Saudi Arabian leader King Fahd dies

believed to be 84

Monarch steered nation to strategic, if not always popular, alliance with U.S.

August 02, 2005|By David Lamb and Doyle McManus | David Lamb and Doyle McManus,LOS ANGELES TIMES

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who led his desert kingdom into a controversial military alliance with the United States that produced a violent backlash by Islamic fundamentalists, died yesterday at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh, the Saudi capital. He was believed to be 84.

Crown Prince Abdullah, the king's half-brother and the effective leader of the kingdom since the mid-1990s when a stroke incapacitated the king, was chosen by the royal family to succeed him. King Fahd's funeral is scheduled today in Riyadh.

During more than three decades as one of the principal rulers of Saudi Arabia, King 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.

King Fahd presided over Saudi Arabia - first as crown prince, then as king - during the oil boom of the 1970s and the oil bust of the 1980s. He sought to bring a backward kingdom safely through the last decades 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 noted 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 holy sites at Mecca and Medina.

But when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990, King Fahd faced a critical choice. He invited the United States to station thousands of ground troops and aircraft on Saudi soil to defend the kingdom.

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

"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."

America's man

"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, King Fahd's lifetime spanned Saudi Arabia's transformation - from one of the most primitive desert societies on Earth to one of the most moneyed and powerful.

When British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher first 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, Mrs. Thatcher met with Prince Fahd without King Khalid in the room. Free of the obligation to defer to his brother, the crown prince talked for an hour, displaying a firm grasp of foreign affairs and a clear vision of how he wanted Saudi Arabia to evolve.

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

King 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.

Fahd ibn Abdulaziz al Saud was born in Riyadh, although his exact date of birth is uncertain. Within 12 years of his birth, his father, the desert warrior Abdulaziz ibn al Saud (known as Ibn Saud) had united the Arabian Peninsula's 13 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 he produced more than 50 sons and many daughters.

The dozen children Hassa Sudairi 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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