King Fahd ibn Abdul Aziz Al-Saud (born 1920)—the son of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia— succeeded his brothers Saud, Faisal, and Khalid in guiding a traditional Islamic society through the as tonishing economic and social development made possible by his country's vast petroleum resources.
Born in 1920, Fahd ibn Abdul Aziz Al-Saud, son of King Ibn Saud, was educated in Islamic history and religion, traditional politics, Arabic language, and desert lore at his father's court in Riyadh. His mother belonged to the Sudeiri clan, a prominent family, and Fahd was one of the couple's seven sons. King Saud had founded Saudi Arabia in 1932 after a thirty-year effort to unite the vast Arabian peninsula. Oil was discovered a few years later and the treasure beneath Saudi sand made both the ruling family and the new nation extremely wealthy within the space of a few short years.
As a young man, the king's son acquired a reputation as somewhat of a rake on the international social circuit. He was known to drink alcohol—in violation of his conservative Wahhabi Muslim upbringing—and reportedly gambled freely with his generous allowance in the casinos of Monte Carlo. In an attempt to ready his sons for future political roles, King Saud sent both Fahd and his brother, Faisal ibn Abdul Aziz, to San Francisco in 1945 for the founding convention of the United Nations, and the visit marked a turning point for Fahd. He was captivated by America, and later, as king, would conduct relations with both the U.S. political and business establishments that were surprisingly cordial—to the dismay of some of the other Arab heads of state.
Back in Saudi Arabia, Fahd honed his competence in political matters as regional governor of Jauf and of Um Laj. In his early thirties by then, Fahd was reportedly warned by his brother Faisal, then Crown Prince, to curb his hedonistic streak, or the family would consider him to be an unsuitable candidate for the throne. When his father died in 1953, Faisal ascended to the throne, and a decidedly subdued Fahd was appointed Saudi Arabia's first minister of education. The country's educational system was virtually nonexistent at the time, but revenues from Saudi Arabia's rich oil reserves helped fund the construction and staffing of hundreds of secondary schools and numerous universities under Fahd's direction.
Fahd became Saudi Arabia's minister of the interior in 1962. Five years later he was also made second deputy prime minister, enabling him to preside over cabinet meetings. As a member of the Council of Ministers during Faisal's reign, Fahd served as chairman of ministerial councils and committees for national security, educational policy, universities, petroleum and minerals, youth welfare, and pilgrimage affairs. These duties gave him broad exposure to vital issues in the development of Saudi society.
In 1975 King Faisal was assassinated and another brother, Khalid, came to the throne. Fahd then became first deputy prime minister and next in the line of succession. The new Crown Prince took an active role in the kingdom's second five-year development plan (1975-1980), and with it the Saudi government's effort to achieve orderly economic progress and careful financial planning for its oil revenue during an extraordinary period of booming development. With the king, Fahd actively worked for the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a regional organization founded in 1981 to help coordinate and unify Saudi economic, industrial, and defense policies with those of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Yet it was also known during this era that Khalid suffered from heart trouble and delegated much of his job to Fahd.
Over a period of years, Fahd developed his experience as a spokesperson abroad by leading Saudi delegations to Arab League meetings in Casablanca (1959) and Lebanon (1960) and to Arab summit conferences in Cairo (1965). He represented Saudi Arabia on official trips to France (1967), Britain (1970), Egypt (1974), Spain (1977), and the United States (1974, 1977, and 1985). He headed the Saudi delegation to the OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) summit conference in Algiers in 1975 and to the North-South Conference at Cancun, Mexico, in 1981. He was especially active in developing the foreign policy objectives of Saudi Arabia, often working behind the scenes in a mediating role. In 1976 Fahd was instrumental in devising an Arab League peacekeeping force to assist in Lebanon while avoiding direct intervention in the civil war there.
After the Camp David Accords of 1978, which isolated Egypt from the rest of the Arab world, Fahd worked toward an alternative framework that would permit broader participation by Arab nations. His Eight Point Peace Plan of August 1981 was adopted by the Arab summit conference in Fez, Morocco, as the basis for the "Fez Declaration." This plan summarized a consensus of Arab views and proposals concerning political tensions in the Middle East based on a belief that recognition of the rights of the Palestinian people was an essential factor in working toward a comprehensive peace in the area. The Eight Point Peace Plan suggested that mainstream Palestinian representatives participate in negotiations and called for the eventual creation of a Palestinian state.
Another of Fahd's achievements was his savvy financial management of the state treasury—he had always insisted that when a new public-works project was approved (the country constructed much of the housing its citizens enjoy for a negligible amount, for instance), he insisted that the funds be set aside, rather than allowed to earn interest. At one point during the 1970s, the country's revenues topped $100 billion annually, but a drop in crude oil prices lessened that to $20 billion in the space of a few years; yet there were relatively few financial repercussions for the Saudi economy.
On June 13, 1982 Fahd acceded to the throne. He took over a nation of sixteen million—roughly 25 percent of that foreign workers, who must also abide by the strict Wahhabi Islamic tenets that are the law of the land. Part of Fahd's new official title was "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques," referring to the venerable mosques in the cities of Medina and Mecca that are the Islamic world's most important sites of worship. As king, Fahd also assumed the presidency of Saudi Aramco, a state-owned firm that controls the country's oil reserves—estimated to be one-quarter of the planet's stores. The new ruler was also one of the world's richest citizens: prior to 1980, Fahd had received a percentage of every barrel of oil drawn in Saudi Arabia. A decade later, his fortune was estimated at $18 billion.
Fahd continued his active role in Arab politics during the 1980s. He attempted to mediate a devastating war between Iran and Iraq that dragged on through the decade, and thorough his involvement in the Tripartite Committee on Lebanon, formed by the League of Arab States, helped bring about an end to that country's civil war. Fahd also continued to conduct friendly relations with a succession of American presidential administrations, and each of his sons were educated at American colleges. That cordiality proceeded in a new direction in 1990, when Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein refused to obey United Nations Security Council directives to withdraw his forces. In response, Fahd allowed U.S. troops to gather on Saudi soil, and after negotiations failed in January of 1991 the Persian Gulf War began from the northern sector of Saudi Arabia.
Fahd's lifetime witnessed the transformation of Saudi Arabia from a collection of Bedouin desert tribes to a modern, high-tech world economic leader that offered its citizens low-cost housing, free health care, and fully subsidized university degrees. Yet the country, and its autocratic ruling family, were sometimes criticized for interference in delicate Middle East politics and human-rights violations at home. In an attempt to deflect criticism, Fahd decreed a new constitution in 1992, and the following year the nation's first national council was seated; its appointed members reviewed, but could not veto, government directives. Fahd also tried to demonstrate goodwill through massive humanitarian aid to certain causes; he founded the Supreme Commission for the Collection of Donations for Bosnian Muslims in 1992 to provide aid to Muslim victims of the war in the former Yugoslavia.
By the early 1990s there were reports that the aging Fahd was in poor health. Overweight for many years, the king was also diabetic and suffered from back and knee problems. Affairs of state had not kept him from enjoying his vast personal wealth: he had counted among his residences 12 palaces and a villa in Marbella, Spain. One of his yachts was accompanied by a warship that could launch anti-aircraft missiles. In late 1995 Fahd suffered a stroke, which plunged the royal family into a succession crisis—albeit one that went on behind closed doors in Riyadh. At the same time, some of the minor personal freedoms that had been allowed in the years following the Gulf War were rescinded, and the kingdom's economic picture was said to be heavily debt-ridden.
Political analysts hinted at an intense struggle within the Saud family regarding who might succeed Fahd, and the crackdown on shops that remained open during prayer times was symptomatic of the ascendance of a more conservative leadership. After his stroke, the 75-year-old Fahd issued a statement announcing that his brother Abdullah, 73, was assuming temporary duties as head of state; six weeks later he announced himself back in power, but it was reported that he was bedridden and in a state of failing mental deterioration. There was speculation that his family would force him into retirement at his villa in Marbella.
Additional information on King Fahd can be found in David Holden and Richard Johns, The House of Saud: the Rise of the Most Powerful Dynasty in the Arab World (1981); Alexander Bligh, From Prince to King, Royal Succession in the House of Saud in the Twentieth Century (1984); Rashid Nasser Ibrahim and Shaheen Esber Ibrahim, King Fahd and Saudi Arabia's Great Evolution (1987); and David E. Long's The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (1997). Further information can be found in articles in Time (September 24, 1990; June 3, 1996); and U.S. News and World Report (June 24, 1996).