probably its biggest challenge: A fast-growing youth population that soon will need jobs, homes and more recreational outlets.
A huge part of Saudi society welcomes the reforms. But an equally huge part is concerned that the king is instituting change too fast and wants to slacken its pace.
In most countries, this division would seem a recipe for instability. But, at least for now, Saudi Arabia is one of the most stable regimes in the Middle East, compared to neighbors like Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt.
Such stability partly exists because the upper echelon of the House of Saud is comprised of pragmatic politicians who are well aware that the unity of the country depends on their own unity.
As a result, intense divisions and rivalries are eventually layered over with consensus.
For months now, Saudis have assumed that serious bargaining is going on within the family, not just about who will be in the kingly lineup to succeed Abdullah, but also about which sons of high-profile princes will succeed their fathers in key posts.
Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, who is also deputy prime minister, came home from an extended stay in Morocco to act as regent just before King Abdullah left for New York on Nov. 22. Sultan has been in treatment for two years for what is believed to be cancer, and still not able to take on a full workload, diplomats said.
Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz, the second deputy prime minister and interior minister, is widely viewed as next in line to the throne. Sultan’s diminished health, diplomats add, suggest that for all intents and purposes, Nayef will run the country while the king is away.
Just how long that will be is unknown. The royal court has not yet said when the king will return.
Religious conservatives unhappy with the changes under King Abdullah expect that if he becomes king, Nayef will restore some of their lost influence and stall the reformist pulse. Such a rollback is possible since most reforms have not been firmed into institutions.
“Changes made since Abdullah acceded in 2005 lack an institutional basis and have not captured the imagination of the Saudi public, leading to the impression that they constitute personal whims that can just as easily be taken back,” wrote Neil Partrick, associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, in an essay for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Succession in this absolute monarchy has been fairly straightforward since the country’s founder, King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, died in 1953. Five sons have succeeded him: Saud, Faisal, Khalid, Fahd and Abdullah.
Some Saudis fear an extended period of short rules by elderly men, many with serious health issues, if all those waiting in the wings to be king among the founder’s sons insist on their claim to rule. Such a period would likely slow the structural and institutional changes needed if the kingdom is to stay globally competitive.