There is uncertainty over the exact state of his well-being with one senior Saudi official saying that King Fahd was in good health and other sources suggesting serious deterioration.
The king, believed to be aged 84, rose to the throne in 1982. He has been in ailing health since 1995, when Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz took on the position of de-facto ruler of the oil-rich ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom.
The announcement of his hospitalisation appeared designed to prepare the
Saudi public for the worst, said diplomats posted in the Saudi capital.
Medical sources said that the latest deterioration in the king’s health started a week earlier with a serious flu which, given his age and frailty, had had a serious effect.
King Fahd has lost consciousness several times over the past days, according to the sources.
Interior ministry spokesman Mansur al-Turki had told AFP earlier that the situation was normal around the country and denied reports a state of alert had been declared.
“We have not suspended leave for members of the security forces,” the spokesman also said.
Crown Prince Abdullah is expected to take over as king should King Fahd die.
Rumours of a sudden decline in the health of King Fahd, one of the world’s wealthiest men, sent Saudi stocks plummeting almost five per cent on Wednesday.
The health of the king, the absolute ruler of the oil-rich state, first deteriorated in November 1995 when he suffered a stroke.
Walking first with the help of a cane because of circulatory problems and diabetes, the king took to wearing sunglasses to protect his eyes. He underwent several further operations and was soon confined to a wheelchair.
Saudi Arabia, which built close ties with the United States during King Fahd’s rule, has since May 2003 been battling a wave of deadly attacks by Islamist extremists said to be linked to the Saudi-born Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network.
Many of the attacks have targeted Westerners and included the beheading of a US engineer kidnapped in Riyadh and a hostage-taking rampage in Al-Khobar in May 2004 that left 22 people dead.
According to official figures, 90 civilians, 41 security personnel and 110 militants have died in the violence over the past two years.
The government’s crackdown on Al-Qaeda militants helped ease strains with Washington caused by the September 11, 2001 attacks in which 15 of 19 suicide hijackers were Saudi.
But Saudi Arabia, which had hosted US troops during the 1991 Gulf War to liberate Kuwait, kept its distance from the US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, and Washington soon relocated the Gulf headquarters of its air force to nearby Qatar.
The kingdom, which is the world’s largest petroleum exporter and holds a quarter of global oil reserves is also home to two of Islam’s holiest sites, Mecca and Medina.
As the eighth son of Abdul Aziz al-Saud who founded modern Saudi Arabia in 1932, Fahd rose rapidly up the ranks, becoming education minister in 1953 before taking over as interior minister.
Designated as next in line after King Faisal’s assassination in 1975, Fahd was in practical terms running the country under the rule of his ailing brother King Khaled from 1975 to 1982.