Obama hails Saudi king’s ‘progress’ after surgery

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HONOLULU: President Barack Obama called King Abdullah on Sunday to hail his recovery "progress," the White House said, in the strongest indication of the Saudi monarch’s improving condition since he left a US hospital after back surgery.

Obama called King Abdullah "to wish him well, and to congratulate him on the progress that he has made toward a full recovery," the White House said in a statement from Hawaii, where the president is on holiday.

The king, who is about 86 years old, flew to New York on November 22 and was operated on two days later for a debilitating herniated disc complicated by a hematoma that put pressure on his spine.

That surgery was declared a success, as was a second operation to repair several vertebrae, but no official news on the status of the king’s recovery has been released by the court.

Saudi television showed Abdullah, about 86 years old, together with Health Minister Abdullah Al-Rabeeah, walking with difficulty and smiling at hospital staff last Tuesday as he left the facility for what the court described as a period of convalescence and physiotherapy at his New York residence.

There was no mention on the Saudi television report when the king would return to Saudi Arabia.

The monarch’s advanced age combined with his back hernia raised concerns about the future of the world’s biggest oil exporter, which has been ruled by the Al-Saud family since 1932.

The crown prince, Abdullah’s half brother Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, who has been defence minister since 1962, is also in his mid-80s and has been slowed by what is believed to be cancer.

Little seen for the past two years, Sultan returned from Morocco on November 21 to assume control of the royal government in Abdullah’s absence.

The kingdom is a close US ally, and Washington has pressed Riyadh to crack down on Islamic militants and help counter the threat posed by Iran.

US Vice President Joe Biden paid a visit to the hospital and met with Abdullah’s family on December 15, but apparently did not meet the king himself.

Following months of talks the United States announced in September that it plans to offer Saudi Arabia 60 billion dollars worth of hi-tech fighter jets and helicopters, in the largest US arms deal ever.

The White House said that in the phone call, Abdullah congratulated Obama on securing Senate approval of a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with Russia.

"The president thanked him and told him that he looked forward to working closely together in the coming year," the statement said.

"The two leaders underscored the importance of our bilateral relationship, and agreed to continue cooperating closely on a range of issues," the White House said.

Abdullah is credited with advancing much-needed reforms in the ultra-conservative Islamic state since he became king in 2005, and maintaining the country as a staunch ally of the United States.

Any hint at possible change in the absolute monarchy, founded in 1932, is keenly watched as the OPEC kingpin pumps about 8.2 million barrels of crude per day.

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