RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, who moved his country closer to the United States but ruled the world’s largest oil producing nation in name only since suffering a stroke in 1995, died early Monday, the Saudi royal court said. He was said to be 84.
Crown Prince Abdullah, the king’s 81-year-old half brother and the country’s de factor ruler, was appointed the new monarch.
“With all sorrow and sadness, the royal court in the name of his highness Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and all members of the family announces the death of the custodian of the two holy mosques, King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz,” according to a statement read on state-run Saudi TV by the country’s information minister.
Fahd died at approximately 2:30 a.m. EDT, a senior Saudi official in Washington told The Associated Press.
President Bush was alerted within minutes of Fahd’s death, the official said on condition of anonymity. The king’s funeral was to be held Tuesday evening, he said.
Saudi TV, which said the king was 84 years of age, broke into regular broadcasting to announce Fahd’s death. Quranic verse recitals followed the announcement by the minister, Iyad bin Amin Madani, whose voice wavered with emotion as he read the statement.
Madani said only that the king, whose exact date of birth wasn’t known, died of an illness.
Fahd died at the King Faisal Specialist Hospital in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where he was admitted on May 27 for unspecified medical tests, an official at the hospital told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
At the time of his widely publicized hospitalization that caused concern home and abroad, officials said he was suffering from pneumonia and a high fever.
The Saudi statement said the new King Abdullah announced that his half brother and the Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, 77, would be the nation’s next crown prince.
During his rule, the portly, goateed Fahd, who rose to the throne in 1982, inadvertently helped fuel the rise of Islamic extremism by making multiple concessions to hard-liners, hoping to boost his Islamic credentials. But then he also brought the kingdom closer to the United States and agreed to a step that enraged many conservatives: the basing of U.S. troops on Saudi soil after the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
In his last years, Fahd was more of a figurehead than the actual ruler — so he was sidelined as the close relationship he nurtured with the United States deteriorated after the Sept. 11 attacks. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, and many in the U.S. administration blamed kingdom’s strict Wahabi school of Islam for fueling terrorism.
Abdullah oversaw the crackdown on Islamic militants after followers of Saudi-born
Osama bin Laden launched a wave of attacks, beginning with the May 2003 bombings of Western residential compounds in Riyadh. Abdullah also pushed a campaign against extremist teaching and preaching and introduced the kingdom’s first elections ever — municipal polls held in early 2005.
And Abdullah — who before coming to power had not been happy with Saudi Arabia’s close alliance with and military dependence on the United States and Washington’s perceived bias toward
Israel — rebuilt the kingdom’s ties with the U.S. He visited President Bush twice at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, most recently in April 2005.
Visitors who saw King Fahd after his 1995 stroke reported he was barely aware of what was going on around him. Foreign dignitaries usually were allowed brief meetings with him, their visits lasting only as long as it took to film TV footage for the state-run stations.
On newscasts, the king was shown seated as he extended his hand to visitors or sipped coffee. Occasionally, policy statements, comments or speeches were issued in his name, and he was shown chairing ministerial meetings when Abdullah was out of town.
Fahd was proclaimed the fifth king of Saudi Arabia on June 13, 1982, three years after two events that would fuel the rise of Islamic extremism in Saudi Arabia.
In 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini founded the Islamic Republic in Shiite
Iran and, in the same year, radical Muslims briefly took over the holy mosque in Mecca, proclaiming the royal family not Islamic enough to rule.
Those developments, coupled with the king’s reputation as a former gambler and womanizer, made the liberal-leaning Fahd move toward appeasing the country’s powerful religious establishment, including the morals police who enforce the strict social codes that oblige women to veil and ban men and women from mingling.
Saudi Arabia did not want Shiite Iran to be seen as more Islamic than the Sunni kingdom, birthplace of Islam. So Fahd took the title “custodian of the two holy mosques” — referring to Islam’s holiest shrines at Mecca and Medina — and he poured millions of dollars into the religious establishment and into enlarging fundamentalist universities.
In the 1980s, Riyadh, Washington and Islamabad, Pakistan, mobilized Islam to fight Soviet occupiers of
Afghanistan. Millions of Saudi riyals were donated to that effort and thousands of Saudis joined the jihad, including bin Laden, in a recruitment drive encouraged by the government. The king’s official biography says Fahd was “an ardent supporter” of the Afghan mujahedeen.
But after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Fahd, like U.S. and Pakistani officials, gave little attention to the mujahedeen, who turned that country into a training ground for their attacks, including the 9/11 suicide hijackings.
Earlier in his rule, Fahd was credited with turning Saudi Arabia into one of the Middle East’s most modern states.
When Iraqi leader
Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and looked like he also might take Saudi Arabia, Fahd was persuaded by the United States to allow hundreds of thousands of U.S. and other Western troops, including women, into his insular, rigidly Muslim kingdom to face the Iraqis.
The move was sharply criticized by fundamentalist Muslims who oppose Western influence and spawned the first potent opposition to Fahd’s rule. Demonstrations were quelled and hundreds of clerics detained. Radicals set off bombs at two U.S. military posts in Saudi Arabia in 1995 and 1996, killing 25 Americans.
Bin Laden, who had earlier been stripped of his Saudi citizenship by Fahd’s government, was incensed the Saudis opted to rely on Western troops for protection, spurning his offer to use the mujahedeen who had fought in Afghanistan to liberate Kuwait. He became even more determined in his opposition to the Saudi royal family.
The stroke left Fahd with short-term memory loss and an inability to concentrate for long stretches. Even before the stroke, Fahd suffered from arthritis, diabetes and a bad knee.
Fahd, the son of the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, King Abdul-Aziz, got an elementary school education with a heavy emphasis on religion at a school set up by Abdul-Aziz for his 42 sons.
He loved the good life and traveled often, enjoying years of high living. But when he was in his late 20s, he was summoned and told that to maintain his place in the succession he had to shape up.
In 1953, he became the nation’s first education minister, laying the foundation for a nationwide school system that grew from 30,000 students to over 3.2 million students today enrolled in seven universities, 83 colleges and over 18,000 schools throughout the country.
In 1962, he became interior minister and then crown prince in 1975 when King Faisal was slain by a deranged nephew. Fahd was de factor ruler during the seven-year reign of his brother Khaled, a devout and apolitical man, and took the throne formally at Khaled’s death in 1982.
The monarch always appeared in the traditional flowing white robe and “mishlah” — the camel-colored cape adorned with spun gold. He was a night-owl who slept during the day and often opened weekly ministerial meetings near midnight. His short working hours and centralized style — he insisted on approving even minor details — left a constant bottleneck of paperwork.
Details about Fahd’s private life are little known, but he is believed to have had three wives and eight sons. His eldest son, Faisal, died in 1999 of a heart attack.