THESE are not easy times for Saudi Arabia. It is engaged in a fight for supremacy in the global oil market against America’s shale-oil upstarts. It frets that America will strike a nuclear deal with Iran and move closer to the Shia power with which it vies for influence in the region. It has tried and failed to oust Syria’s leader, Bashar Assad, strengthening both his Iranian ally and creating a virulent new strain of Sunni jihadism. It is taking part in America’s air campaign against the jihadists, but at home there are rising fears of a terrorist blowback, of the sort that Riyadh suffered at the hands of al-Qaeda between 2003 and 2005. Indeed, on January 4th a suicide-bomber killed a Saudi general and two other soldiers on the border with Iraq, despite Saudi efforts to fortify and extend a buffer zone. The border with Yemen is scarcely safer.
Little wonder, then, that Saudis have been rattled by the news that King Abdullah, their 90-year-old monarch, was taken to hospital on December 31st with breathing difficulties, which Saudi officials said was pneumonia. The hospitalisation sparked particular concern because the king tends to be treated in medical facilities in his palaces. By January 7th local rumour had it that he was able to meet visitors. It is no secret, however, that the monarch will not be around for much longer. The man designated to take over is his half-brother, Prince Salman. But the prince is no spring chicken either; he is 78 years old and said to be suffering from dementia.