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Last Updated: Monday, 1 August 2005, 10:14 GMT 11:14 UK
Life and legacy of King Fahd

By Paul Wood
BBC defence correspondent

President George Bush and King Fahd in Riyadh, November 1990

For some, the most memorable image of Fahd bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud is as a young prince, emerging from a casino on the French Riviera in the early hours of the morning, an actress on each arm.

People remember him wearing an expensively cut Western suit and gazing out confidently, not in the least troubled by the wholly un-Islamic combination of drink, women and gambling.

This was not, of course, an aspect of the King's past which could be openly discussed in the Saudi media. But everyone knew the rumours.

There were stories of all night sessions at seedy clubs in Beirut, of affairs with belly dancers, and of the wife of a Lebanese businessman paid $100,000 a year to make herself available.

Then in 1969, Fahd was said to have lost $1,000,000 in a single dusk-to-dawn marathon of Scotch-fuelled gambling at the tables of a Monte Carlo nightclub.

He was summoned back to Riyadh by his brother, the then King Faisal Abdul Aziz ibn Saud.

Faisal was a complete contrast to his playboy brother: modest, religious and dedicated to public service.

According to court gossip, Faisal was at a public dinner when Fahd arrived.

He refused to acknowledge his wayward brother's presence and Fahd had to stand at the table, just beside the King's chair, waiting for a full hour in silence while everyone at the dinner watched.

'Larger than life'

Fahd was said never to have forgiven Faisal for this humiliation.

There were rumours at the time - which still circulate in Arabic language chat rooms - that Fahd had something to do with Faisal's assassination by a disturbed young man in 1975.

Like most court gossip, that remains an un-proven allegation and it was certainly not acted upon by the royal family's inner circle.

Fahd did not get the throne immediately but he was made Crown Prince.

After a short period ruling as king, in 1986 he changed his title to Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, a reference to Islam's two most sacred places, which both lie in Saudi Arabia, in Mecca and Medina.

The break with his playboy past could not have been more complete.

Fahd had been an activist Crown Prince, and before that both interior minister and education minister.

His party-going former life had at least left him with the ability to talk to anyone, and that helped him as king.

"Fahd was a larger than life character who, before his illness, was widely regarded as ruling his country with a common touch," said the British ambassador in Riyadh, Sherard Cowper-Coles, who had met Fahd many times.

Gulf war

King Fahd was especially active in international diplomacy.

He tried to end the 15-year civil war in Lebanon by bringing the leaders of the warring factions together for talks in the Saudi city of Taif.

Attack on al-Muhaya compound near Riyadh, November 2003
Islamic militants seek the royal family's overthrow
In 1981, he drew up a peace plan for the Middle East that was adopted at an Arab League summit the following year.

That plan was revived at the 2002 Arab League as an offer of lasting peace with Israel in exchange for the return of Palestinian lands.

And following the 1990 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq, Fahd took the momentous decision to allow US forces to be based in the Kingdom.

That decision was taken amid fears that Saddam might invade Saudi Arabia, too.

But it outraged many of the Kingdom's conservative religious clerics, who are crucial for the Royal family's legitimacy in the eyes of the Saudi subjects.

Militant threat

It reverberates today, with al-Qaeda's campaign in the Kingdom fuelled by hatred of the United States and the dislike that many ordinary Saudis feel for their royal family's close ties to it.

Al-Qaeda has never, yet, dared to strike directly at any member of the royal family in Saudi Arabia, or even tried to blow up one of their palaces.

But the Saudi royals recognise that the militants' campaign is aimed at them as much as the US.

So over the past two years, since May 2003 and the first big bomb attacks claimed by al-Qaeda, the security forces have been waging a serious counter terrorism campaign.

It has succeeded in killing 23 out of 26 on the most wanted list in the Kingdom.

"Al-Qaeda in the Kingdom is in serious disarray. That's what they are saying to each other on the internet. They may regenerate but they are going to find it difficult," said one senior Western source in the Kingdom.

Asked about claims that the security forces were riddled with al-Qaeda sympathisers, the source added: "The anti-terror forces here are very competent. There are a small dedicated band of officers who have run this campaign very well.

"They watch the armed forces very closely for the kind of Islamist penetration that killed Sadat [the Egyptian president assassinated in 1980]. Of course, you cannot rule out an individual Islamist under deep cover... but an officer-led coup is very unlikely."

Democracy clampdown

It might have been a strategy for the royal family to build up the country's democratic forces as a counter balance to al-Qaeda, but Fahd's rule has been a disappointment to those who hoped there might be real liberalisation.

In June, three academics who signed a petition calling for elections were given jail sentences of between six and 10 years each.

People who took part in small demonstrations just this year in Riyadh and Jeddah were arrested and given 100 lashes each.

During those demonstrations, police and special interior ministry troops were out in force.

"It looked like we were going to war," said one Saudi friend who took her courage in her hands and attended the demonstration in Riyadh.

There were rumours - that court gossip again - that King Fahd had been moved out of the capital in case things got out of hand.

It was never much of a possibility given that as few as 100 people turned up to the small protests.

"The royal family overreact to perceived threats," said a Western official in Riyadh who knows many senior royals well.

"When people in Washington talk about an Arab Spring, it doesn't feel like that here. It feels like things are changing very slowly. Change will only happen when the succession switches from the horizontal to the vertical. That could be many years away."

Next in line is Crown Prince Abdullah, and after that Prince Sultan, the defence minister.

Real change in Saudi Arabia may have to wait until the throne has skipped a generation or two.


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