A new monarch

Print edition : August 26, 2005

The shrouded body of King Fahd before special prayers at Riyadh's Turk bin Abdullah mosque, on August 2. - AMR NABIL/AP

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia passes away, and Crown Prince Abdullah who succeeds him to the throne faces daunting challenges.

SAUDI Arabia's monarch King Fahd was buried under tight security on August 2 in the presence of leaders from all over the world. Following the tenets of the Wahhabi school of Islam, the King was buried in an unmarked grave on the outskirts of Riyadh, the capital.

The death of King Fahd, who ruled for a quarter of a century, was announced on August 1. He had been ailing since he suffered a stroke in 1995. The half-brother of King Fahd, Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud, 82, has been named the new King. Prince Sultan, 77, a full brother of King Fahd, has been named the new Crown Prince. The leadership still remains in the hands of the direct descendants of the founder of the kingdom, King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud. The youngest surviving son of the founder of the Saudi state is Prince Muqrin, who is in his early sixties.

If the present pattern of succession continues, the kingdom may see a parade of rulers in the coming years. According to the 1992 "Basic Law" promulgated by the monarchy, the throne could pass, theoretically, to all the sons of the founder king before the "children's children" can stake a claim to the top job. This could be a recipe for political instability. There are reports that bickering has already started among the royals for the third important slot in the government, that of the Second Deputy Prime Minster. The two main contenders for the post are Prince Nayef bin Abdulaziz, the influential Interior Minister, and Prince Salman, the Governor of Riyadh. The royal family currently accounts for 5,000 princes.

The George W. Bush administration has put pressure on the Saudi government to hold local government elections for the first time this year. Political parties are still anathema to the Saudi authorities, and all levers of power and patronage are firmly in the hands of key members of the royal family. Prince Sultan, as Defence Minster, had control over the Saudi Armed forces. The Crown Prince, now King, had his own elite Palace Guards. One of Prince Sultan's sons, Prince Bhandar, was until recently the long-serving Saudi Ambassador to the United States. Prince Sultan, like Fahd, is reputed to be more pro-American than the new King, Abdullah. King Abdullah was suspected by the West of harbouring nationalist tendencies when he took over the day-to-day running of the government in 1995. He has, however, tamely acquiesced to the American game plan for the region, including the American invasion of Iraq and the trampling of Palestinian rights in the occupied territories. Prince Sultan is said to be a recovering cancer patient who underwent stomach surgery recently.

The "neo-conservatives" in the Bush administration have been openly articulating their suspicions about the Saudi government, ever since the so-called war against terror started three years ago. Fifteen of the September 11 hijackers were Saudi nationals coming from well-to-do families. There was even talk in some influential sections of the American establishment about the desirability of balkanising Saudi Arabia and redrawing the whole map of the region, leaving the Saudi royalty control of only the area under which the holy sites of Mecca and Medina fall. Many observers of the region are of the opinion that it was only the dogged resistance of the Iraqi freedom fighters that probably stopped the Bush administration from implementing the grandiose plan.

King Fahd-JOEL ROBINE/AFP

Osama bin Laden is today perhaps the most well-known Saudi national. When King Fahd was in power, the Saudi government, bin Laden and the U.S. were all sailing in the same boat, their common enemy being the Soviet Union and "godless" communism. The Saudis bankrolled the American-supervised jehad in Afghanistan. Most of the lynchpins of the current "terrorist jehad" against the West got their first lessons in Afghanistan.

The Saudi government bolstered its defence spending throughout the 1980s during the reign of Fahd. Astronomical amounts were spent on the most expensive weaponry the West could provide. Not surprisingly, the royal clan and their cronies amassed a lot of wealth from kickbacks from Western contractors. At the time of his death, Fahd's wealth was estimated to be worth several billion dollars, most of it parked in Western banks. Among his 13 palaces was a "cottage" in Marbella, Spain, which was four times the size of the White House.

When it came to defending the kingdom in the face of perceived threats, the Saudi government preferred to be under the American military umbrella. Fahd opted for a "strategic alliance", which gave Washington unlimited access to Saudi oil and military bases. In return, the U.S. administration guaranteed the Saudi state American military protection. When Iraq invaded Kuwait, Osama bin Laden, then residing in Saudi Arabia, publicly urged the Saudi government to form a military coalition of Arab nations to repel the invasion. But King Fahd allowed the Americans to set up military bases on Saudi territory for the first time, and followed it up by financing the first Gulf War. The $60 billion spent had a debilitating impact on the Saudi economy. The 1990s also witnessed a heavy fall in international oil prices - a quarter of the world's oil and gas reserves are located in Saudi Arabia - which also affected the economy, which is dependent almost fully on oil revenue. The presence of American troops near Islam's holiest sites continues to rankle Muslims all over the world. In November 1995 and June 1996, the American military base near Al Khobar and Riyadh were attacked.

Newly appointed King Abdullah greets people in Riyadh on August 3.-HASSAN AMMAR/AFP

SAUDI ARABIA and Lichtenstein are the only two countries in the world named after their ruling dynasties. Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, who officially ascended the Saudi throne in 1982, was one among the 43 sons of King Abdul Aziz (also known as Ibn Saud). Since his younger days, Fahd was groomed for higher things. His father sent him as a young man to San Francisco when the big powers were negotiating the formation of the United Nations. He was among the first Saudis to leave the desert kingdom and set foot in a foreign land. Since 1953, he held many important posts in the Saudi government, starting as Education Minister. From 1967 onwards, he was the chief aide to King Faisal, who had handpicked him as second Deputy Prime Minister. The Crown Prince was another brother, Khalid, who was not much interested in the affairs of state and was also ailing. After Faisal's death in 1975, Khalid was anointed King. But for all practical purposes, it was Fahd who managed the affairs of state.

Among Saudi monarchs, it was only King Faisal who had the courage to stand up to the West. He played a key role in organising the "oil embargo" against the West during the 1973 Arab-Israel war, plunging the U.S. into an energy crisis. Faisal also played an important role in building up an Islamic bloc of nations. The Saudi government had a big role to play in the creation of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC). At the same time, Saudi Arabia under Faisal was an ally of the West in its efforts to destabilise popular regimes in the region. It was during Fahd's reign that the Saudi government and religious foundations started the practice of funding religious seminaries, schools and mosques. Many of these institutions later became breeding grounds for militants from South Asia to the Caucasus.

Fahd was keen to project himself as the leader of the Islamic world. This could have been one of the reasons why he officially proclaimed himself the "custodian" of Mecca and Medina in 1986. He played a key role in brokering the "Taif" agreement, which brought an end to the long-running civil war in Lebanon.

Fahd is credited with restructuring the Saudi economy, but he had the good fortune of being in power at a time when global oil prices reached record highs for the first time in the late 1970s. A leading American authority on Saudi Arabia said that Fahd, among the senior princes, was "the most reflexive pro-American - all Saudi kings have been pro-American, but Fahd is the guy who presided over the heyday of U.S.-Saudi cooperation".

Abdullah, who is now the de jure ruler of Saudi Arabia, will face daunting challenges. The $100-billion-a-year oil revenue the kingdom has been earning has not been able to resolve the serious unemployment problem - the unemployment rate hovers around 30 per cent. The majority of the unemployed are between the ages of 20 and 30. Most of the population is under 21 years of age. Slums and shantytowns have started appearing near cities such as Riyadh. Political dissent has been driven underground. Groups such as Al Qaeda and other militant organisations have made the overthrow of the royal family a priority. One of their demands is that the word "Saudi" be dropped from the official name of the country.

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