Saud, Faisal ibn Abd al Aziz ibn

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Faisal ibn Abd al Aziz ibn Saud

Born c. 1904 (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)
Died on March 25, 1975 (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia)

King of Saudi Arabia

King Faisal ibn Abd al Aziz ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia was not the first king of this Arab nation, nor the longest serving, but he was probably the most influential. Faisal, as he is most often known, almost single-handedly brought responsible government to a nation long ruled by the personal whim of the king. He also won worldwide respect for both Saudi Arabia and the other Arab oil-producing nations when he engineered the formation of a group known as the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). In the mid-1970s Faisal and other OPEC members used their control of the world's oil supplies as a political tool to demonstrate their support for Palestinians in their clash with Israel. Faisal's wise management of oil resources helped make Saudi Arabia one of the richest nations in the world.

"The King is a sort of moral conscience for many Arab leaders. By having great religious stature, he can act as a kind of pure representative of Arab nationalism. Faisal has been able to maneuver Saudi Arabia from being a conservative state into a political bellwether."

(Henry Kissinger from "Faisal and Oil." Time (January 6, 1975)).

Son of a national hero

Faisal's family has long-standing claims to power in the Middle East. From the time that the Islamic religion spread throughout the Middle East in the seventh century ce, numerous tribal chiefs, or sheikhs, had vied for power in the largely desert lands that make up present-day Saudi Arabia. In the middle of the eighteenth century one powerful sheikh, Muhammad ibn Saud, allied himself with the Muslim religious leader Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792), whose followers were known as Wahhabis (see sidebar). The Saudis (as members of the Saud family are known) and the Wahhabis joined in a powerful alliance that battled intermittently for local dominance on the Arabian peninsula through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By 1904 a powerful member of the Saudi family, Abd al Aziz ibn Saud (c. 1880–1953), took control of the region known as the Nejd, defeating another Arab sheikh and troops from the powerful Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of the Middle East. After 1904, ibn Saud pursued his goal of bringing centralized control to the Arabian peninsula.

Faisal was born around 1904 to Abd al Aziz ibn Saud and his wife, Tarfah, herself a descendent of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Tarfah was the second of ibn Saud's many wives, and Faisal had many brothers and sisters—so many that historians have had a difficult time identifying each one, a problem made worse by the poor birth records kept at this time. As ibn Saud's third son, Faisal was third in line to succeed his father as ruler of the Saudi clan.

Wahhabism: Saudi Fundamentalism

The Saudi royal family follows a branch of Islam known as Wahhabism, which makes their country one of the most conservative of the Islamic nations. Wahhabism is named after its founder, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. Al-Wahhab and his followers preached a fundamentalist version of Islam: he wanted Muslims to revere only the Prophet Muhammad and to follow Sharia, or Islamic holy law, very closely. Wahhabis believe in strict observance of daily prayers and in the careful separation of women and men in most areas of life.

For the Saudis, balancing religious fundamentalism with their desire to be participants in the world community has always been difficult. Many Saudi's have privately supported Islamic fundamentalist movements that are directly opposed to the United States, including the 1979 revolution in Iran and the rise of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization in the 1990s and 2000s. Terrorist leader Osama bin Laden (1957–; see entry) is himself a Saudi follower of Wahhabism, and he is known to have received a great deal of money from high-ranking Saudis. Bin Laden's call for revolution within Saudi Arabia, however, has cost him the support of the Saudi government.

Faisal's mother died when he was very young, and the boy was raised by his mother's parents, who followed the strict religious teachings of Wahhabism. Faisal memorized large parts of the Islamic holy book, the Koran, debated with religious scholars, and learned to love poetry as he grew up in the city of Riyadh, now the capital of Saudi Arabia. The Riyadh of his youth was very primitive: houses were made of mud brick, and woven rugs and mats were the only furniture. The entire city was surrounded by a great stone wall. It was also very isolated. According to Rebecca Stefoff, author of Faisal, "Only three Europeans had ever seen Riyadh before Faisal's birth."

Faisal was small and thin as a boy, but reports are that he was very brave. He is reported to have ridden the feared horse of his brother, Turki, around the city walls, and also to have jumped into a deep well to demonstrate his courage. He also learned to be a wise negotiator and leader of people. Faisal spent a great deal of time with his father, who was well loved by the nomadic sheep herders and traders who made up the small Arabian population. He saw how his father won his people's loyalty, and Faisal saw him lead soldiers in battles to extend Saudi power throughout the Arabian peninsula. In 1919 ibn Saud even sent the fourteen-year-old Faisal on a trip to Great Britain to experience negotiations with the British. In England Faisal served as a special ambassador for his father, acting with dignity. Though he was just in his midteens, Faisal was showing himself to be a wise and capable young man.

Learns to deal with the wider world

The Saudis were not directly involved in the battles of World War I (1914–18; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria–Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and their allies), but they were deeply influenced by the outcome. By war's end the Ottoman Empire had collapsed, and the British and French now exerted political power in the Middle East. In 1921 the Europeans divided up the Middle East into new nations, including Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Transjordan. They divided Arabia into kingdoms controlled in part by the Saudis and in part by rival families. Though ibn Saud did not want to anger the Europeans, especially the British, he wanted to take control of the Arabian peninsula from his rivals. Faisal would prove a valued aide and soldier.

Faisal's first military mission came in 1921, when he joined a band of his father's soldiers as they took the province of Asir, on the Red Sea. In 1924, at age twenty, Faisal led his own troops in the region. By 1926 Faisal, his brothers, and his father had wrested control over much of the Arabian peninsula from their enemies, including the cities of Mecca and Medina, considered two of Islam's holiest cities. Ibn Saud declared himself sultan (later king) of Nejg and Hejaz (the names of the two largest regions on the Arabian peninsula). When a number of European countries recognized his leadership, ibn Saud named Faisal his foreign minister, and in 1926 Faisal made his second trip to Europe, this time as the official representative of his land.

The final step in the unification of the Arabian peninsula came in 1932, when ibn Saud's troops defeated the lone remaining resisters to his rule. That year, he declared his nation to be the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, making it the world's only nation to be named after a family. Ibn Saud was king, and his eldest son, Saud, was declared heir to the throne. With the creation of Saudi Arabia as an independent nation, Faisal became his nation's representative to the world. He traveled to the Soviet Union, which was first to recognize his nation, but also communicated with governments throughout the world.

Like many wealthy Arab men, Faisal took a number of wives. His first two marriages, in the 1920s, were largely made to secure alliances with other families. His third and happiest marriage, to Iffat al-Thunayan, was made around 1932. The couple lived in the holy city of Mecca and, when Faisal later became king, Iffat was very popular among the Saudi people. Faisal's first two marriages brought him several sons, including Abdullah, Khalid, and Saud. He also had as many as eight daughters, though information about women is kept secret in the closed Saudi royal family and little is known about them.

Established uneasy relationship with United States

Saudi Arabia was not a wealthy country at the start of the 1930s. Most of the Kingdom's wealth came from fees paid by Muslims visiting the holy shrines in Mecca and Medina, and from a tax paid by every citizen. But when geologists discovered oil in 1932 this picture changed dramatically. Representatives from Great Britain and the United States both tried to win concessions to drill for Saudi oil. An oil concession allows a foreign company to provide the equipment and skill needed to extract and sell oil in exchange for a fee paid to the government. The United States, with a down payment of about $250,000, won the concession, thus beginning a long relationship between the Saudis and the United States. Over the years oil drilling would bring millions, then billions, of dollars into the kingdom.

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States was not always easy. On the one hand, U.S. oil interests brought great wealth to the country, especially to the royal family, which retained sole control over oil revenues. In many ways, however, the two countries were unlikely allies. Saudi Arabia was a devout Muslim country, allowing few rights to women and insisting on strict observance of Islamic law from all its citizens; the United States promoted full rights for all its citizens and left religious matters to individuals. Additionally, the two nations had very different views about an increasingly important political issue: the question of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine.

Jews had called for a homeland in Palestine since the late nineteenth century in a movement known as Zionism. Following World War II (1939–45; war between Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies against Germany, Russia, Japan, and their allies), the United Nations, with the backing of the United States, agreed to create that homeland. Arab nations, including Saudi Arabia, were outraged. They felt that a Jewish homeland amounted to stealing land and political power from the Arabs who had long lived there and were known as Palestinians. When Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and several other Arab nations went to war in 1948 to crush the emerging Jewish state, Saudi Arabia provided financial backing, but no soldiers. However, Jewish forces won the war and established the nation of Israel. Ever since that time, Saudi Arabia has provided financial assistance to Palestinians and urged Western powers (countries such as Britain, France, Canada, and the United States) to cease their support for Israel.

The cultural and political differences between Saudi Arabia and the United States made for a difficult relationship. Faisal, in his job as representative of Saudi interests, often had to express his displeasure with U.S. actions. According to Stefoff, "Faisal always treated the U.S. government as a useful tool and never as a friend." Yet Saudi Arabia typically did not let political disagreements interrupt economic cooperation.

From diplomat to king in waiting

Faisal was named his country's ambassador to the United Nations when it was created in 1945, and he worked hard to represent Saudi Arabia in the issues that faced that world political organization. He became widely respected for the reasonable way he presented Arab objections to the existence of Israel. Faisal also played an important role within Saudi Arabia. In the late 1940s and early 1950s his father, King ibn Saud, slowly withdrew from a direct role in governing the kingdom. According to Stefoff, ibn Saud worried about the impact that money was having on his children and his kingdom: "He saw that some of his children and grandchildren were greatly attracted to material possessions and Western ways; some of them even drank alcohol, which was forbidden by the Koran." Ibn Saud recognized that it would be difficult for his children and his country to pursue oil riches while remaining devout Muslims. When he passed on the role of king to his eldest surviving son, Saud ibn Abd al-Aziz (popularly known as Saud), in 1953, this contradiction between wealth and religion became a significant problem.

Faisal had long clashed with his older brother Saud. Saud was impulsive and loved to spend money; Faisal thought through his actions carefully and lived the simple life of a devout Muslim. Their differing styles soon became apparent to those inside and outside Saudi Arabia. King Saud accepted a bribe from the United States; when the bribe was revealed, his government was very embarrassed. King Saud spent money foolishly and did not listen to the counsel of his brothers and other family members. He soon pushed the nation to near bankruptcy. In 1958 family members convinced King Saud to let Faisal run the country. Faisal placed limits on frivolous spending, used oil money to make improvements that helped the Saudi people, and in 1960 contributed to the creation of OPEC, an organization of oil-producing countries that would soon grow in power. In 1962 he abolished the practice of slavery, which had existed in the area for thousands of years. Faisal was well liked for all of his efforts, but he was not yet king.

King Saud did not like giving up power to his younger brother. Twice he reclaimed his position, but both times family members and influential religious leaders stepped in. Finally, in October of 1964, supporters of Faisal insisted that Saud step down as king. Faisal had always avoided criticizing his brother out of family loyalty, and he kept his distance from the plotting against Saud. When he was told that Saud had been stripped of his title, Faisal was upset at the impact this had on his family, but he accepted the throne to the kingdom.

Arab leader

As king, Faisal was finally able to enact his ideas for governing the kingdom. He settled a long-simmering conflict with Egypt over its attempt to overthrow the government of Yemen, which lay to the south of Saudi Arabia. He also began a program of social and economic reforms. He encouraged public education through the state-run newspapers, radio, and television. With the help of his wife, Iffat, he introduced reforms that allowed women access to education (though women were still kept apart from men in most areas of social life). He also sought ways to help his nation develop agriculture and industry, so that it would not be so dependent on the income it earned from oil. His most important achievements as king, however, were the role he played in promoting Arab issues to the world and the power he helped oil-producing nations to claim through OPEC.

The Arab countries of the Middle East had long been torn between competing claims for their allegiance. Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970; see entry) wanted secular, or non-religious, governments to lead a movement for the unification of all Arab states under a socialist economic system, in which the governments distribute income equally to the people. Nasser wanted Arab countries to ally themselves with the Soviet Union, which practiced a form of socialism. Faisal countered Nasser's ideas. He wanted religion to be at the center of the nation. He also wanted Arab nations to work together to promote their economic interests, and he remained a strong ally of the United States.

When Nasser died in 1970, Faisal was unchallenged as a senior Arab leader. He used his skills to organize Arab nations and to help other countries resolve their disputes. In 1967 Faisal helped organize the first face-to-face meeting between the leaders of all the Islamic nations. The nations met in Morocco to protest the Israeli occupation of Muslim holy places in Jerusalem; they also established a news agency. Faisal increasingly served as a spokesman for those who condemned Israel's actions against Palestinians, and his government granted billions of dollars to those countries most impacted by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The oil king

Faisal's most notable achievement as an Arab leader came with his use of OPEC as a bargaining tool with the West. Ever since Western oil companies had begun drilling oil from beneath Arab states, the Western companies had controlled the amount and price of oil. Faisal and his oil minister, Ahmed Zaki Yamani (1930–), believed that it was time for the oil-producing countries to gain more control over oil production, price, and profits. By the early 1970s, they had convinced other OPEC nations to act.

In October 1973 war broke out between Israel and the combined forces of Egypt and Syria. The United States and other Western countries supported Israel. Seeing an opportunity to promote his economic interests and support Palestine at the same time, Faisal and the OPEC chiefs ordered an embargo on oil shipments to supporters of Israel (an embargo is an order to stop shipping a product). OPEC also raised the price of oil dramatically, from $3.01 per barrel to $11.65 per barrel within a few weeks' time. The impact on the world oil market was dramatic. Prices for gasoline and other oil products soared, and governments in many nations ordered rationing, or the limiting of supplies. With his actions, Faisal instantly turned Saudi Arabia into a powerful political force on the world scene. From this point forward, Western oil companies would no longer dictate the terms of Arab oil production.

Faisal was much loved in Saudi Arabia. He had shown that it was possible to use the country's oil wealth wisely, such as to promote social and economic programs that helped the Saudi people. Though some complained that there were few freedoms for people in the conservative society he led, he replied: "If anyone feels wrongly treated, he has only himself to blame for not telling me. What higher democracy can there be?" according to the King Faisal Foundation Web site. Unlike his older brother, King Saud, who spent money lavishly, Faisal was not corrupted by wealth: he lived very simply and was a devout Muslim throughout his life. This was perhaps his greatest feat, demonstrating that great wealth did not have to corrupt strict Islamic values. It is a balancing act that his country has struggled with to this day.

On March 25, 1975, one of Faisal's nephews came to visit the king. As the two prepared to embrace, the nephew pulled out a gun and shot his uncle. Within an hour, Faisal was dead. The motive for the murder has never been known, thanks to a royal family that guards private information very closely, but within a few months the murderer was publicly beheaded. Faisal himself was buried in a very simple grave on the outskirts of the Saudi capital of Riyadh. Faisal's half brother Khalid was named king, continuing the family tradition of ruling the oil-rich and now politically powerful Arab nation.

The oil crisis in the United States

Before 1973, consumers in the United States took oil for granted. They rarely worried about how much gasoline cost or how many miles-per-gallon their cars consumed. The Arab oil embargo of 1973, and the oil crisis that followed, forever changed Americans' untroubled relationship to oil, and to Saudi Arabia.

When Saudi Arabia and other countries cut the flow of oil to protest U.S. support for Israel in its October 1973 war against Egypt and Syria, the oil market responded immediately. Supplies went down and prices sky-rocketed. Soon gasoline was rationed, which meant that people could only buy gas on certain days and in specified amounts. Across the United States, long lines formed at gas stations. People began to think about turning off lights and turning down the heat to save on heating oil. The higher fuel costs echoed throughout the economy, causing the prices of all goods to rise. In short, the oil embargo sent shock waves throughout the economy of the United States and the world.

The embargo ended in March 1974, but oil prices never returned to their earlier low levels. Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing countries grew rich. In fact, Time wrote that the oil embargo led to the "greatest and swiftest transfer of wealth in all history: the 13 OPEC countries earned $112 billion from the rest of the world." People in the United States and elsewhere became far more conscious about their use of oil, gas, and other forms of energy. Carmakers worked to make cars more fuel efficient, a process led by the Japanese, who dramatically increased their share of the world automobile market. The oil embargo also gave a boost to the environmental movement, which supported the conservation of energy wherever possible.

For More Information


Beling, Willard A., editor. King Faisal and the Modernization of Saudi Arabia. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1980.

Holden, David. The House of Saud: The Rise and Rule of the Most Powerful Dynasty in the Arab World. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1982.

Sheean, Vincent. Faisal: The King and His Kingdom. Tavistock, UK: University Press of Arabia, 1975.

Stefoff, Rebecca. Faisal. New York: Chelsea House, 1989.


"Faisal and Oil." Time (January 6, 1975). Available online at (accessed on December 13, 2004).

Web Sites

King Faisal Foundation. (accessed on July 7, 2005).

"Modern History." Profile of Saudi Arabia. (accessed on July 7, 2005).