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A king's surgery sparks succession speculation

Sex, drugs and alcohol — so says a diplomatic cable. Maid abuse strains ties with another Muslim majority country. Saudis to generate nuclear power for civilian use. Billionaire prince invests in General Motors. Rescuing hearts at the annual pilgrimage.

Top News: King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, said to be 86 or 87, flew to the United States Nov. 22 and the next day underwent the first of two surgeries on his back at New York Presbyterian Hospital. The royal court called the operations “successful,” adding that the Saudi king would undergo physical therapy. Due to his absence from the kingdom, Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz came home from an extended stay in Morocco to act as regent. Sultan, also in his 80s, has been treated for the past two years for what diplomats believe is cancer.

The two men’s advanced age and health issues ignited widespread speculation about royal succession in this key U.S. ally and paramount oil producer. Saudis assume that royal family members are negotiating among themselves over who will step into the two top positions in the not-too-distant future. Interior Minister Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz is widely anticipated to become king after Abdullah and Sultan have passed on. 

But the bigger question is what jobs the next generation of princes will be moving into. Two members of that generation have already succeeded their fathers: Prince Mansour bin Miteb was named Minister of Municipalities earlier this year. And before he left for the United States the king appointed his son, Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, head of the Saudi National Guard, a post the king held for almost half a century. It is not known how long the king will remain outside the kingdom.

A Saudi university professor pushed the envelope a bit too far for the authorities in his speculation about the royal succession. Mohammed al Abdul Karim was detained Dec. 5 after he wrote an essay on his Facebook page questioning how successions are handled and asking if the kingdom’s unity could survive a hotly contested battle for power among royal family factions. He has not been publicly charged.

The Wikileaks dump of diplomatic [or un-diplomatic] cables was interesting reading when it came to Saudi Arabia. Perhaps the items that will be remembered most were King Abdullah’s urging for a U.S. attack on Iran in order to end its purported nuclear weapons program; U.S. concerns that money from Saudi individuals and charities was still going to terrorist groups, and the wild parties that take place under princely protection.

Two horrific cases of abuse of Indonesian maids by their Saudi employers strained Saudi-Indonesian relations. One maid was cut on her face with scissors and burned on her head with a hot iron. Another was beaten to death and dumped by the roadside. The employers have been detained pending further police investigations. This is a good step but prosecutions are rare in such cases. And some Saudis were still not prepared to accept that a fellow citizen could carry out such violent assaults. A lawyer, working for the government human rights commission, said there were suspicions the first maid slashed her own face in order to get financial compensation from her employer.

On Nov. 26, Saudi security officials disclosed that over the previous eight months, 149 suspected Al Qaeda militants had been arrested. They had been working in 19 different cells of varying size on different plots, all of them aborted by the authorities, a spokesman said. Most of the militants were working with the Al Qaeda affiliate based in neighboring Yemen, he added.

Money: The Saudi government is aiming to produce civilian nuclear power for its internal needs within a decade, according to U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce Francisco Sanchez, who was in Riyadh with a group of U.S. businessmen. The kingdom’s huge planned investment in capital spending — possibly up to $700 billion — over the next five years is a major opportunity for U.S. firms, Sanchez told reporters.

An example of that infrastructure enhancement was revealed Nov. 13 when Crown Prince Sultan, who is also Minister of Aviation, signed a $7 billion contract to refurbish Jeddah’s airport terminal.

Meanwhile, Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, who is already a major stockholder in Citibank, bought 1 percent of General Motors shares for $500 million after the Detroit carmaker returned to normal trading after recuperating from its bankruptcy and U.S. government bailout.

Elsewhere: This year turned out to be one of the most successful pilgrimages, with no major accidents or disease outbreaks. Over 2.7 million Muslims made the journey to Mecca for the mid-November ritual, with 1.7 million coming from abroad and more than 980,000 traveling to the holy city from inside the kingdom. A new railroad transported pilgrims between two of the important Meccan sites on the sacred journey. And the Saudis seemed prepared for almost every eventuality: Doctors performed seven emergency open-heart surgeries on pilgrims who had come for the once-in-a-lifetime religious obligation.