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Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd dies at 84

Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, who moved his country closer to the United States but ruled in name only since suffering a stroke a decade ago, has died, Saudi officials said. He was 84.
King Fahd of Saudi Arabia is shown in a September 1990 file photo.Tannen Maury / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd, who cultivated a close relationship between his oil-rich nation and the United States died early Monday, the Saudi royal court said. He was 84.

Since Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, the king's half brother Crown Prince Abdullah, had been Saudi Arabia’s de factor ruler. Abdullah was appointed the country’s new monarch upon news of Fahd's death.

“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 about 2:30 a.m. ET, a senior Saudi official in Washington told The Associated Press. President Bush was alerted within minutes of Fahd’s death, the official told The AP on condition of anonymity. The king’s funeral was to be held Tuesday evening, he said.

President Bush called newly appointed King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia on Monday to express condolences over the death of King Fahd and to congratulate Abdullah on his succession to the throne.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who announced the phone call, said a U.S. delegation would attend Fahd’s funeral. He said the delegation hadn’t been chosen yet. Bush will not attend the services, McClellan said.

Saudi TV broke with 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 died of an illness.

Fahd died at 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 AP on condition of anonymity because news of the monarch’s death had not been officially announced at the time.

At the time of his widely publicized hospitalization that caused concern at home and abroad, officials said he was suffering from pneumonia and a high fever.

Rise of extremism
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.

The close relationship Fahd 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 the strict strain of Islam that has developed in Saudi Arabia, called Wahabism, for fueling terrorism.

Crown Prince Abdullah has led the country’s battle against Islamic extremism and terrorism. Abdullah oversaw a 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 introduced the kingdom’s first elections ever — municipal polls held in early 2005.

Stronger U.S. ties
Before assuming power, Abdullah had not been happy with Saudi Arabia’s close military alliance with Washington and a perceived bias toward Israel, but has recently 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.

King Fahd of Saudia Arabia, right, and the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz, left, are seen in this 1981 photo taken in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. King Fahd, who moved his country closer to the United States but ruled in name only since suffering a stroke in 1995, died early Monday, Aug. 1, 2005, the Saudi royal court said. He was 84. Crown Prince Abdullah, the king's half brother and Saudi Arabia's de factor ruler, was appointed the country's new monarch. (AP Photo/Saleh Rifai, File)Saleh Rifai / AP

Visitors who saw King Fahd after his stroke reported he was barely aware of what was going on around him and could not recognize those who shook hands with 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.

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.

Trying to take the initiative
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 mobilized Islam to fight Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan. Rihayd donated generously 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 despite resistance from Islamic fundamentalists and tribal powers.

In 1985, his nephew, Prince Sultan bin Salman, went into space aboard the U.S. shuttle Discovery as the first Arab and Muslim astronaut.

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 into his country to fend off the Iraqis.

The move 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, became even more determined in his opposition to the Saudi royal family.

The Persian Gulf crisis also cost Saudi Arabia financially. The $60 billion bill, coupled with lower oil prices, forced Fahd to scale back popular social benefits — things like free education, free medical treatment and free lots for homes and businesses. It was only in late 2004, amid high oil prices, that the Saudi Cabinet declared its first deficit-free budget in nearly a decade.

The stroke left Fahd with short-term memory loss and an inability to concentrate for long stretches. Fahd also suffered from arthritis, diabetes and a bad knee. The overweight monarch got around in a wheelchair and used a cane for short walks in his later years.

He underwent eye cataract surgery once in 2002 in Geneva and a year later in Riyadh. A few days before the Geneva surgery, he was operated on to remove a blood clot from one of his eyes.

A monarch's life
Fahd, one of 42 sons 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 his father.

He traveled often and enjoyed years of high living. But when he was in his late 20s, he was 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 at all levels.

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 — created 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.