Monday, August 01, 2005

Saudi Arabia's King Fahd Dies

Fahd ibn 'Abd al-Aziz ibn 'Abd ar-Rahman al-Sa'ud (b. 1923) [pictured right] king of Saudi Arabia since 1982, died today of medical complications reportedly related to stress. Although he was nominally the head of the Saudi state, King Fahd, who suffered a stroke in 1995, had left the day-to-day operations of the kingdom to his brother, Crown Prince 'Abdullah ibn 'Abd al-Aziz ibn 'Abd ar-Rahman al-Sa'ud (b. 1924). King Fahd will be buried tomorrow. After midday prayers on Wednesday, King 'Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan will hold a public meeting, where prominent tribal leaders and government officials will come to pledge their allegiance to the kingdom's new rulers.

To view the official statement from the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, D.C. on the death of King Fahd, see:

As news of King Fahd's death spread, official news outlets in the kingdom played recitations of the Qur'an and the country's chief official clerics offered prayers. Crown Prince 'Abdullah (left) assumed the throne.

In an official written statement, U.S. President George W. Bush referred to the new Saudi King, 'Abdullah, as "my friend," going on to say, "I have spoken today to the new king, and the United States looks forward to continuing the close partnership between our two countries." Condolences from political leaders around the world continued to come in throughout the day on Monday.

The conservative and influential Prince Sultan ibn 'Abd al-Aziz ibn 'Abd ar-Rahman al-Sa'ud (below right) was named the new heir apparent. Crown Prince Sultan (b. 1928) [pictured right]was also named the new Deputy Prime Minister of the kingdom and keeps his previous posts of Minister of Defense, Inspector General, and Minister of Aviation.

The incoming Saudi ambassador to the U.S., Prince Turki al-Faisal, himself a son of a former king, told Reuters that he did not expect any major changes in U.S.-Saudi relations: "I cannot imagine there will be any particular change in [foreign] policy undertaken by the late King Fahd."

During King Fahd's reign, Saudi Arabia enjoyed an unprecedented level of economic wealth. As the ruler of the world's most oil-rich nation, he used the billions of dollars pouring into government coffers for a variety of purposes, including the massive expansions of the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina, which bolstered his reputation as "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" among the world's Muslims. According to official Saudi government figures, the two projects cost an estimated $11.2 billion.

During his reign, King Fahd also supervised the expansion of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, which currently brings over 2 million Muslims a year to the cities of Mecca (left) and Medina. He also donated substantial amounts of money for the restoration of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Through government-sponsored and controlled religious organizations such as the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (WAMY) and the World Muslim League (WML), King Fahd's government spent millions of dollars to propagate Saudi Arabia's official interpretation of Sunni Islam, known commonly as "Wahhabism," but more accurately referred to as "Salafi." The Saudi government donated monies to a variety of religious charities, rebuilding mosques (albeit in the Saudi style) destroyed by the Serbs during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and paying for the construction of hundreds of Islamic centers and mosques throughout the world.

Critics of the Saudi regime have alleged that under King Fahd, the worldwide propagation of conservative Salafi thought reached an all-time high. Some pundits, such as Stephen Schwartz of the Center for Islamic Pluralism, have even alleged that the Saudi government under King Fahd was responsible for the rise of radical terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. Other observers have argued that the Saudi government, in an attempt to direct the attention of radical Salafis away from royal family, paid for the export of such ideology to other countries and regions, including the U.S., Europe, Africa, Central Asia, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up a puppet communist government, King Fahd, in partnership with the U.S. and Pakistan's ISI intelligence services became an ardent supporter and supplier of the Muslim mujahideen ("holy warriors"), who fought Soviet forces for 10 years. Saudi and U.S. monetary support, much of it funneled to Afghan guerilla organizations by the ISI, allowed the mujahideen to keep up a constant level of pressure on Soviet forces, who were eventually forced to withdraw in 1989. As many people in the West now know, it was during the Afghan jihad against the Soviets that radical groups, including the forerunners of al Qaeda, were able to build up their forces. Both Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda's operational chief, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, (both pictured right) as well as bin Laden's Jordanian mentor, Shaykh 'Abd Allah Azzam, came to Afghanistan to participate in the jihad against the Soviets.

In 1991, King Fahd angered many ultra-conservative Saudis, including influential Salafi clerics not connected to the government, when he allowed tens of thousands of foreign, non-Muslim troops (mostly from the U.S. and the United Kingdom) to set up bases in the kingdom in order to prepare for a Operation Desert Shield against then Iraqi President Saddam Husayn al-Tikriti. Even after Iraqi forces were expelled from Kuwait, which they had occupied since August 1990, U.S. forces remained for over a decade.

Osama bin Laden and a host of radical Salafi Saudi clerics criticized the monarchy, headed by King Fahd, for allowing non-Muslim troops to remain in the "holy lands" of Islam, namely the Arabian Peninsula, where Islam rose in the mid seventh century. However, Shaykh 'Abd al-Aziz ibn 'Abd ar-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah bin Baz (b. 1909) [pictured left], the grand mufti (chief cleric) of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for decades until his death in 1999, was able to reign in even the radical Salafi elements within the country. Bin Baz's successor as head of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Endowment, Da'wa and Guidance, Shaykh Saleh ash-Shaykh (right), a descendant of the 18th century conservative preacher Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, does not have the same level of influence over the country's religious elite or the radical independent clergy.

During First Gulf War, it also became clear that despite spending tens of millions of dollars on its military, the Saudi army and airforce was incapable of defending the kindom's territory from aggressive Iraqi military units, who briefly invaded.

Under King Fahd, Saudi Arabia became one of the few countries to recognize the Taliban government of Mullah Muhammad Omar in Afghanistan.

Despite the troubled legacy of his religious/Islamic policies, King Fahd ushered in a new age of modernization and prosperity to the desert kingdom, expanding the country's education system, solidifying the oil wealth, and garnering a prominent place for the kingdom among the Arab and Islamic world, as well as the wider world. However, it was throughout the Arab and Muslim world that Saudi Arabia under King Fahd had the most influence. For example, in 1989, he oversaw the negotiation and eventual signing (on October 22, 1989) of the Taif Accord, which ended, at least officially, the brutal Second Lebanese Civil War, which broke out in 1975.

For more information on the death and legacy of King Fahd, see:

To view comments from prominent world leaders on the death of King Fahd, see:

To view an analysis from the Financial Times on the opportunities now open to King 'Abdullah, see:

To view a CNN Interactive profile on King 'Abdullah, see:

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