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Wed 12 Oct 2011 07:46 AM

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Saudi king to undergo surgery in coming days

Elderly monarch was absent for three months in 2010 for spinal operation in New York

Saudi king to undergo surgery in coming days
Saudi Arabias King Abdullah

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.

"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 $130bn 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.

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall