The Late Saudi King Fahd: A Mixed Legacy

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¶1. (C) Summary: A chief architect of Saudi Arabia’s
transformation from feudal monarchy to modernizing nation
state, the late King Fahd will be remembered above all as a
modernizer — a ruler who pushed his subjects to abandon
their feudal insularity and join the modern world– and an
institution-builder. Fahd did more than any other Saudi king
to develop Saudi political institutions; the group of reforms
decreed in 1992 were the most comprehensive modernization of
the Kingdom’s political structure since its founding in 1932.
He should also be remembered as a steadfast ally of the U.S.
who played an important role against communism, for
Arab-Israeli peace, and for stability in the Gulf region.

¶2. (C) His domestic legacy, however, is a mixed one, for some
of the most pressing problems the Kingdom faces today find
their genesis in the late King’s policy choices. Lacking the
religious stature and authority to contain conservative
religious elements, he was obliged to allow one of the most
crucial building blocks of a modern nation state — the
education system — to remain in the hands of reactionary
religious conservatives who saw no need to give the Kingdom’s
burgeoning youth the skills necessary to allow the country to
overcome its heavy dependence on foreign labor.

¶3. (C) The late King’s personal profligacy and inability or
unwillingness to control the greed and excesses of the royal
family, particularly during the downturn in oil prices in the
1980s, resulted in economic hardship for many average Saudis
and eroded popular support for the royal family. His
indecisiveness when facing the economic crises that began in
1986 led him to postpone making many of the necessary hard
choices required to restructure the Saudi economy. Most
strikingly, during his reign, public sector debt grew for a
time from zero to a level exceeding GDP, although the SAG has
now paid it down to half of GDP. End summary.

The Essential Fahd

¶4. (C) Born circa 1921, Fahd was the eleventh son of King Abd
Al-Aziz bin Abd Al-Rahman Al Saud, who founded the modern
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Following the death of Abd
Al-Aziz in 1953, the Kingdom was led by Fahd’s elder brothers
Saud (1953-1964), Faisal (1964-1975), and Khalid (1975-1982)
before Fahd became king in June 1982. Fahd’s future role in
world politics was foreshadowed when he accompanied Faisal to
the San Francisco conference in 1945 that established the UN.
Having served as governor of Al-Jawf province and then
Minister of Education, he was named Minister of Interior in
1962. King Faisal’s assassination in 1975 led to Khalid’s
accession and Fahd’s promotion to crown prince and deputy
prime minister. Although his reign officially began in 1982
upon Khalid’s death, the “Fahd era” truly began in 1975 as he
oversaw the Kingdom’s domestic and foreign policies for the
ailing and generally disinterested King Khalid.

An institution builder

¶5. (C) King Fahd did more than any other Saudi king to
develop the Kingdom’s political institutions. A group of
reforms decreed in 1992 — the Basic Law, the Laws of the
Council of Ministers, the Majlis Al-Shura law, and the
Regions — formed the most comprehensive modernization of the
Kingdom’s political structure since its founding in 1932.
The Basic Law identifies Saudi Arabia as a monarchy ruled by
descendants of Abd Al-Aziz Al Saud, with its constitution
being the Quran and the Sunna (the traditions of the Prophet
Muhammad). It sets forth the principles, rights, and duties
of the state as well as the mechanism for selecting the Crown
Prince and the roles of the executive, judicial, and
regulatory authorities. The Council of Ministers law details
the powers (and the limits) of the cabinet, led by the King
as prime minister, and grants this body executive power and
final authority in all financial and administrative affairs
of government entities. By issuing these two laws, Fahd
streamlined Saudi politics and institutionalized what had
been merely tradition — the King’s right to select and to
remove the Crown Prince and, upon the King’s death, the Crown
Prince’s automatic assumption of royal powers until pledges
of allegiance can be made to him.

¶6. (C) Both Kings Faisal and Khalid had talked about creating
a national consultative council, but it was King Fahd who
established the Majlis Al-Shura by statute in 1992 (its first
session was in 1993). The Majlis is far from a western-style
legislature; it is a fully appointed body of 120 members
enabled only to give advice based on the Quranic principles
of consultation and consensus. Majlis members debate matters
referred to them by the King and by the general public and
formulate advisory opinions for passage to the King. The
Majlis has the right to request documents from state agencies
and to summon government officials — several ministers have
appeared before the council. Through the Majlis, King Fahd
institutionalized the input of academics and technocrats into
the Saudi policy formulation process: many of its members
have doctoral degrees from U.S. universities. The Law of the
Regions, the final piece of Fahd’s 1992 reform initiative,
strengthened the role of the Interior Minister in
administering the country’s provinces and established
councils in each region similar in function to the national
Majlis Al-Shura.

¶7. (C) In addition to streamlining government institutions,
Fahd had to deal with another major domestic political task
as king — managing the royal family. To keep the rapidly
expanding Al Saud satisfied, Fahd tolerated many forms of
royal excess, from the construction by senior princes of
multiple large palaces to their increased influence in much
of the country’s commerce. The persistence of such activity
even in times of economic difficulty for most Saudis has led
part of King Fahd’s legacy to be the pervasive popular
perception of significant Al Saud corruption. While
oppositionists may have exaggerated the extent of royal greed
and excess, the fact is that Fahd’s laissez faire attitude
toward the practices of many princes — and his own
willingness to flaunt family wealth — built the foundation
for such criticism.

¶8. (C) On the other hand, whereas previous kings had faced
threats from within the Al Saud (ranging from senior princes’
defections to Nasser’s Egypt to Faisal’s assassination at the
hands of his nephew), Fahd’s reign largely was free of such
public intra-family squabbles. King Fahd’s balancing act
first involved taking care of the largest faction within the
Al Saud — his sons, his full brothers (known collectively as
the Sudayri Seven and including Defense Minister and Second
Deputy Prime Minister Sultan, Interior Minister Naif, and
Governor of Riyadh Salman), and their progeny. For example,
Fahd selected Sultan’s son Bandar for the important post of
Ambassador to the U.S., appointed his full brother Abd
Al-Rahman as Vice Defense Minister, and distributed regional
governorships to his son Muhammad (the Eastern Province) and
Sultan’s son Fahd (Tabuk). He also managed not to alienate
non-Sudayris; he retained Saud Al-Faisal as foreign minister
from Khalid’s cabinet and selected or retained in key
regional governor positions princes closer to Crown Prince
Abdullah than to himself (i.e., Majid in Mecca and Khalid
Al-Faisal in Asir).

¶9. (C) Fahd maintained the delicate societal balance between
the country’s conservative religious traditions and forces of
modernization and liberalization. Despite radical Islamic
challenges that ranged from zealots’ takeover of the Grand
Mosque in Mecca in 1979 (when Fahd was Crown Prince) to the
bombing of the headquarters of the U.S. Military Advisor to
the Saudi National Guard in 1995, Fahd was able to appease or
neutralize most religious elements through various means —
while repressing radical Islamists. Fahd expanded state
support for Islam at home and abroad and maintained most of
the kingdom’s conservative laws; he even adopted the title
“Custodian of the two Holy Mosques” in 1986 to bolster his
Islamic credentials. However, Fahd also succeeded in muting
most criticism from Saudi progressives by establishing and
subsequently expanding the Majlis Al-Shura (which has a large
technocratic component), and by appointing western-educated
technocrats to trusted cabinet positions.

A stalwart U.S. ally

¶10. (C) Fahd was a friend of the United States. From the
late 1970s until the fall of the Soviet Union, Fahd’s Saudi
Arabia was a staunch ally against communism — witnessed most
clearly in Saudi-U.S. cooperation in support of the Mujahidin
fighting the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan.
Fahd tightened the Saudi-U.S. security relationship with SAG
purchases of F-15s and AWACS aircraft in the 1980s and
supported moderation in oil prices. After Saddam Husayn’s
invasion of Kuwait, it was King Fahd — against the advice of
some leading Saudi princes — who made the ultimate decision
to invite U.S. and other foreign military forces into Saudi
Arabia to help defend the Kingdom and, eventually, to
liberate Kuwait.

¶11. (C) King Fahd played a key supporting role in the peace
process. In 1977, he made a highly publicized visit to the
U.S. to discuss the possibilities of a peace conference.
Although the hard-line Arab consensus at the Baghdad
conference in 1979 pushed the Saudis to reject the Camp David
accords between Egypt and Israel, Fahd persuaded the
conference not to apply economic sanctions to Egypt. In
1981, Fahd outlined a settlement for the conflict with Israel
(known as the “Fahd plan,” it was presented at the Arab
Summit in Fez, Morocco in 1982) that provided at least the
psychological basis for peace negotiations. More recently,
King Fahd led Saudi Arabia to participate in the Madrid
Conference and to support the Oslo and subsequent accords
between Israel and the Palestinians. In addition, Fahd
resisted Syrian pressure in 1991 and agreed to participate in
the bilateral tracking of the peace process. This paved the
way for the rest of the GCC, creating a critical mass of
participation that was pivotal in enabling the five years of
regional talks that followed.

¶12. (C) The flip side of such steady if not always lock-step
support for U.S. interests in the region is the backlash
against the U.S.-Saudi relationship that Fahd set into motion
by tightening Riyadh’s embrace of Washington. The presence
of U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia was at the core of
the violent opposition to the Al Saud advocated by Usama bin
Ladin and others. Fahd altered the bilateral strategic
relationship, bringing the U.S. from its 1970s and 1980s
“over the horizon” posture to a more visible presence posture
after 1990. Ironically, by doing what he felt necessary–
calling on U.S. military forces to enter the Kingdom in an
emergency — the late King set forces in motion that
challenged the U.S.-Saudi relationship in later years.

¶13. (C) The landscape of international relations in the Gulf
and in the wider Middle East owes much to Fahd’s regional
stability efforts. The Gulf Cooperation Council, binding
Saudi Arabia to Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the UAE,
was established with Fahd’s blessing in 1981 and has endured
largely because of Saudi leadership. Despite numerous
provocations from Tehran — including a dogfight between the
Saudi and Iranian air forces over Gulf waters in 1984 — King
Fahd kept Saudi Arabia out of the Iran-Iraq war. Fahd was
involved personally in resolving regional disagreements, such
as the feud between Qatar and Bahrain in 1986 over disputed
islands in the Gulf that probably would have led to a war
without mediation efforts initiated by Fahd. Saudi Arabia’s
restoration of relations with Egypt in 1987 set the example
for much of the Arab world to let Egypt back into the fold.
After the Gulf war in 1991, Fahd invited Cairo and Damascus,
regional rivals during the 1980s, into a largely symbolic but
enduring security dialogue with the GCC states known as the
Damascus Declaration. King Fahd also brought the Lebanese
national assembly to Taif in 1989 to sign a charter of
national reconciliation that provided the basis for Lebanon’s
political and economic recovery from years of civil war.


¶14. (C) Fahd’s legacy is mixed. Some of the most pressing
problems the Kingdom faces today find their genesis in the
late King’s policy choices. Lacking the religious stature
and authority to contain the religious right, Fahd was
obliged to allow one of the most crucial building blocks of a
modern nation state — the education system — to remain in
the hands of reactionary religious conservatives who saw no
need to give Saudi Arabia’s burgeoning youth the skills
necessary to allow the country to overcome its near complete
dependence on foreign labor. Although he was a
forward-thinking man who was full of ideas, he was
undisciplined and often failed to follow through on his own
initiatives quickly — if at all. One example among many is
the Majlis Al-Shura, the establishment of which he promised
numerous times over the years before its eventual creation.
His efforts to expand the size of the Saudi government and
centralize authority in Riyadh led to a bloated bureaucracy
and an urban sprawl. Fahd’s steps to open the Kingdom to
foreign influences, which went far beyond the measures taken
by his predecessors, energized conservative elements of Saudi
society, in a development whose effects are still being felt.

¶15. (C) However, one would be hard pressed to overstate the
imprint Fahd has left on Saudi domestic and international
politics. His fading from the day-to-day management of the
government over the past 10 years following his 1995 stroke
does not diminish his accomplishments since the 1970s, and
his death allows us to take a look back and realize to what
extent Saudi political institutions and the U.S.-Saudi
relationship grew out of his initiatives and policies.
Fahd’s policy errors and health problems later in life cannot
overshadow the extent to which he shaped the modern Kingdom
of Saudi Arabia and its foreign and domestic policies.