Continuity in Saudi Arabia Acting King: Abdullah, man of desert, picks up reign from ailing half-brother.

January 05, 1996

KING FAHD of Saudi Arabia is the fourth son of founding monarch Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud to succeed his father, who died in 1953. Fahd is 74, fat, diabetic, pleasure-seeking, Westernizing and suffered a stroke in November. On assuming power in 1982 he named his half-brother, Abdullah, to be crown prince, heir apparent, second-in-command and head of the tribal-based National Guard. Abdullah is 72, thin, ascetic, traditionalist, pious and speaks no English.

King Fahd's New Year's Day appointment of Prince Abdullah to perform royal duties until he recuperates reassured the kingdom that there is no power struggle or change, at least not now. Much is made of Abdullah's stronger Arab traditionalism, compared to Fahd's modernizing. But they are two faces of the same policy, which is not likely to change.

Abdullah's rise is probably permanent. Prince Sultan, the defense minister, a stripling of 68 who might have been his rival, steps up from the No. 3 spot to No. 2. The Ibn Saud system, as last modified by Fahd, is working. There are pressures for change, but what happened was resistance to change.

The interim succession was a response to two shocks in November. One was Fahd's stroke. The other was the car-bombing of a U.S.-manned National Guard communications center. Western oil interests have tried since the fall of the shah of Iran to diversify their sources of oil, but Saudi Arabia remains the dominant exporter.

It has 16 million people, of whom 6,000 are royal princes. These have subsidized every movement in the Arab world, for self-protection, but the billions they gave Iraq's Saddam Hussein to fight Iran went into his invasion of Kuwait and threat to Saudi Arabia. The rulers, as guardians of holy Mecca and Medina, run a theocracy based on the Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam. Theirs is a repressive regime that nonetheless offends many believers with its wealth, monarchy and corruption.

Some day, the U.S. and its oil-consuming interests will have to come to terms with change in Saudi Arabia. This is not that day.

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