Saudi king to US for treatment of back ailment, says official

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RIYADH: Saudi King Abdullah is to receive treatment in the United States for a painful herniated disc, with ailing Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz to take over the reins in his absence, an official said Sunday.

Abdullah, 86, will travel to the US on Monday for treatment for the herniated disc and "blood accumulation" around the spine, the official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

He added that Prince Sultan, who has himself been receiving treatment for the past two years for what is believed by analysts and diplomats to be cancer, was due back from Morocco Sunday to take over in the king’s absence.

Sultan has spent nearly 12 weeks at his palace in Agadir, Morocco, where according to his son, he was "on holiday."

The crown prince, who is around 85 years old, has not been very active since he went abroad for treatment of an illness which has never been officially disclosed and a lengthy convalescence in 2008-2009.

The deteriorating health of both king and crown prince serve notice of possible political changes looming for Saudi Arabia, the leading supplier of petroleum to the globe and a key political player in the Middle East.

Abdullah, who has been king since 2005, had slowed his activities since June this year due to health problems which were never officially identified.

On November 12, the royal court said the king was suffering from a herniated disc, a painful but treatable spinal ailment.

"Doctors have advised him to rest as part of his therapy," said a brief statement carried at the time by official SPA news agency, which added that the announcement was in line with the monarch’s "principle of transparency."

That statement on the status of King Abdullah’s health marked a shift towards more openness in the kingdom, where health problems of the sovereigns and princes are usually categorized as state secrets.

On Friday the king underwent tests at King Faisal hospital in Riyadh after he suffered a new flare-up of pain, and the official report said it involved an "accumulation of blood" around the spinal cord.

In a television appearance last week in which he appeared supporting himself with a cane while walking, King Abdullah said he is in good health but had something "bothering" him.

On Saturday an expected — but never officially announced — visit by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak became a phone call between the two leaders instead.

A planned meeting between Abdullah and French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been put off twice this year.

The royals who have dominated the government for 30 years or more are all aged and have taken treatment for various health problems, usually never defined, during the past year.

Prince Nayef, 76, Sultan’s full brother and considered second in line to the throne, has also undergone unspecified treatment in the past year. Nayef has been interior minister for 35 years.

The kingdom’s foreign minister, Prince Saud Al-Faisal, 70, has serious back problems and has been receiving treatment in the United States over the past year, according to diplomats.

Other key royals, including veteran Riyadh governor Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz and national security council head Prince Bandar bin Sultan — the former ambassador to Washington — have also spent long stretches abroad for unspecified treatment in the past two years.

The transfer of power in the absolute monarchy, founded in 1932, is keenly watched by oil markets as the vast nation sits on one quarter of the world’s known oil reserves.

In December 2007, King Abdullah formed a 35-member committee that will choose the kingdom’s future kings and crown princes to ensure a smooth transition of power in the world’s biggest oil producer, ruled by the Al-Saud dynasty for 75 years.



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