Born c. 1923, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; died after a long illness, August 1, 2005, in Riyadh. King. Saudi Arabia's King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud ruled over a once-barren desert kingdom whose oil riches made it one of the world's wealthiest nations. The once-errant playboy courted alliances with the West as well as other Arab nations, which placed his tightly controlled realm in an ideological buffer zone between the Muslim world and secular democracies. Under Fahd, however, Saudi society remained authoritarian and dominated by strict Islamic-law codes.
Fahd is believed to have been born in 1923, at a time when Saudi Arabia did not yet exist as a nation. The Saud royal family had emerged as a political dynasty in the 1740s in the central Arabian peninsula by forging alliances with clerics of a conservative Islamic sect known as Wahhabism. Fahd's father, Amir Abdul Aziz, led a series of military excursions that enlarged the Saud family holdings, and in 1925 his forces captured Islam's holy city, Mecca. The following year, Aziz was proclaimed king in the Mecca's Grand Mosque. Until oil was discovered in 1938, the Saudi kingdom was a poor, sparsely populated land. Its main source of revenue came from the thousands of Muslim men who made the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, that the religion's creed deems they must do once in their lifetime.
Among Aziz's 36 sons by his 22 wives, Fahd was part of a line known as the Sudairi Seven. These were the full-blood brothers whose alliance would become the most powerful one within the Saud ruling clan. At the Princes' School in Riyadh—the Saud family seat and Saudi capital—Fahd received a rudimentary education which included learning to read the Koran and a familiarity with shari'a, or Islamic law. His first official post came when his father made him governor of Jauf, a province in the north, in the mid-1940s.
Fahd became minister for education in 1953, the same year that Aziz died and was succeeded on the throne by the oldest of Aziz's sons, Saud. The new post was one of tremendous responsibility, because it came at a time when the country's oil riches were beginning to fund a major modernization effort, but hardline clerics objected to secular education. Despite the objections, Fahd managed to establish a network of schools and even separate ones for girls. Along the way, he reportedly enhanced his own limited education with the help of private tutors. After 1962 he served as minister of the interior under his brother, King Faisal, who had succeeded Saud to the throne.
In March of 1975, Faisal was assassinated by a nephew, and Fahd's half-brother Khalid became king. Three months later, Fahd was designated crown prince, or next in the line of succession. He began to exert influence on Saudi Arabia's domestic and foreign policy, meeting with world leaders such as U.S. president Jimmy Carter, and ascended to the throne on June 13, 1982, after Khalid's death.
Fahd spent the next dozen years of his reign engaged in delicate balancing acts on several fronts. There was a division between the country's still-powerful clerics and a growing middle class, who clamored for some semblance of democratic government. Fahd made some concessions to the powerful clerics, most notably in the continuance of Saudi Arabia's strict religious codes and restrictions on women. Outside the kingdom, Saudi Arabia was the world's largest oil exporter and, as such, was courted by a succession of U.S. presidents and secretaries of state. American support for Israel, however, made many Arabs uneasy with befriending the Jewish state's most important ally. Fahd tried to placate both sides by donating generously to the Palestinian cause, while also buying millions of dollars worth of high-tech weaponry from the United States. The presence of U.S. military bases in the kingdom was troubling to some devout Saudis, who lived in a land long hostile to outsiders and intolerant of any creed save for Wahhabism.
During the first Gulf War, U.S. forces mobilized for the attack on Iraqi-occupied Kuwait at those bases inside Saudi Arabia, which offended devout Muslims worldwide. One who resented the aid given to a foreign, largely Christian army for its attack on a Muslim nation was a Saudi exile, Osama bin Laden, whose fundamentalist organization would eventually launch deadly terrorist attacks around the world, including ones on Saudi soil.
A heavyset man who had been known for his fast-living lifestyle in the capitals of Europe during his younger years, Fahd suffered from diabetes and his health declined considerably following a 1995 stroke. A half-brother, Abdullah, took over an increasing number of executive duties as Crown Prince. Fahd was hospitalized in May of 2005 for pneumonia, and died in Riyadh on August 1, at an age estimated between 82 and 84 years old. He had eight sons by three wives, and all wives and seven of the sons survive him. The kingdom he ruled, officially, for 23 years had witnessed unprecedented changes since his boyhood, but Fahd was mindful of the reasons behind its rise as a world power. In a telephone conversation secretly taped by Iraqi intelligence services, he told an official of the Qatar government that "when we were poor, when we rode donkeys and had difficulty finding a few dates to eat, no one asked about us," he said, according to his London Times obituary. "They only acknowledge us now because we have money." Sources: Chicago Tribune, August 2, 2005, sec. 1, p. 2; Los Angeles Times, August 2, 2005, p. A1, p. A8; New York Times, August 2, 2005, p. C16; Times (London), August 2, 2005, p. 41; Washington Post, August 2, 2005, p. A1, p. A10.
— Carol Brennan