Saudi king to undergo operation in coming days

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia Tue Oct 11, 2011 6:55pm EDT

Shura members wait to speak with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud during the opening ceremony of the Shura assembly in Riyadh September 25, 2011.     REUTERS/Fahad Shadeed

Shura members wait to speak with Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud during the opening ceremony of the Shura assembly in Riyadh September 25, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Fahad Shadeed

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JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Saudi King Abdullah, who underwent surgery last year for back-related problems, will undergo an operation in the coming days, Saudi Arabia's state news agency reported on Tuesday.

The health of the ruler of the world's leading oil exporter is of keen interest, given his age -- thought to be 88 -- and uncertainty over how power would be transferred within Saudi Arabia's ruling royal family. The family governs Saudi Arabia in consultation with conservative clerics adhering to the austere Wahhabi school of Islam.

"In continuation of the scheduled medical follow up of King Abdullah, the king will undergo an operation in the coming days in Riyadh," news agency SPA reported, citing a statement from the royal court.

Details of the planned operation were not disclosed.

King Abdullah was absent for three months late in 2010 while he underwent treatment for a herniated disc that caused blood to accumulate around his spine. He underwent surgery in New York and convalesced in Morocco, leaving his brother Crown Prince Sultan in charge.

Sultan, who is slightly younger than Abdullah, has also been treated for health issues in the past few years and was in the United States in the summer for medical tests.

Interior Minister Prince Nayef is poised to step in if anything happens to indispose both Abdullah and Sultan. The king appointed Nayef second deputy prime minister in 2009 -- a move that puts him in a strong position to one day take over.

So far only sons of the kingdom's founder, Abdul-Aziz Ibn Saud, have ascended to the throne, and eventually it will have to pass to a new generation. An "allegiance council" of sons and grandsons of the kingdom's founder was established to guide succession, but how it will work has not been made clear.

Nayef, who is in his late 70s, is considered to be a conservative who might put the brakes on some reforms introduced by Abdullah.

Last month, the king unveiled greater representation for women in Saudi Arabia, granting them the right to vote and stand in local elections. Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive and require a male relative's permission to work or leave the country.

Religious instruction is an integral part of education in the Sunni monarchy, but with a growing population, the kingdom is trying to create jobs for its 19 million people, of whom 70 percent are under the age of 30.

After returning to the kingdom in February, King Abdullah unveiled $130 billion worth of job-creating projects for infrastructure, housing, security and other areas.

Despite the upheaval seen across the Arab world, and the toppling of autocrats in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Saudi Arabia saw only small protests flare up in the oil-rich Eastern Province, where there is a higher concentration of Muslim Shi'ites. After relative quiet since March, protests erupted again last week but were quickly stamped out.

(Writing by Reed Stevenson; Editing by Rosalind Russell)

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