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A Saudi Reign of Riches, Paradox

Times Staff Writers

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, a playboy-turned-statesman who led his desert kingdom into a controversial military alliance with the United States that produced a violent backlash by Islamic fundamentalists, died Monday after a long illness, the Saudi royal court announced. Saudi television said Fahd was 84.

Fahd died at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

The king’s death was announced on Saudi television, which interrupted regular broadcasting. Crown Prince Abdullah, the king’s half-brother and the de facto leader of the kingdom since the mid-1990s, when a stroke incapacitated Fahd, was named by the royal family to succeed him. Fahd’s funeral is scheduled for this evening in Riyadh.

In Washington, President Bush was notified of the king’s death soon after the Saudi announcement.

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During several decades as one of the principal figures in Saudi Arabia, Fahd never sought a leadership role in the Middle East. But by virtue of his country’s immense oil wealth and its strategic geographic position, he became one of Washington’s most important Arab allies and a prime conduit for U.S. influence.

Fahd presided over Saudi Arabia -- first as crown prince, then as king -- during the massive oil boom of the 1970s and the oil bust of the 1980s. He sought to bring his once-backward kingdom safely through the last half of the 20th century -- as other Muslim monarchies were being toppled in Iran and Afghanistan -- through a paradoxical combination of headlong economic modernization and officially enforced religious traditionalism.

The king himself, a notorious libertine in his youth, embodied the paradox: Even as he sought Western investment, he cemented a political alliance with the fundamentalist Muslim clergy. He declared that his most important title was not king, but “custodian of the two holy mosques,” keeper of Islam’s sacred sites at Mecca and Medina.

But when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990, Fahd faced a critical choice, and he invited the United States to station thousands of ground troops and aircraft on Saudi soil to defend the kingdom. Riyadh became the headquarters for the brief U.S.-led Persian Gulf War to expel Iraq from Kuwait.

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Hussein was defeated and the Saudi monarchy preserved, but many Saudi fundamentalists, including Osama bin Laden, were bitterly angry over the decision to invite non-Muslim troops into the birthplace of Islam.

Over time, Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda terrorist organization grew into a multinational network that sent Saudi and other Arab militants on missions against the United States and, eventually, the Saudi regime itself. Fahd had initially tolerated the network and the Saudi fundraising that supported it. Years later, Crown Prince Abdullah would declare war on Al Qaeda as a mortal threat to the royal family.

“Fahd will be remembered for two things,” said Thomas W. Lippman of Washington’s Middle East Institute, author of “Inside the Mirage,” a book on the U.S.-Saudi relationship. “He managed to maintain stability in Saudi Arabia and its system in a period of really unending turmoil all around. The bad news is: One way he did it was by, in effect, unleashing the religious right. [He] gave control to the worst elements of the Saudi religious establishment, and the country is paying a price for it even now.”

“Fahd played a major role in building a Saudi state that’s bureaucratic as opposed to informal,” said F. Gregory Gause III, a professor at the University of Vermont and leading American authority on Saudi Arabia. “He was also, among the senior princes, probably the most reflexively pro-American.... All Saudi kings have been pro-American, but Fahd is the guy who presided over the heyday of U.S.-Saudi cooperation.”

“In the end, King Fahd was America’s man,” said Shibley Telhami, a Middle East scholar at the University of Maryland. “He steered Saudi Arabia to an even more pro-America stance than in the past.

“Today people take that decision for granted,” he said, referring to the 1990 agreement to invite U.S. forces into the country. “But if you look back at that period, it wasn’t. Saddam was defeated not because he misjudged American resolve -- he knew we’d go after him. He misjudged the Saudis. He never thought the Saudis would let the United States use its soil.”

Like King Khalid, the half-brother he succeeded, and Crown Prince Abdullah, his successor, Fahd lived in a period that saw Saudi Arabia’s transformation -- from one of the most primitive desert societies on Earth to one of the most moneyed and powerful.

Little-known to outsiders when he became crown prince in 1975, he proved himself a quick learner and tough negotiator.

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When British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher met Crown Prince Fahd in 1981, she was unimpressed. “You say this man runs the country?” she asked an aide. “He didn’t have a word to say for himself.”

The next day, Thatcher met with Fahd alone, without King Khalid in the room. Free of the obligation to defer to his brother, Fahd talked for an hour, displaying a firm grasp of foreign affairs and a clear vision of how he wanted Saudi Arabia to evolve. The British prime minister came away impressed.

By the time he became king after Khalid’s death in 1982, Fahd had already served in Cabinet-level positions for 29 years -- groomed by his father and his uncles, and chosen by his siblings, to manage the Saudi ruling dynasty.

He was a hulk of a man, more than 6 feet tall and 275 pounds. Fahd ate very well and chain-smoked Marlboros. He suffered from diabetes and a weak heart and used a cane to ease the discomfort of a painful knee. Though his beliefs were tinged with superstition -- he often sought the advice of astrologers -- he also was known to have kept a Koran on his bedside table.

Fahd was a man of the city, not the desert. He was an administrator, not an innovator. He preferred consensus to confrontation. He was disorganized, oblivious to time and, at times, indecisive.

Among his 13 palaces was a “cottage” in Marbella, Spain, four times the size of the White House. His ornate Boeing 747 was escorted by a jet fighter armed with Stinger antiaircraft missiles. His entourage could have filled a small arena.

Fahd ibn Abdulaziz al Saud was born in Riyadh, although his exact birth date is uncertain. Within 12 years, his father, the desert warrior Abdulaziz ibn al Saud (known as Ibn Saud) had united the Arabian Peninsula’s dozen or so tribes to form the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia -- the world’s only country named for a family. His mother, Hassa Sudairi, was said to be the favorite of Ibn Saud’s 40 or so wives, with whom the ruler produced more than 50 sons and many daughters.

The dozen children Hassa gave birth to, including seven sons referred to as the Sudairi Seven, became known collectively as Al Fahd, in honor of the eldest son.

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By all accounts, Hassa, believed to be Ibn Saud’s fifth wife, was a remarkable woman. She insisted that Fahd and his brothers and sisters get together at least once a day, for lunch or dinner, and this practice of meeting to discuss family affairs continued after her death in 1969, with Al Fahd gathering for lunch almost daily at the home of Fahd’s eldest sister, Lulu.

Young Fahd was educated at a school for princes and by private tutors. Asked how he had learned statecraft, he said, “I attended my father’s seminars.” The “seminars” were actually sessions of Ibn Saud’s advisory board -- the family’s inner circle, which ran Saudi Arabia -- and Fahd sat quietly at his father’s side for 10 years, learning how decisions were made.

In 1945, Fahd made his first trip in an official capacity, to Egypt, and was part of the Saudi delegation to the conference in San Francisco that drafted the U.N. Charter.

Fahd, then in his mid-20s, was fascinated by the United States (all his sons would be educated here), though everything in America seemed to contrast with his ultraconservative Islamic kingdom, where alcohol was banned, the sexes were segregated and not a movie theater or nightclub existed.

Fahd enjoyed the pleasures forbidden at home. He soon was a regular in the nightclubs of Beirut and at the gambling tables of Monte Carlo (where he is said to have lost $1 million in a single weekend). He drank Scotch with gusto and ordered caviar by the pound. He lavished money and gifts on belly dancers and many other women. He continued his overseas carousing until 1953, when an older half-brother, Faisal, then crown prince, summoned him home and said he was disgracing the family and the kingdom.

Implicit in the dressing-down was the warning that Fahd was frittering away his chances of becoming king. Ibn Saud died that year, and Fahd returned to the tribal feudal society of his birth to immerse himself in affairs of state, no longer the flamboyant playboy.

He started taking private English lessons and asked friends to record for him excerpts from Western books that had impressed them. Late in 1953, Fahd was appointed Saudi Arabia’s first minister of education. He built schools by the thousands, laid the foundation for a university system and opened education to women, measures that in tradition-bound Saudi Arabia were nothing short of revolutionary.

From 1962 until King Faisal’s assassination in 1975, Fahd served as minister of the interior. Faisal’s successor, Khalid, had a weak heart and no great ambition. He gave Fahd, then about 55 and the crown prince, a relatively free hand to run the kingdom’s day-to-day affairs. The kingdom Fahd inherited was essentially a family corporation, and he had two goals: to consolidate the royals’ power and to continue modernizing Saudi Arabia under an Islamic umbrella.

More than $100 billion a year in oil money was flooding Saudi Arabia by 1975, and Fahd rushed headlong into creating a modern welfare state of stunning proportions.

Gleaming cities and skyscrapers of glass and marble sprang from the desert. Superhighways reached across the dunes, and communications networks across the oceans. Futuristic hospitals (with 3.2 beds for every 1,000 citizens then) and eight universities went up. Housing, education and medical care were free for all citizens.

Saudi Arabia, which didn’t even use bank notes until 1952 and had only 20 schools in 1958, was transformed.

Though the money seemed limitless -- Saudi Arabia sits atop one-quarter of the world’s known oil reserves -- neither Fahd nor his predecessors had the authority of Ibn Saud. Fahd was cautious, making decisions in secret through endless consultations and walking delicately between the country’s competing influences.

There were bickering factions to be dealt with in a royal family that, by the 1980s, included more than 5,000 princes. There were concerns about the speed of modernization versus the desire to remain a traditional society rooted in Islam, and the tug between Western culture and Arab values.

Most important, Fahd, along with other senior princes, believed that he had to appease religious conservatives, giving them leeway to exert their authority and reining them in when they became too assertive. He navigated his way through each political barricade deftly -- or so it appeared at the time.

“Fahd, like other members of the family, really allowed the most extreme interpretations of Islam to develop in the religious bureaucracy ... and made no real effort to get a handle on it,” Gause said. “It would have been a hard thing to do, politically. It would have meant taking on their core constituency.... But it came back to haunt him and his family.”

When Khalid died in 1982, Fahd took the throne.

His timing was not lucky. The economic climate for oil-exporting countries was souring. From 1981 to 1986, the price of crude would fall by more than half, from $31 a barrel to $13. Fahd’s Saudi Arabia was caught in a bind of its own making. Buoyed by high oil revenue, it had told its people they could rely on a generous welfare state -- but the money was disappearing. Saudi Arabia’s population was exploding, and its high schools were graduating thousands of young men -- who then faced unemployment in an oil-rich land.

Still, Fahd continued to throw money at friend and foe alike. Fortunes were spent building mosques and underwriting Muslim causes throughout the world. Hundreds of millions of dollars went to the Palestine Liberation Organization, to Islamic fundamentalist volunteers (including Bin Laden) fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and to Iraq during Hussein’s nearly decade-long war with Iran.

For a while, checkbook diplomacy bought Saudi Arabia peace and stability and enabled Fahd to push ahead with plans to develop the kingdom.

But in August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait, alarming the Saudis, who share a border with the tiny country, and nearby sheikdoms, all of which feared they might be next. It was the gravest crisis the House of Saud had faced.

In his memoirs, former President George H.W. Bush wrote that he had telephoned Fahd to seek support for tough measures against Iraq and found the Saudi king alarmingly hesitant.

“Even though we knew the Saudis well and trusted them, we could not be completely certain what course they would take,” Bush wrote. “I had to wonder if, under pressure, they might be inclined to strike some kind of behind-the-scenes arrangement with Saddam.”

But after a few days’ delay, mostly to make sure the United States was serious about its promise to pursue the war to the end, Fahd acted with uncharacteristic decisiveness. He asked for American help, and an allied coalition that included more than 500,000 U.S. troops waged war from Saudi soil. Iraq was defeated in early 1991.

“The Saudi choice to join the coalition was critical, not just militarily for the United States, but politically for the region,” Mideast scholar Telhami said. “Once they joined, then everyone else followed suit,” including other Arab nations such as Egypt and Syria.

“The lord of glory and grandeur helped us with soldiers from all parts of the world,” the king told his Consultative Council in 1995. “Many said that the presence of foreign forces was wrong. But I say it was [a case of] extreme necessity.”

Among the critics of the decision was Bin Laden, a veteran of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan who by 1990 was back in Saudi Arabia.

About 1988, Bin Laden had formed a group he called Al Qaeda (“the base”) to carry out Islamic crusades. Two years later, he denounced the decision to allow non-Muslim troops into Saudi Arabia and offered to raise an army of Muslim volunteers to fight the war against Hussein. When his offer was rejected, he called for the expulsion of American troops from Saudi soil.

Instead, Fahd’s government confiscated his passport, froze his financial assets and, after Bin Laden fled the kingdom, revoked his citizenship. Some U.S. counter-terrorism officials complained that those were only half-measures, that the Saudis, wary of angering the fundamentalists, deliberately stopped short of arresting Bin Laden or choking off his fundraising.

“The irony is that the two biggest successes of U.S.-Saudi cooperation, the Afghan jihad and [the Gulf War], basically combined to produce Sept. 11,” Gause said. “But you would have had to have been clairvoyant to see that in 1990.”

Even before the Gulf War, Fahd had forged a close, albeit largely undeclared, relationship with the United States. He reviled communism because of its atheistic nature and had little use for the Soviet Union. His kingdom was tied to the United States on every level -- military, economic, educational -- and Fahd relied on American expertise to build the new Saudi Arabia.

More than 1,000 U.S. companies had offices in the kingdom, and Saudi Arabia and the gulf states became the world’s largest market for U.S. automobiles. Trade between Saudi Arabia and the United States, excluding military, reached $15 billion in 1995.

Although Fahd firmly resisted calls to democratize the kingdom, one of his legacies was the appointed 60-member Consultative Council, created in 1993 and meant to represent the population. The council supervises government performance and advises the king. It has since grown to 120 members.

The pressures of paying off the Saudis’ $60-billion share of Gulf War expenses seemed to weigh on Fahd. His health deteriorated -- he had gallbladder surgery in 1994 and a stroke in 1995 -- and his work habits became erratic, his public appearances few.

On Jan. 1, 1996, he handed over management of his government to Crown Prince Abdullah. A month later, he surprised Western diplomats by announcing that he had returned to the helm.

Afterward, he attended many public functions. But diplomats say his short-term memory often lapsed and his physical strength was greatly diminished after his stroke. Increasingly, he allowed Abdullah to take the lead in key questions facing the kingdom and to act as the host for important foreign visitors.

In March 1998, Fahd was hospitalized briefly for what aides described as treatment of a gallbladder infection.

In the end, Fahd seemed simply to fade away, a tired and dispirited monarch.

“It’s not entirely clear whether he has had influence since then,” said Lippman of the Middle East Institute. “All important decisions in Saudi Arabia are made by an extremely narrow circle of people.”

By May 2003, when Al Qaeda cells staged a series of suicide attacks in Riyadh that killed 35 people, including the nine bombers, prompting Abdullah to mount a full-scale counteroffensive, Fahd was barely mentioned in accounts of the royal family’s decision-making.

His last publicly reported official act was on April 12, when the government said the king had opened a new session of the Consultative Council. The government released the text of a speech Fahd purportedly delivered, but offered no evidence that he had actually spoken.

“You can argue that in recent years, Fahd’s own personal paralysis has led to Saudi political paralysis,” Telhami said. “Abdullah is seen as in charge, but not really in charge. Fahd’s physical survival has prevented anyone else from being king, and in some ways has preserved a degree of stability.”

Fahd is believed to be survived by two wives, eight sons and five daughters. His first wife, Anoud bint Abdulaziz, died in 1999.

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Times staff writers Paul Richter and Tyler Marshall contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Milestones

* 1921: Fahd ibn Abdulaziz al Saud born in Riyadh (actual year uncertain).

* 1932: Abdulaziz ibn al Saud proclaims the formation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

* 1933: American oil companies search for oil in Saudi Arabia.

* 1938: Oil is discovered; production begins rapidly after WWII.

* 1945: Saudi Arabia joins U.N. and Arab League.

* 1953: Fahd appointed minister of education.

* 1962: Fahd named minister of the interior.

* 1967: Fahd named second deputy premier.

* 1973: Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations halt oil shipments to the U.S. to protest American support of Israel during Arab-Israeli war, plunging the U.S. into an energy crisis.

* 1974: Fahd negotiates economic and military accord with the United States.

* 1975: Named crown prince after succession to king of half-brother Khalid ibn Abdulaziz.

* June 1982: Succeeds to the throne after death of King Khalid.

* 1987: Saudi Arabia reestablishes diplomatic relations with Egypt.

* 1990: Saudi Arabia contributes financial resources and becomes a staging area for the U.S.-led coalition during the soon-to-begin Persian Gulf War.

* 1994: Fahd has his first gallbladder surgery.

* November 1995: Fahd suffers stroke.

Researched by Kent Coloma

Sources: Current Biography Yearbook; U.S. State Department; “The House of Saud,” by David Holden and Richard Johns; the Statesman’s Yearbook; Los Angeles Times research

Los Angeles Times


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