BEIRUT, Lebanon — King Salman of Saudi Arabia had surgery on Thursday to remove his gallbladder, days after being hospitalized, according to a statement from the royal court carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.
The announcement of the 84-year-old king’s hospitalization had revived speculation about the state of his health. But the kingdom partly quieted the murmurs by releasing on Wednesday a photograph of him conducting a virtual cabinet session from the hospital.
The cabinet meeting notwithstanding, the king does not oversee the government of Saudi Arabia on a day-to-day basis; the real power lies with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, his son. Since being promoted to first in line for the throne in 2017, Prince Mohammed has upended the kingdom with a dizzyingly ambitious plan to remake its economy and wean it off oil revenues, as well as instituting a brash foreign policy, cracking down on critics and introducing a rapid series of social changes.
Having forced out the previous crown prince in a dramatic power grab in 2017 and sidelined other royal rivals or perceived opponents, Prince Mohammed now stands as his father’s unquestioned successor.
Yet the coronavirus pandemic has dealt a serious humbling to Saudi leadership. Oil prices plummeted as the pandemic paralyzed most of the world, severing the kingdom’s main source of revenue and forcing it to announce budget cuts and painful tax increases. Vision 2030, Prince Mohammed’s plan for overhauling the economy, will most likely face a pruning, analysts say.
The government also had to restrict the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, to a small fraction of the millions of Muslims who usually travel to Saudi Arabia each year — a public health measure that deprived the kingdom of the prestige of hosting Islam’s most important pilgrimage and of the tourism revenue that it brings. As the outbreak ballooned, King Salman, whose official title names him custodian of the holy mosques at Mecca and Medina, secluded himself in an island palace on the Red Sea, near Jeddah.
King Salman suffered from health issues since before he ascended to the throne in 2015, taking over after the death of his brother, Abdullah. Before becoming king, Salman had served as crown prince and defense minister, and before that, as governor of Riyadh for nearly 50 years, where he was known for managing the development of the capital.
With a reputation as a disciplined administrator who took charge of misbehaving royal family members, King Salman was expected to keep the kingdom on the steady, predictable course it had taken under his predecessor, with no more than perhaps a few moderate changes. But that changed with the elevation of his favored son, Prince Mohammed.