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The president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute presents a detailed overview of the remarkable career of Saudi King Fahd, who recently died. One of the many sons of the almost legendary King Saud, Fahd came to power decades ago and, despite some setbacks, “took his country successfully through an extraordinary series of life-threatening events” in Dr. Sicherman’s words. An essay that repays close reading. – Ed.

King Fahd's Saudi Arabia

by Harvey Sicherman

On August 2, 2005, Saudi King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz was laid to rest in an unmarked grave. Wrapped simply in a brown robe, his bier borne by family after the briefest of funeral services, Fahd’s end gave no clue to his life. He had been one of the world’s most opulent rulers, his largesse the stuff of legend. Fahd also possessed powers as monarch that would have impressed Louis XIV. His reign and his wrestle with the challenges that threatened his kingdom tell us much about Saudi Arabia’s past, and, perhaps, even more about its future.

Fahd was born into circumstances unimaginable in his later life. He was one of over forty sons sired by a desert chief who married a hundred times. Fahd and his six other siblings (the Sudari seven) would benefit from their mother’s status as the favorite wife. The future king grew up in what old-time writers used to call “oriental splendor,” luxurious compared to commoners but primitive compared to European standards: Plenty of servants but no indoor plumbing; mobility by donkey, camel, or horse; no electricity or refrigeration (fresh meat or no meat); physical prowess prized, especially in combat; sexual prowess essential.

The state Fahd would inherit did not yet exist. His father, the legendary Abdul Aziz was then assembling the pieces through conquest and guile. Warrior and statesman, he had learned the lesson of the earlier 18th and 19th century failed Saudi realms. One could rally the warring tribes of the Arabian peninsula (the Nejd) against the corrupt Ottomans under the green banner of a purified Salafi (or Wahabi) Islam but the declining empire still had enough military might-or could hire it-to ensure defeat. This time around, the Saudis would work carefully with the strongest outside power and, instead of confronting it, make it an ally.

In Fahd’s youth, his father’s strategy succeeded beyond expectation. Abdul Aziz managed to switch from the Ottomans to the British; then in the 1920’s, he displaced his rival, the Hashemite Sharif Hussein of Mecca (whose descendants still rule Jordan), as London’s peninsular ally. This allowed the Saudis to seize the Red Sea coastline known as the Hijaz; and on the Persian Gulf, a Shiite-populated area unknowingly sitting atop a treasure of oil. Chief among his conquests Abdul Aziz counted Islam’s most prized cities, Mecca and Medina, and the revenue brought by the pilgrims to their mosques. The holy places were now controlled by the Wahabi sect, regarded by most other Muslims as extreme.

Gaining a kingdom and holding it were two different things. When Fahd reached his twenties, his father was preparing another switch. Although still mindful of the British, Abdul Aziz already saw the United States as his future ally. The Americans were developing the oil that was providing increased revenues. Better still, unlike London, Washington had no empire and no territorial ambitions. Americans could help and then they would go home.

On February 14, 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt met the King aboard an American warship initiating the formal political association. Roosevelt sought the King’s support for Zionism; the King refused; both agreed to be friends and that they should consult with each other before taking new steps. Roosevelt left with some rich presents and, at the King’s request, gave him his reserve wheel chair which became one of Abdul Aziz’s favorite trophies. The visit overall, complete with live sheep, as FDR wrote his cousin, had been “a scream.”

As a favorite son, Fahd was inducted into the American connection at an early age. He accompanied his older brother Faisal to the international conference that founded America’s grand project for post-war peace, the United Nations. He also got a brief and sweet taste of American life.

When Abdul Aziz died in 1953, the kingdom went to his eldest son, Saud. Under his unsteady and inept hand, Saudi Arabia was nearly lost to the storms of Nasserism and Arab nationalism. Whereupon, in 1963, he was deposed, the al-Saud having learned a new lesson: one had to know how to survive. The ascetic Crown Prince Faisal took matters in hand.

Faisal guided the realm into a closer association with the United States, close enough to survive both the 1967 and 1973 wars despite American support for Israel and the oil embargoes. Common antagonism to Nasser and the Soviet Union plus economic ties provided the sinews that bound together two very different countries. And, after 1974, when the American-sponsored peace process flourished and the petrodollars gushed, the Saudi situation was transformed. Both diplomatic pivot and economic mecca, the Kingdom became a necessary prop to American security. Saudi influence came to be seen as essential if not always in the political maneuvering but certainly with respect to the price and supply of oil.

When Fahd came into his first post, Minister of Education in 1953, the general rules of Saudi government were congealing. First came the importance of holding the family together, a consensus that began with “l’Etat c’est nous;” no Royal Family, no state; no unified family, no government. Second came the blessing from the Ulema, the Salafi clerisy, with their emphasis on early Islamic practice, public austerity, male prerogative, female seclusion, and the dangers of foreign seduction. Third, the blessing of the people to be secured through an improvement in their conditions of life. Fourth, the alliance with the strongest external power, America in this case. And fifth, not taking sides in Arab disputes-if possible. Instead, the Saudis could conciliate or consolidate among disputants. These five principles were the essential duties of Saudi rulers from that day until this. And it would be Fahd’s task to balance them and alter them when necessary for the sake of the House of Saud’s survival.

Fahd associated himself early with the Kingdom’s modernizers. He is credited with the creation of the country’s public school system including the university level. Given the haphazard tribal arrangements and general lack of literacy, this was an expensive and revolutionary undertaking. The curriculum, however, left largely to the Ulema, would result in a literacy badly short of both technical skill and knowledge of the outside world. This was not so obvious in 1953 but when it did become obvious, Fahd seemed oblivious to the consequences.

Fahd was also a prime mover in developing the 3-5 year plans initiated under King Faisal. These plans were intended to do for Saudi Arabia’s economy what education had done for literacy: equip the Saudi state with the tools to become a modern technological society without departing from the religious mores that underpinned its legitimacy. Following Faisal’s murder at the hands of a deranged nephew in 1975, Fahd became Crown Prince under King Khalid, an older brother more interested in falconry than government. In reality, it was a test of the ebullient Fahd’s capacity to govern. The Crown Prince would have to live down his personal reputation as a reckless womanizer, drinker, and gambler.

In those years, the Arab-Israeli conflict monopolized Saudi diplomacy. Fahd ranged the Saudis alongside the Carter Administration’s so-called comprehensive approach which emphasized a consensus of the whole rather than the 1973- 1977 Kissinger era state-by-state negotiation. Domestically, Fahd began to spend the huge revenues produced by the rapid rise in oil prices. He launched the breakneck development of Saudi infrastructure that turned the urban areas into one vast construction site. Then a series of unexpected events showed the limits of Saudi power.

In only two years (1978-1980), the consensus approach was shattered by Sadat and the Camp David Accords; the Shah of Iran was overthrown by an aggressive Shiite theocrat, Ayatollah Khomeini; the Soviets seized Afghanistan; and Moscow’s ally, Saddam Hussein, dictator of Iraq, invaded Iran. Above all, and worst of all, Saudi opponents seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca on November 20, 1979. After a bloody, futile effort to secure the Holy place, Fahd had to call upon the French Special Forces to recover the building.

Fahd’s reactions to these challenges was multifold. He would brook no delay in the development program, increasing spending on the military and raising Saudi Arabia’s “minimum” annual budget to about $55 billion. Simultaneously, he reinforced the Saudi role as “swing oil producer,” prepared to use its reserve capacity to prevent prices from damaging the economies of the major oil consumers, especially the United States. Oil prices and military procurement brought him powerful allies in Washington and elsewhere. Saudi Arabia’s purchase of AWACS aircraft in 1981, against strong pro-Israeli opposition in Congress, was a case study in such influence.

The King also faced a severe religious challenge. There were internal complaints about lax royal behavior. Khomeini’s Iranian pilgrims disturbed the pilgrimage with political demonstrations and violence to embarrass the Wahabi guardians.

Fahd took several fateful decisions. The Saudis would counter Shii propaganda abroad with Wahabi missionary activity on a large scale, especially through subsidized education (the madrasas) in South and Southeast Asia. As the Saudi economy now relied on large numbers of Pakistani and other workers, this had the double effect of protecting against internal subversion. Fahd also began severe controls over the Haj pilgrims. It would take several dramatic incidents before the Saudis and the Ayatollah finally agreed to put the two Mosques outside their quarrel. Fahd himself marked his new zeal for Islam in 1986 by taking on the title, “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.”

As King, Fahd also waged two wars. He swung behind Saddam in the decade-long battles with Iran, thereby creating a dependent in Baghdad, or so a reasonable man would have thought. He encouraged the United States to see in the war an opportunity to hurt the Iranians and wean Iraq from its Soviet allies. Another initiative, again through Pakistan, was the jihad against the Soviet army in Afghanistan. The Saudis supplied both money and volunteers, the most notable-and notorious-being Osama bin Laden, scion of the Royal Family’s favorite contractors, the bin Ladens from Yemen.

Fahd regarded Camp David as a huge mistake and grievously disappointed the Carter Administration’s expectation that Saudi Arabia would support Sadat’s separate peace. While not formally joining the Rejectionist Front organized by Saddam, Assad of Syria and Arafat’s PLO, the King sought to undermine the process by reviving the comprehensive, unified Arab approach. Thus, in August 1981, he launched the Fahd plan, a set of principles that would grant peace to Israel contingent on withdrawal to the pre-1967 War lines and the settlement of the Palestinian refugee problem. After Sadat’s murder on October 6, 1981, the plan seemed to engage the Europeans but the Reagan Administration sidestepped it.

Fahd saw another chance to promote it when the Israelis invaded Lebanon in June 1982. In the tangled diplomacy aimed at extricating Arafat from Beirut, the Saudis played a delicate role. Khalid died unexpectedly in the middle of the war and Fahd was crowned King on June 13. During the condolence visit of American officials, including Vice President Bush and Secretary of Defense Weinberger, the Saudi side gained the impression that American policy on the crisis (dominated heretofore by Secretary of State Haig) was about to change. Arafat was signaled to wait, collapsing the negotiations for his departure. He was now in Saudi debt.

When Haig resigned on June 26, the new King exerted a strong effort, aided by his half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah, to turn U.S. policy against the Israelis and back to the comprehensive approach. But Reagan would not abandon the Egyptian-Israeli treaty and his own initiative, launched on September 1, 1982, proved stillborn partly because Fahd’s plan became the basis for the Arab League’s subsequent Fez Declaration, which contradicted it. Worse yet, the new American Secretary of State George Shultz discovered that the Saudis could not, or would not, deliver Syria to U.S.-sponsored negotiations over withdrawal from Lebanon. For the rest of the decade, the United States was loath to touch either issue, especially after the Marine disaster in 1983 at Beirut Airport.

Fahd eventually returned to the Lebanon problem, brokering a deal called the Taif Accords in 1989. These confirmed Syria’s domination of the country and changed Lebanon’s constitution to allow a larger Muslim role vis-à-vis the previously dominant Christians. Put in place as Prime Minister to guarantee the Saudi interest while rebuilding the country was Rafik Hariri, a Lebanese subcontractor grown rich in the Saudi construction boom and therefore by definition a business associate of the Royal Family.

After a decade of these exertions, Fahd’s Saudi Arabia appeared to enter the nineties a good deal more secure than the eighties. The Kingdom could take some satisfaction from the failure of Khomeini’s Iran to expand more than its Hizbollah outpost in southern Lebanon; the Iranians had also been outflanked in South and Southeast Asia; and the Soviets driven from Afghanistan, on their way to oblivion. Meanwhile, the Palestinian intifada (1987) revived American interest in diplomacy while shaking Israeli confidence. Lebanon was rebuilding, and oil prices were steady.

But Fahd’s reign was not destined for repose. The “dependent” in Baghdad, Saddam, opened a gratuitous quarrel with Kuwait over war debts and oil revenues. The King offered mediation. Joining President Mubarak of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, Fahd urged President George Bush to stay low. An “Arab solution” would be found. On July 31, under Saudi auspices, the Iraqis and Kuwaitis met to find one.

Two days later, Saddam seized Kuwait.

Would Saudi Arabia be next? Saddam offered assurances but his troops were on the offensive and there was nothing to stop them except the Saudi’s own forces. Moreover, the King had offered refuge to the Emir of Kuwait and his family who had barely escaped Saddam’s men.

Saudi Arabia’s ultimate defense had always been what was called the “over the horizon” deterrent. The Americans (and others) presumably would not allow Saudi Arabia to be overrun by hostile powers. After the Shah’s fall, President Carter proclaimed the defense of the Gulf to be in America’s vital interest. But the forces to do so had never been stationed on Saudi ground. There were only training missions and temporary technicians.

We have American accounts of the critical meeting on August 6, 1990, when a U.S. delegation offered American troops to defend Saudi Arabia and ultimately to reclaim Kuwait. The King and the Crown Prince seemed at odds, with Abdullah exclaiming that Kuwait, although occupied, was still there, the implication being that some combination of threat and bribe might force Saddam out. But Fahd had been double-crossed. And if Saddam wanted money, he could have gotten it through negotiation. As for Kuwait, the King archly observed that “Kuwait”-meaning the Royal Family-was then living in Saudi hotels. For a Saudi ruler, the affairs of state were always personal.

Fahd welcomed the Americans to defend the Kingdom, and urged them to evict Saddam. In Washington this produced the interesting spectacle of Prince Bandar joining with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)-the main opposition to the AWACS sale ten years earlier-to lobby congressional support for the war.

Fahd’s policy toward Iraq was complex. He opposed the breakup of the country or the breakdown of the Sunni-dominated regime. But he did want Saddam eliminated. To do otherwise would be to leave a man thirsting for revenge.

The Americans, however, failed to do so. And this time they could not go home lest Saddam be tempted to strike again. The U.S. presence carried a steep price. Saudi critics could charge that there were now armed infidels in the land of the two mosques. Many Saudis could not understand why it was necessary, or why the hyper-expensive Saudi military could not defend the Kingdom.

In the war’s aftermath, pressure mounted for political change. Some of it Fahd could deflect. He had been a modernizer in his day. He would reform once more, introducing a new Basic Law in 1992 to govern the succession, reviving the moribund Consultative Council and changing rules for provincial governors and ministers.

Some, however, could not be persuaded of change. Osama bin Laden concluded that the Royal Family were infidels in disguise. His preachments earned him expulsion and then the loss of citizenship. There are still unexplained parts of the Osama-Saudi connection, especially about his move to Afghanistan, but that would carry us beyond the Fahd story.

On November 29, 1995, the King was felled by a massive stroke. A year later, it became clear that he would never recover his former vitality. Crown Prince Abdullah, a figure reminiscent of Faisal, became the de facto ruler.

Fahd’s reign would last another decade. The Royal Bulletins pretended that his routine continued. Occasionally, he would be turned out to greet important visitors, a few words exchanged, photographs snapped, his bulky figure shrinking over the years.

The King always had his detractors. A true royalist, he never let government interfere with his schedule. He made up for tardiness through sudden marathon bouts of work, to the consternation of the otherwise inert Saudi bureaucracy. Fahd’s palace mania, including a never occupied replica of the White House, was extravagant even by Gulf standards. The King had never been careful with money and his development program did not prepare his people for a future without oil, or for that matter, a present with a low oil price. Construction and war ate up the surplus and even current revenues will not resolve the problems of a rapidly growing but idle population, its work and bills paid by someone else.

Fahd proved a fallible judge of character. Saddam betrayed him; so did Arafat who refused urgent Saudi advice in 2000 to settle his conflict with Israel. He made an even more serious miscalculation through indulgence of Wahabi extremism, which hit America with a vengeance on 9/11 and then two years later, came home through violent rebellion in Saudi Arabia itself. The U.S.-Saudi alliance, his most cherished international relationship, nurtured so well for so long by his flamboyant nephew, Prince Bandar, was fraying just when both sides most needed each other.

Still, Fahd’s record needs perspective. Born when the Kingdom was but a gleam in his father’s eyes, bred to rapidly expanding wealth and power, he took his country successfully through an extraordinary series of life-threatening events, of the kind never seen by his predecessors. Profligate though he may have been, Fahd never forgot that Saudi Arabia was a rich place with a small army in a region full of ghastly predators. He proved forceful even with a weak hand. Fahd was a king.

Fahd’s methods and his legacy can only go so far. His notions of reform clearly belong to an earlier era. The religious, political, economic, and military pressures bearing down on his successor demand change at a more rapid pace than the infamous inchmanship beloved of the al-Saud. Fahd’s half-brother, now King Abdullah, prayed on his coronation for “strength to continue the march begun by the founder of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the great Abdul Aziz al-Saud.” Abdullah’s march, however, must be to a markedly different beat than Fahd’s if the Kingdom is to survive.

For related essays by Harvey Sicherman, see:

Arafat: The Man Who Wanted Too Much (November 2004)
Hafez Al-Assad: The Man Who Waited Too Long (July 2000)
Hussein bin Talal: Soldier-King (February 1999)
Theodor Herzl: An Appreciation (August 1997)
Yitzhak Rabin: An Appreciation (November 1995)

Published by permission of the Foreign Policy Research Inst., Philadephia, PA. Originally published in Orbis E-Notes, August 12, 2005.


Harvey Sicherman, Ph.D., is the President of the Foreign Policy Research Institute. His latest essay “Cheap Hawks, Cheap Doves, and American Strategy” is forthcoming in the Fall 2005 issue of Orbis.


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