KING FAHD (1923-2005)

FAHD IBN ABDUL AZIZ AL-SAUD, the “Custodian of the two HolyMosques” for 23 years, died Aug. 1, 2005, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, 10 years after a debilitating stroke forced him to hand over de facto rule to his younger half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah. Fahd was 84.

Fahd, an imposing figure at more than six feet tall and 275 pounds, ruled a country whose annual oil revenue is S 1 00 billion. His training as a statesman came in the long decades before he ascended the throne in 1982.

Fahd was born in Riyadh in 1923, the ? ith of Abdul Aziz’s nearly 50 sons. His mother, Hassa bint Ahmad Sudairi, was said to be the fifth and favorite of Abdul Aziz’s 40 or so wives. Fahd was her first surviving son. He had a court education – he and his brothers were taught to read and write in Arabic, memorize the Qur’an, learn arithmetic and desert warfare. When Fahd was growing up, Sudairi would make her children meet at least once a day at her house for lunch or dinner to discuss family affairs. After their mother’s death in 1969, the siblings continued to gather at least once a week at the home of one of the sisters. These family meetings established a special bond between Fahd and his brothers the Sudairi Seven – and were one of the factors that helped them emerge and remain at the center of power in the kingdom.

His first official trip was to Egypt in 1945, when he was 22. Later that year, he also was a Saudi delegate at the drafting of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco.

He came into his first Cabinet post in 1953 as education minister. He laid the groundwork for the Gulf’s first university system, supervised the introduction of education for women and built schools by the thousands.

From October 1962 until Faisal’s assassination in 1975, Fahd served as interior minister. He also served on bodies such as the Supreme Petroleum Council, the Security Council and the Meccan Pilgrimage Committee.

He understood the opportunities that oil could bring his country, especially after the quadrupling of prices when the Saudis used their oil as leverage in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. At the height of the oil boom, Fahd spent $400 billion in three successive five-year plans beginning in 1970 to transform a country, that hadn’t used bank notes until 1952 and had only 20 schools in 1958, into a modern welfare state. He built ministries, hospitals, universities, stadiums, supermarkets, factories, popular housing estates, airports, and highways across the desert. Housing, education and medical care were free for all citizens. Within one generation, the desert kingdom was transformed.

Named crown prince in 1975 under his older brother, King Khalid, Fahd, 55, was given a relatively free hand to run the kingdom’s daily affairs. He had to consolidate the family’s power and continue to modernize but still enforce religious traditionalism. In 1979, he established the muttawa ‘in, or the Organization for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, thereby further expanding the power of religious authorities.

As Crown Prince, Fahd redesigned his country’s foreign policy. Fahd wanted to prove to the Arab world that he could get political returns for the favors his oil policy had done for the West: increasing oil exports to contain the rise of prices and spending earnings on Western goods, arms and military training. The West would in turn provide Saudi Arabia with protection and adopt a more even-handed approach toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. But as the U.S. continued to pursue pro-Israeli policies, Fahd found himself trying to urge restraint among his Arab neighbors as well as members of the Saudi royal family who wanted to use oil to again teach the West a lesson.

Fahd officially took the helm in 1982, when the price per barrel of oil was more than $30. Because so much oil was being processed, by 1986 a surplus developed and the price per barrel dropped, cutting oil rev enues by about 20%. The government was strapped for cash and the agricultural sector was hit hard, as the cost to maintain selfsufficiency became difficult to support. While the country’s wealth decreased, the citizens’ agitation increased. The support they were used to was now denied them, and the excesses and corruption of the royal family did not endear it to the citizens. Fahd began to lose prestige at home and abroad and found it more difficult to maintain Arab solidarity, promote an ArabIsraeli peace process, and make sure he was getting as much out of the U.S. as it was getting from him.
Then in 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait. Despite the royal family’s objections, Fahd decided, firmly and swiftly, to allow U.S. troops onto Saudi soil – even after an offer by Osama bin Laden to join forces with the kingdom, having been successful in driving out the Soviets from Afghanistan. Many of the Saudis also were opposed to the presence of the 500,000 non-Muslim troops and wondered why the king- dom, which had spent billions on sophisticated military equipment, could not defend itself. Furious w ith Fahd’s decision, bin Laden called for a boycott of all American products and warned that he would send his militants on missions against the United States and Saudi Arabia. In the beginning, Fahd apparently tolerated AlQaida and its funding, but Crown Prince Abdullah declared war on the network as a threat to the royal family.

At the same time, anger toward the royal family was growing as the children of the oil boom graduated from universities but had nowhere to work, and were not prepared to start at the bottom of the market and work their way up. Today, 43% of Saudis are younger than 15.

In an effort to regain legitimacy for the monarchy, Fahd issued a number of royal decrees in 1993 that established, among other things, the Consultative Council and the Council of Ministers. The 60-member Consultative Council, appointed by the king, is meant to supervise the government and advise the monarch. The council has since doubled and is the only forum by which citizens can have any influence in decision making.

The pressure to pay off his share of the 1 99 1 Gulf War debt, about S60 billion, is said to have affected Fahd’s health. He had diabetes and had gallbladder surgery in 1994 and a stroke a year later. He began to appear in public less and less, and his work habits became more erratic. On Jan. 1, 1996, he handed over management of the government to his younger halfbrother Crown Prince Abdullah. In March 1998, he was treated again for gallbladder infection, and in the end, seemed to fade away from public life.

Fahd is survived by two wives, eight sons and five daughters. His first wife, Anoud bint Abdul Aziz, died in 1999.

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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