No outsider has seen Saudi King Abdullah, 87 – and no medical bulletins have been issued – since Dec. 3 when he underwent a second operation, described as "surgery to stabilize several vertebrae on the spinal cord" at the Presbyterian Hospital, New York. His relatives and the royal retinue have taken over a whole hospital wing and the entire Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, but have maintained an unbroken silence for 18 days about the king's medical condition.
When asked about the king's health Dec. 6, after the second operation, his half-nephew Prince Turki Al Faisal, brother of Foreign Minister Saudi Al Faisal, replied: "I have no idea" – an answer Saudi watchers found odd from a former chief of Saudi General Intelligence. Certainly, as a senior royal figure, Turki would have been expected to know about the medical condition of the head of the world's leading oil exporter, a ruler who controls its political, military, intelligence and financial affairs with a firm hand.
Abdullah's indisposition, whatever it is, takes out of circulation the dominant power of the Persian Gulf Emirates and of the moderate Arab bloc standing fast against Iran's spreading influence in the Middle East. King Abdullah never denied the WikiLeaks revelation from US diplomatic documents that he headed the group pressing the United States for military action against Iran, or the disclosures in Western media that he approved Saudi-Israeli cooperation for an attack on Iran's nuclear sites.
On Dec. 15, concern for his health sharpened after US Vice President Joe Biden was not admitted to the king's bedside when he visited the New York Hospital with a letter from President Barack Obama wishing "the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" a speedy recovery. "He was received by King Abdullah's family" including one of his sons, the White House said.
Refusing the US Vice President access to the king to personally hand over a letter from the President certainly needed explaining. Clearly, debkafile's sources report, the White House is also at sea on the king's medical condition and may have sent Biden on a fishing expedition to find out what was going on. But he too failed to penetrate the wall of secrecy.
Reactions to the Saudi king's mysterious condition have come only from two quarters – both intriguing: Tehran and the Lebanese Hizballah.
Thursday, Dec. 16, Hizballah's leader Hassan Nasrallah dropped a comment into his standard tirade against America and Israel that, because of the situation in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi-Syrian initiative for resolving the Lebanese crisis has been shelved and no one can tell when it will be reactivated – if at all.
Never before has Nasrallah commented in public about the Saudi-Syrian backdoor bargaining on the Lebanese crisis and Hizballah's role in fomenting it.
debkafile reports that the king assigned his son Prince Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah to carry this initiative forward in Damascus. The Hizballah leader's comment indicated that there was no one in Riyadh competent to make the necessary decisions for keeping it afloat.
Two days later, on Dec. 18, the incoming Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi used his swearing-in speech for this pointed comment: "In order to achieve a pragmatic and effective foreign policy, we should focus our attention on the Islamic world and our neighbors. Saudi Arabia has a special position which accordingly also needs special political attention as Iran and Saudi Arabia can solve many of the problems of the Islamic world."
This remark was exceptionally conciliatory, coming as it did shortly after WikiLeaks quoted King Abdullah as advising the US to attack Iran's nuclear facilities "to cut off the head of the snake."
Our Iranian sources take it to mean that Tehran is looking forward to the post-Abdullah era in Riyadh. Iran no doubt recalls the Saudi throne's practice of hiding acutely ill monarchs – even for as long as a decade in the case of the late King Fahd, until Abdullah succeeded him in 2005, and several years for the seriously ailing Crown Prince Sultan, 85. Salehi was no doubt taking advantage of the apparent power limbo in Riyadh to signal a willingness to turn a new page in Iran's relations with Saudi Arabia, addressing it to whichever prince is chosen to stand in for the king and eventually to succeed him.