. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ailing Saudi King Shifts Power to Half-Brother

WASHINGTON -- The transition of power in Saudi Arabia from ailing King Fahd to Crown Prince Abdullah is widely assumed to be permanent, despite vehement denials from the oil-rich desert kingdom, senior U.S. officials said Tuesday.

The de facto succession may be the most important since the death of Saudi Arabia's founder more than four decades ago, for the king and his half-brother symbolize two starkly different trends within the world's largest royal family.

King Fahd is a former profligate playboy who became a modernizing leader with strong ties to the West, but who has also tolerated serious corruption and bribery. Crown Prince Abdullah is a pious traditionalist with a stutter who heads the elite National Guard and has strong ties to the Arab world.

The transition also comes at a time when the world's largest oil producer faces serious economic and political challenges at home. The dangers are underscored by the November bombing of a National Guard facility run by U.S. military trainers and ongoing threats from what appears to be domestic opposition.

"This is a particularly sensitive time for the kingdom," said a senior Clinton administration official. "Much hinges on perceptions about its stability, which is probably one of the big reasons the king decided to take this unusual step."

King Fahd, who suffered a stroke in late November, has not abdicated and, barring further medical complications, Crown Prince Abdullah is not expected to be given the title until the death of Saudi Arabia's fifth sovereign, the sources said.

But the king's health is now so precarious after bouts with heart problems, diabetes, obesity and lesser ailments that he is not expected to resume full duties even after a long recovery, they added.

Since his stroke, which the government has still not announced to the public, a committee of several senior princes has performed day-to-day duties and reported to Abdullah. With the announcement of a temporary handover of power, this leadership formula has now been institutionalized.

"The Saudis do not do these kinds of things unless the king is not up to the job of handling the affairs of state," a senior U.S. official said. "This laid the groundwork for a transition."

The Clinton administration was informed last month that the king's poor health necessitated a handover.

Prince Sultan, the defense minister and third in line to the throne, heads the committee. He is King Fahd's full brother; they are two of the "Sudeiri seven" sons of the same mother.

In part because King Fahd amended the rules of succession, opening up the throne to the most suitable rather than the most senior prince, there had been some speculation that Prince Sultan might succeed his full brother.