Fahd ibn Abdul Aziz Al-Saud

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Fahd ibn Abdul Aziz Al-Saud

Born 1923

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

King of Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War

King Fahd ibn Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, the ruler of Saudi Arabia, steered his country through the events surrounding the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The Arab leader's decision to side with the U.S.-led coalition and oppose Iraq played an important role in the war's outcome. For example, King Fahd allowed coalition forces to use Saudi Arabia as a base of operations. He also contributed billions of dollars to help pay for the conflict.

The king's choices during the Gulf crisis were a continuation of the sometimes-unconventional behavior he displayed throughout his life. Although he was a devout Muslim and the head of a very conservative Islamic nation, the king maintained close relationships with Western nations, including the United States. This made King Fahd a controversial figure in the Arab world. His actions earned him both devoted followers and dedicated opponents.

Royal heritage

The future King Fahd was born in 1923 around the time when his father, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, was founding the nation of Saudi Arabia. Before this time, the people of the Arabian Peninsula were divided into small tribal groups, and the region had been controlled for several centuries by the Ottoman Empire and other foreign powers. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was officially established in 1932, and Fahd's father became its first ruler, King Abdul Aziz.

Young Prince Fahd was raised at the king's court in the city of Riyadh, but he was by no means the only prince in the family. His father had forty-five sons by several different wives. However, preference was given to the male children born to Hassa al-Sudeiri, Prince Fahd's mother. As one of the chosen few, Prince Fahd was educated in a special school in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia's vast oil reserves were discovered when he was a teenager, and petroleum revenues soon made the kingdom very prosperous. After completing his education in Riyadh, Prince Fahd undertook Islamic studies in the holy Muslim city of Mecca.

Prince Fahd's religious education is a sign of how important the religion of Islam is in Saudi Arabia. The country's unity is based on the widespread acceptance of Wahabbism, a very pure and conservative form of Muslim belief that dates to the 1700s. The Muslim holy book, the Koran, serves as the country's constitution. The Sharia, a strict code of justice based on the Koran, is the law of the land. It includes rigid guidelines about the role of women in society and also forbids the population from engaging in such activities as drinking alcohol and gambling.

The prince of the party

As a young man, Prince Fahd often rebelled against his strict Islamic upbringing. While in his early twenties, he became known as an international playboy. He gambled enormous sums in Europe's fashionable Monte Carlo casinos, attended nightclubs in Beirut, Lebanon, and developed a taste for fine Scotch. Such behavior got him in trouble with his older brothers, especially Prince Faisal. Faisal eventually told Fahd that if he continued to live the wild life he would give up his chance to one day serve as king. This warning brought an end to Prince Fahd's rowdy ways.

Fahd developed other nontraditional interests, however. In 1945 he accompanied Prince Faisal to San Francisco, California, for the initial meeting of the United Nations. Prince Fahd admired the vibrant and modern surroundings of the United States, and he developed a lifelong interest in American culture.

After King Abdul Aziz died in 1953, Prince Fahd's older brother Saud took power. Prince Fahd, then in his early thirties, was appointed minister of education—the first one his country ever had. Prior to his appointment, there were very few schools in Saudi Arabia, and most were only concerned with elementary instruction. Under Prince Fahd's direction, schools were established for students at all levels, from preschool to higher education. In one of his most progressive initiatives, he made education available to women—a startling development in Saudi Arabia, where women have traditionally been considered second-class citizens. In 1962 he was given another important post, minister of the interior.

As the years passed, two more of Prince Fahd's brothers took turns as king. During the reign of both Faisal and Khalid, Prince Fahd had great responsibilities. He served in a series of important positions and attended high-profile meetings around the world. When Khalid took power in 1975, Fahd assumed the title of crown prince, which meant he would be the next king. Because Khalid was in poor health for much of his reign, Prince Fahd assumed many of the country's leadership responsibilities even before he officially took the throne in 1982.

Becomes king of Saudi Arabia

When Khalid died, Fahd became the fifth king of Saudi Arabia. As monarch, he tried to strike a balance between modernizing the country and staying true to its devout Islamic traditions. This task did not always prove easy. Many people in the country believed that if the king promoted any trappings of Western culture or reached out to non-Islamic nations, he was moving away from the teachings of Muhammad, the great prophet of Islam. If the people of Saudi Arabia felt that the king was moving too far in that direction, he risked losing power.

Despite these dangers, King Fahd cultivated close relations with the United States during the 1980s. At the same time, he took a leading role in issues important to the Arab world. He assumed the official title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, a reference to his role as the overseer of Islam's two holiest sites, which are located in the Saudi Arabian cities of Mecca and Medina. In international relations, he was a strong supporter of the Palestinians in their struggle with Israel and also was involved in efforts to bring an end to the civil war in Lebanon. During the war between Iran and Iraq (1980–88), Saudi Arabia provided financial support to Iraq but did not involve its army in the dispute. Soon after that conflict came to an end, however, Saudi Arabia became involved in another crisis involving Iraq.

Persian Gulf War

The 1991 Persian Gulf War came as a result of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990. Most experts believe that Iraqi president Saddam Hussein (see entry) decided to take over Kuwait so that he could control that country's large oil resources. Iraq had just ended its long war with Iran, and its economy was in shambles. In official statements, the Iraqi government maintained that they had a historical claim on the territory that made up Kuwait. They also complained that Kuwait was pumping more oil than was allowed under international agreements, thereby keeping petroleum prices low and reducing Iraq's oil income.

The Iraqi army quickly overwhelmed Kuwait. Hussein's forces then took up threatening positions near the Saudi Arabian border, raising the prospect that Iraq might invade King Fahd's country. Saudi Arabia maintained a small army that was thought to be no match for the larger Iraqi force. Sensing the urgency of the situation, U.S. President George H. W. Bush (see entry) moved quickly. Within a day of the initial invasion of Kuwait, the United States offered to send troops and weapons to help defend Saudi Arabia.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait placed King Fahd in a difficult position. On the one hand, his country faced a very real threat from Hussein's troops. On the other, he was reluctant to open his country to a foreign army. In accepting assistance from outsiders, he would be admitting that he had failed to protect his people on his own, which might weaken his hold on power. It also was politically risky for any Arab leader to become too closely aligned with the United States, which was Israel's closest ally.

King Fahd also had to consider the effect that contact with large numbers of foreigners would have on his people. Many Muslims in Saudi Arabia are opposed to the presence of non-Muslims in their land, which they consider to be sacred. In recognition of such feelings, King Fahd's government had limited the number of foreigners it allowed to visit and work in the country. Saudi Arabia was isolated in other ways, as well. For example, the government placed heavy restrictions on the types of newspaper and television information allowed into Saudi Arabia. Most Western forms of entertainment, such as music and movies, were forbidden. In many ways, Saudi Arabia kept itself walled off from the outside world in order to keep its people from being corrupted by foreign influences. Allowing hundreds of thousands of foreign soldiers into the country would change that.

Meets with Cheney

King Fahd did not have much time to make his choice. On August 5, U.S. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney (see entry) arrived in Riyadh to discuss the situation. Cheney told King Fahd that if he wanted U.S. military assistance, then he needed to act immediately. After a brief consultation with other Saudi officials, the king gave his answer: U.S. forces were welcome in Saudi Arabia. American troops began to arrive within days and were soon joined by soldiers from other countries. An estimated six hundred thousand non-Saudis were based in the country during the Persian Gulf War.

The Saudi government put several plans in place to try and lessen the impact of the foreigners. Most soldiers were based in remote locations away from cities to reduce their contact with Saudi citizens. The foreign troops also were subject to many of the strict rules that had been applied to foreign visitors for many years in Saudi Arabia. For instance, they were not allowed travel freely around the country or to drink alcohol.

The Saudi government also made some concessions to accommodate the outsiders. Female soldiers were allowed to serve in Saudi Arabia, and they were not forced to observe the country's strict rules that require women to keep their faces and bodies fully covered, at least while stationed at their military camps. When traveling elsewhere, however, the women soldiers sometimes found it necessary to wear an abaya (a black robe) and to cover their heads with a scarf in order to avoid hostile reactions from local Saudis.

In addition to hosting the foreign troops, the king committed a large amount of money to the war effort. The Saudi government spent an estimated $37.5 billion on the Gulf crisis. Even a country as wealthy as Saudi Arabia found it difficult to pay this bill. In the years following the war, the Saudi government struggled with budget shortfalls due to the high cost of the conflict.

Though it was the primary staging area for the coalition war effort, Saudi Arabia suffered relatively little damage. Iraqi forces fired more than forty Scud missiles into Saudi Arabia during the war. One struck a military camp in Al Khobar, killing twenty-eight U.S. soldiers, but otherwise the missiles did little harm. Face-to-face fighting took place at the Saudi town of Khafji, along the border of Kuwait, after Iraqis invaded the area in the second week of the war. A coalition force composed largely of Saudi Arabian troops repelled the Iraqis after several days of fighting. Saudi troops also participated in other engagements. An estimated 47 Saudi Arabian soldiers were killed in the war, and another 220 wounded.

Growing dissent

While Saudi Arabia was largely spared from combat damage, the Gulf War still had a powerful effect on the country. In the years following the conflict, King Fahd faced greater opposition from groups inside Saudi Arabia. The greatest threat came from radical Muslims who felt that King Fahd's government no longer upheld the strict version of Islam that they thought appropriate. One of their strongest complaints was the king's decision to allow foreign troops to operate in Saudi Arabia during the Gulf crisis and their continued presence after the war.

While some of the Saudi opposition groups expressed their views peacefully, others did not. In 1995, a bomb went off at a building in Riyadh used by the U.S. military, killing six people. In 1996, a U.S. military housing complex in Dhahran was the target of a truck bomb that killed nineteen U.S. soldiers. Though the attacks have been attributed to different groups, both were opposed to the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia. Osama bin Laden, a Saudi native, is another extremist who was offended by King Fahd's close relations with the United States. His anger at the Saudi monarchy is seen as one of the motivations for his role in a series of terrorist incidents, including the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

King Fahd's government jailed some leaders of the religious opposition in the years following the war. But ever mindful of the power of religious groups, the government has been careful not to alienate Islamic clerics. Many of those imprisoned were later freed, and the matawain, or religious police who enforce Islamic law, have been given more power on several occasions since the war.

Over the years, King Fahd also has granted more authority to leaders outside the royal family. He created a consultative council called the Majilis al-Shura in 1992. Its members, which include both religious elites and secular (nonreligious) figures, give advice to the ruler on important issues. The council has grown larger and more powerful in the years since it was first established, but ultimate authority still rests with the ruling family.

An ailing king

In 1995 King Fahd suffered the first of several strokes, and he has been in poor health ever since. His ailments include diabetes and arthritis, and he underwent cataract (eye) surgery in 2002. He officially remains Saudi Arabia's king, but it is thought that Crown Prince Abdullah, Fahd's half-brother, has assumed most leadership duties.

King Fahd's poor health has contributed to the government's gradual drift toward a more conservative stance in recent years. Whereas King Fahd is considered moderate by Saudi standards, Crown Prince Abdullah is seen as more religious and has been very critical of the United States in its support of Israel.

The relationship between the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United States also soured because of events that followed the September 11 terrorist attacks. As a result of these attacks, the United States led an invasion into Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power. The Saudis opposed this U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the future of U.S. military installations in Saudi Arabia is unclear. Uncertainty also clouds the long-term future of King Fahd's country. Both Fahd and Abdullah are elderly, and it is not clear who will lead the country in coming decades.

Where to Learn More

Beyer, Lisa. "Lifting The Veil: A Secretive and Deeply Conservative Realm, Saudi Arabia Suddenly Finds Itself on the Sword Edge of Change." Time, September 24, 1990.

"Causes of 9/11: U.S. Troops in Saudi Arabia." Terrorism Questions 8 Answers. Available online at http://www.terrorismanswers.com/causes/saudiarabia3.html (accessed March 27, 2004).

Church, George J. "An Exquisite Balancing Act: Onetime Playboy King Fahd Tries to Mingle Modernity and Feudalism." Time, September 24, 1990.

"Fahd ibn Abdul Aziz Al-Saud." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group, 2003.

"Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, King and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia." Worldmark Encyclopedia of the Nations: World Leaders, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: The Gale Group, 2003.

Janin, Hunt. Saudi Arabia. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1993.

"King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz." Available online at http://www.kingfahdbinabdulaziz.com (accessed March 27, 2004).

Rashid, Nasser Ibrahim and Esber Ibrahim Shaheen. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf War. Joplin, MO: International Institute of Technology, 1992.

Teitelbaum, Joshua. "Deserted: Why Riyadh Stiffs America." New Republic, October 22, 2001.

Teitelbaum, Joshua. Executive summary for Holier than Thou: Saudi Arabia's Islamic Opposition. Available online at http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/pubs/exec/teitelexec.htm (accessed March 27, 2004).

Weiss, Joanna. "Gulf War Veterans Recall Muslim Distrust." Boston Globe, November 11, 2001.