King Fahd Of Saudi Arabia

Shrewd and cautious autocrat who presided over his country's retrenchment
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The Independent Online

Even the critics of Saudi Arabia - and there are many - would probably admit that its physical and economic transformation over the last 60 years has been an astounding achievement. When the Second World War ended, Saudi Arabia was roughly at the stage which the Scottish Highlands had reached in 1745. It is now a welfare state with schools, universities, roads, airports, hospitals, television, supermarkets and all the other accoutrements of modern technology.

King Fahd had presided over the past 30 or so years of this process. His father King Abdul Aziz (known in the West as Ibn Saud) had laid its foundations. Fahd's older brother, King Faisal, put the finances in order, set out the principles on which it would be managed and chose the builders. Fahd, who succeeded to the throne in 1982, drew the plans and saw that they were carried out. True, the massive rises in the price of oil in 1973 and 1979 ensured that there was money to pay for the construction and to hire the expert advisers. But it was under Fahd's supervision that the policies and the strategic decisions were translated into action.

The remarkable thing was that he had little or no education in the modern sense. Born in 1921, Fahd grew to manhood in an Arabia scarcely changed from the days of the Prophet Mohamed, with little or no knowledge of the outside world. His schooling was entirely traditional: lessons from private tutors in reading, writing and the important but narrow range of Islamic subjects. There was no science, no economics, no political theory. What he did have, from the start, was the observation of his father's dextrous management of men and tribes and, as events developed, of international relations; and later, the experience of office, of travel, of contact with statesmen, conferences and international organisations.

His experience began with his appointment as Minister of Education in 1953 at the very beginning of cabinet government in Saudi Arabia, soon after the oil money began to flow. In that post he was responsible for the initial expansion of the kingdom's schools. Simultaneously he was a provincial governor, a training that led on to the Ministry of Interior, to which he was appointed in 1962. Fahd's ability was recognised - not an automatic process for he had 43 brothers, not to mention hundreds of uncles and cousins - by King Faisal, who in 1967 made him Second Deputy Prime Minister, junior only to the King himself and to the Crown Prince. From this platform he was chosen by the family, on Faisal's death in 1975, to be Crown Prince and First Deputy Prime Minister under King Khalid, another brother; and then, when Khalid died in 1982, he succeeded to the throne.

In fact, Khalid, a popular, simple and retiring man, had neither liked nor been trained for public affairs, whether as Crown Prince or as King, and so had delegated much of his authority. Fahd was, therefore, from 1967 Faisal's first lieutenant; from 1975 effectively Prime Minister; and from 1982 King and officially Prime Minister. It was during these years that Saudi Arabia took its great leap forward.

A series of five-year development plans began in 1970 and we are now finishing the seventh. These plans were prepared and carried out by a group of young (by Western standards absurdly young) technocrats, educated in the West, chosen for the most part by Faisal but nurtured by Fahd. Able, industrious, loyal, some of them have won international reputations and are a permanent credit to their patron and to his judgement of men. This economic and physical transformation was accomplished without any of the political and social upheaval which afflicted most of the Middle East. Some called this stagnation, others stability.

From the middle Eighties Fahd, as King, was faced with two serious problems. First, the substantial decline in oil prices and, for some years, in oil production, imposed a heavy strain on the economy, until then apparently invulnerable. Matters were made worse by the cost of the war over Kuwait, something like $60bn. Reserves were run down and development projects postponed. But Fahd was still criticised for heavy expenditure on military purchases, for over-generous subsidies to wheat-farming and the public services, and for the personal extravagance of the royal family. Nevertheless, for a man with only an on-the-job training in economics, he did better than some chancellors: retrenchment is a tricky option in a country where government expenditure has always been the engine of the economy.

The second problem was political. Saudi Arabia is an autocracy; although there is a cabinet, it is the king who takes all the important decisions. The worldwide call for democracy did not fail to reach the kingdom, even though in muted tones. Liberal voices were raised, seeking social change and a wider participation in the process of government and expressing disappointment in Fahd, who before he become King had himself been thought to have liberal views. Fahd felt obliged to be cautious.

At the other end of the political spectrum the religious extremists, encouraged by the resurgence of Islam throughout the world, opposed the import of Western institutions and Western values, resisted the liberals' idea of democracy and disliked Fahd's reputation, in his younger days, as a man about town. Bizarrely in a country seen by the West as the epitome of an Islamic society, they mounted a campaign (sermons in the mosques, pamphlets, patrols by religious censors) for the stricter application of Islamic rules. Fahd had to steer a delicate course, accused of weakness by the liberals and of insufficient piety by the Islamists, blamed on the one hand for repressing the women who wanted the right to drive cars and on the other for being too close to infidel foreigners.

In these circumstances it required courage to take some difficult decisions: for example, to invite Western forces into the kingdom to deal with the Kuwait crisis in 1990; to establish in 1993 the Majlis-al-Shura (consultative council), a step, however modest, towards the sharing of power; to issue warnings and even dismissals to some of the more vehement religious officials. In these and other matters Fahd followed the policy of his predecessor and mentor, King Faisal: never get too far ahead of public opinion. He knew that the Saudi people are deeply conservative and, although his own instincts were probably more liberal, he believed that change must be gradual. A step could be taken, but then there must be a pause while the water was tested.

Fahd was an autocrat in that he took the decisions, even on small matters, and delegated little; but he was at pains to find out what his people were thinking and he seldom went contrary to what he learned. I remember in the early Eighties he was being urged by his ministers to increase the tariffs for electricity, which were below the cost of production. The advice was economically sound but he rejected it, because he knew the increase would be unpopular. Only perhaps in his insistence on keeping close to the Americans did he run counter to public opinion - and then because he judged that the alliance was essential to the kingdom's security. In that judgement the Kuwait crisis showed he had been right.

He was not an intellectual and probably could never have been one, even if he had had the requisite education. But he listened to those who were, and he had a shrewdness of his own and a judgement acquired by the experience of conducting business at the highest level over a period of 40 years. He was sometimes accused of lack of application and it is true that, perhaps because of declining health, he worked in fits and starts - a weakness that caused problems for his ministers, given his reluctance to delegate. He did not win the reverence that was granted to Faisal nor the warm affection in which Khalid was widely held. But he was affable and his authority was unchallenged until in recent years his health grew increasingly frail and he was obliged to withdraw from active administration. His half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah became in effect the regent after Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, but deference to Fahd's kingship continued and all important decisions were referred to him for formal approval.

The problems posed by the Islamic extremists (which now include terrorist violence, stimulated by the Iraq affair and by Osama bin Laden) have become more severe and are likely to continue under the new king. Crown Prince Abdullah (who is only two years younger than Fahd) has taken over without dispute and Prince Sultan, Minister of Defence and Fahd's full brother, will be the new Crown Prince.

In the best tradition of his people, Fahd was a generous host to his many foreign visitors, whose purpose was often to ask for favours. He represented his father at the Queen's Coronation and was invested by her as GCMG during his State Visit in 1987. He was married several times and had at least nine children. His eldest son, Faisal, was President of Youth Welfare before he died young, and another, Mohammed, is Governor of the Eastern Province.

James Craig