To Saudis, King Fahd falls short of ideal
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — The writer recently returned to the United States after living in Saudi Arabia for several years. This second of three articles draws on contacts with the government and the royal family. For Saudi Arabia's new middle class, the ascension of Fahd ibn Abdel Aziz al-Saud to the throne in the summer of 1982 heralded an era of political opportunity.
With Fahd in power, the middle class felt, the major political struggle in Saudi Arabia -- the progressive wing of the royal family led by Fahd vs. the conservative wing led by Crown Prince Abdullah -- would tilt toward the progressives.
But after more than two years on the throne, Fahd appears thwarted by his own character, intrafamily feuds, and a mountain of problems that descended on the country at the time he became king.
The fortunes of the House of Saud are important to the United States because Saudi Arabia has consistently been the US's best friend in the turbulent Persian Gulf region.
Whatever its perceived shortcomings, the royal family's most severe critics concede that it has done an admirable job in leading Saudi Arabia through the tumultuous oil boom. The US wants to see that stability continue.
Some of Fahd's problems arise from the arduous demands the Saudi people put on their king. The king is the embodiment of the old tribal sheikh who was chosen by his people because of his piety, generosity, leadership, and courage. The image of the ruler is paramount to his ability to rule. King Fahd's image falls short of the ideal.
Although his life style is not excessive compared with that of other Mideast monarchs, it appears so to the puritanical Saudi people, reared in the cradle of Islam.
Many educated Saudis point to the grandiose palaces King Fahd builds as tangible evidence of his elaborate life style. His palace on Spain's Costa del Sol has made Marbella an international playground, and he has also added Geneva to his European residences.
Western diplomatic sources here say that Fahd dislikes life in Riyadh, the capital, because of the strict demands it places on his conduct. To escape the eyes of the religious authorities, the King maintains a yacht the size of a luxury liner off the coast at Jiddah. Huge gates of black iron grillwork lead out to an island where the yacht is moored. This floating palace purportedly allows the King to stay in the country and at the same time live as he wishes.
Perhaps the grandest of Fahd's buildings is the new official residence going up between Riyadh and Diriyah, the original capital of the al-Saud family. The new structure is a small city enclosed by high, thick, fortified walls that run for several miles. This style is a throwback to the time of King Saud, deposed by the family in 1964.
During King Saud's reign, the land of the Sauds was encircled by a bright pink wall which was entered through the Nassiriyah Gate. When Faisal became king in 1964, he ordered the walls demolished, declaring they separated the king from his people. The Nassiriyah Gate was left standing as a historical landmark. Fahd has even remodeled it.
Saudi people, who are highly reticent about discussing politics, comment on Fahd's elaborate life style more than any other facet of his rule. Much of their criticism is directed not just at the King but at his sons, who are notorious for the size of government contracts they get and the margin of profit involved.
One of Fahd's sons, Muhammad ibn Fahd, is the most visible royal businessman, with enormous telecommunications interests. Another son, Faisal, is president of Youth Welfare, a division of government that Saudi bureaucrats regard as a particularly lucrative source of graft.
Fahd is a shy man who will go to great lengths to avoid confrontation. Among Western-educated Saudis in the technical bureaucracy there is a sense of disappointment in Fahd's ruling style. When he was crown prince they saw him as a decisive leader, but now, they say, he has all but disappeared from the day-to-day business of government, leaving many Council of Ministers meetings to his brother Crown Prince Abdullah.
These young bureaucrats saw Crown Prince Fahd as an energetic advocate for rising technocrats, and they expected this role to continue.
But as one long-term Western employee of the Saudi government points out, Fahd was exercising his power in a climate of unlimited wealth; the generosity of his predecessor and half-brother, King Khalid, reached all segments of society. As king, Fahd has to provide for all segments of society, a task made more difficult by shrinking oil revenues.
Part of his apparently weak performance as king can be attributed to the magnitude of the problems he faces which his predecessors did not. Some political observers, both Saudi and Western, say that Fahd has deliberately turned over more authority in domestic matters to Abdullah to allow himself to deal with the mushrooming foreign problems.
Others say that evidence is beginning to show of an evolutionary change in the Saudis' ruling system, where the crown prince assumes control of nuts-and-bolts domestic administration, leaving the king to lobby the tribes and the various interest groups that keep the Sauds in power.
If that is the case, the people as a whole are not responding well to Fahd. Although he has a good sense of humor and great charm in person, he elicits little devotion from his subjects. King Khalid identified closely with the Bedouin mentality, and Crown Prince Abdullah has his alliances with the traditionalists in the country. But Fahd's only identity has been with the technocrats, who have not found their way into the power configuration, and with the emerging middle class.
As long as the interests of the middle class did not clash with the prerogatives of the royal family, Fahd could push to expand the political input of nonroyal family members. With the shrinking of oil revenues and the process of painful choices that the Saudi government is having to make, the royals and nonroyals are clashing. The old political configuration of Fahd and the progressives against Abdullah and the conservatives has collapsed.