King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz’s demise on August 2 was an important event even though he was incapacitated by a series of strokes beginning in 1995. Soon after the earlier strokes he had begun to work, moving around in a wheel chair and, occasionally with the help of a stick. For a while it seemed as if he would remain functional for some years to come.
However, his extra weight, diabetes and arthritis made the recovery tougher. In the meanwhile, the diplomatic circles in Riyadh talked about the king being afflicted with Alzheimer’s as well, which alone would be sufficient to ground anyone. His trusted brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, assisted him in the earlier post-1995 phase. Gradually, as King Fahd’s health deteriorated, Prince Abdullah’s responsibilities grew.
Over the last four to five decades, the desert kingdom had been developing at a furious clip. As a result, today it has world class infrastructure, free education, health services and a system of cradle-to-grave welfare of its citizens, who are used to a high standard of living. Although the kingdom had experienced an economic boom since the early 60s, King Fahd’s role in expanding the infrastructure, securing the state from external and internal threats and managing social change deftly, has rightly been appreciated worldwide.
Change is inevitable in any society. It is only when the pace of change is too fast that an extraordinarily resilient and competent leadership is required to manage that change and prevent resultant upheaval. The pace of modernisation (we call it “modernisation” because of a lack of any other appropriate term) in Saudi Arabia has been so fast that a single generation born in tribal desert society grew up in a developed “modern society”, with abundant food, drinks, four-lane highways, sleek cars, shopping malls, and a first-world income level. The Saudis had begun to send their youth to European and American universities in large numbers way back in early 60s. They were also building their own institutions in the meanwhile.
The number of Saudi students in foreign universities kept growing. Contrary to some malicious reports in Western media, King Fahd was a highly focused leader, deeply familiar with diplomatic nuances, people’s cultural sensitivities, their economic aspirations and the intricacies of geopolitics. He had slowly started learning the finer points of managing conflicting tribal interests, reconciling the contradictory demands of tradition and modernity, and securing the Saudi state from regional conflicts, international pressures and the rise of anti-monarchy forces within the county. Way back in 1945, he attended the founding convention of the UN on his father’s orders. Since then he had been active in state affairs. He began his career as a state governor state under his father.
Born in 1923, Fahd bin Abdul Aziz had the opportunity to see his father working for 30 years. On his father’s death in 1953 his elder brother Saud bin Abdul Aziz took over as king.
He kept a life-long interest in education, particularly women’s education. The result is visible today as more than half of the highly educated Saudis are women. That welcome change has brought in pressures of its own as a tradition-bound society finds it sometimes difficult to cope with the balancing of modernity with tradition, national interests with regional and international pressures, Islamic interests with global peace and stability in which the monarch’s greatness lay.
The real test of his statesmanship came when tumbling oil prices brought down Saudi incomes to one-third of the boom days of the 70s. In 1986, Saudi oil prices were slashed down to $10 a barrel from 30 dollars a barrel, for which the charismatic petroleum minister Ahmad Zaki al-Yamani was sacked. With great sagacity the king kept the economy afloat at a time when the kingdom found it hard to pay its bills. In another smart move he acquired a far greater source of authority and international legitimacy by taking on the title of Khadim Haramain Sharifain (Custodian of the Two Holy Shrines).
The economic downturn was not easy to handle even for the brightest of leaders. It necessitated austerity measures for which a society accustomed to living in great comfort was not prepared. It is a testimony to his leadership mettle that he built a consensus to accept austerity measures. His brother Crown Prince Abdullah, being the head of national guards (in which all tribes are very well represented), too, was of great help. The House of Saud had traditionally good relations with the House of Mohammad bin Abdul Wahhab Najadi, which has the religious leadership of a sizeable chunk of the population. This made it easier for the royal family to get the support of the House of Abdul Wahhab in crisis situation. Other ulema, including the famous Abdullah bin Baaz stood by the royal family in crisis. The ulema’s support was also crucial in obtaining consensus for stationing of US troops on Saudi soil during the first Gulf War. This move, however, turned out to be unpopular in the long run.
September 11 attacks on the US brought new challenges to the royal family. The fact that 15 out of 19 attackers were of Saudi origin did not make matters easy. A spate of al-Qaeda attacks within Saudi Arabia presented the ruling family with more challenges. The Americans pointed out that al-Qaeda was misusing some of the charities created to support worldwide construction of mosques, madrasahs and other charitable institutions. The royal family discovered that some of the funds had actually been appropriated by the people creating havoc in Saudi Arabia as well as all over the world. That made them exert a tighter control on funding of charities.
Through institutions like the Muslim World League, Islamic Development Bank and the OIC the monarchy did try to help Muslim communities worldwide and resolve some serious military conflicts between different countries.
Throughout his reign Kind Fahd was deeply concerned over the condition of Palestinians. He believed that only American intervention would bring the Israelis to the negotiating table. The present American Road Map for Israel-Palestine contains some of the features of an earlier peace plan offered by King Fahd. Now that he is not there, the world is realising his role in the stability of Middle East and his services to Islam and Muslim world as a whole.g