The terrible legacy of the man who failed the world
By Robert Fisk - 02 August 2005
So the old man will be buried this afternoon on the
edge of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in a desert
graveyard of no memorials.
The strict Wahhabi tradition - to which, of course,
that far more famous Saudi, Osama bin Laden, belongs -
demands no statues, no gravestones, no slabs. So Fahd
will be laid in the desert sand, his head touching the
earth, covered over and left for the after-life. Not a
single stone will mark his place.
Would that some of our own great leaders would suffer
such humility - if less ostentatiously so - on their
King Fahd of Saudi Arabia has died after 22 years on
the throne. His successor, Crown Prince Abdullah, will
formally take his place tomorrow.
But the old king really died in 1995, when an embolic
stroke disabled him, paralysed his mind, befuddled his
senses - the 84-year-old Keeper of the Two Holy Places
would often ask servants to pour coffee for Muslim
guests during Ramadan - when drinking and eating is
forbidden in the hours of daylight.
In effect, his half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah has
been "king" since then and, now aged 82, is still, as
the cliché goes, "clinging to power". Another
half-brother - and all these half-brothers reflect the
Bedouin background of the Saudi monarchy - Prince
Sultan Abdul Aziz, will be the new crown prince. And
he is already 81.
Those who claim the Saudi royal family is led by
sclerotic old men have a point - but perhaps they do
not go far enough. Like the massive Muslim oil nation
to the north, Iran, Saudi Arabia has become a
necrocracy: government by, with and for the dead.
For years, we had been saying that Fahd would die - at
his massive family palace in Andalusia (he knew, of
course, that this was once part of a fine Arab empire)
or on his gorgeous, preposterous, jet airliners, their
interiors designed to look like Arab tents, or just in
that hideously famous swimming pool. He suffered from
pneumonia and a high fever, officials would insist.
Anything else was "malicious speculation" - which
meant that it was all true.
This was the man, however, who had funded the Arab
legions against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in
1979 when, as we know, Bin Laden took the role of
"prince" because Fahd’s real princes, including 7,000
official and unofficial ones, preferred the bars of
Monaco or the whores of Paris to drawing the sword for
the religion in whose lands stood their greatest
shrines, Mecca and Medina.
And it was this same Fahd who brought down upon the
Arab Gulf - and eventually upon the Americans - the
wrath of Bin Laden and his al-Qa’ida, by asking the US
to send troops to protect the land of the Prophet
after Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. And
his fate might have been to have died in an
assassination before; but it’s difficult to murder an
already dead man.
This was the king who had poured his vast coffers into
Saddam Hussein’s war chest against Iran, studiously
saying nothing about the gassing of up to 60,000
Iranian soldiers and civilians during that conflict,
in the hope that the Beast of Baghdad (our friend at
the time, needless to say) would overthrow that far
more terrible beast, the revolutionary Ayatollah
When Saddam arrived in Kuwait, Fahd wrote him a
letter, reminding him of how much the Saudis had
contributed to his brutal war against Iraq. "Oh Ruler
of Iraq," Fahd wrote, "the Kingdom extended to your
country $25,734,469,885. 80 cents." Analysing that
sum, I once calculated the figure issued by Fahd
courtiers was out by a dollar and a cent. By contrast,
Fahd’s bankers calculated they spent $27.5bn on paying
for America’s liberation of Kuwait - slightly more
than they paid to Saddam.
It was Fahd and the Pakistanis who had, on America’s
behalf, helped to arm the militias of Afghanistan
against the Soviet Union and - disgusted by the
victors’ feuding - supported Mullah Omar’s Wahhabi
army of self-righteous peasant clerics, the Taliban.
Under Fahd, the kingdom poured millions into the
madrassas in Pakistan which have made the news again
following 7 July. The Taliban (like some of the London
suicide bombers) were an authentic product of
Wahhabism, the strict, pseudo-reformist Islamist state
faith of Saudi Arabia founded by the 18th cleric
Mohamed Ibn Abdul-Wahab.
Journalists like to claim that Wahhabism is
"obscurantist" but it is not true. Abdul-Wahab was not
a great thinker or philosopher but, for his followers,
he was a near-saint. Waging war on fellow Muslims who
had erred was an obligatory part of his philosophy,
whether they be the "deviant" Shia Muslims of Basra -
whom he vainly attempted to convert to Sunni Islam
(they chucked him out) - or Arabians who did not
follow his own exclusive interpretation of Muslim
unity. But he also proscribed rebellion against
rulers. His orthodoxy threatened the modern-day House
of Saud because of its corruption, yet secured its
future by forbidding revolution. The Saudi ruling
family thus embraced the one faith which could protect
and destroy it.
Which is why all the talk in modern Saudi Arabia of
"cracking down on terror", protecting women’s rights,
lessening the power of the religious police, is so
Saudi Arabia’s role - under Fahd’s nominal leadership
- in the 11 September 2001 crimes against humanity has
still not been fully explored. While senior members of
the royal family, especially the then Crown Prince
Abdullah, who was never as convinced of America’s
foreign policy wisdom in the Middle East as Fahd,
expressed the obligatory shock and horror that was
expected of them, no attempt was made to examine the
nature of Wahhabism and its inherent contempt for all
representation of human activity or death.
The destruction of the two giant Buddhas of Bamian by
the Taliban in 2000 - along with the vandalism in the
Kabul museum, fit perfectly into the theocratic
wisdom. So too, it might be argued did the Twin Towers
of the World Trade Centre.
In 1820, the much-worshipped statues of Dhu Khalasa,
dating from the 12th century, were destroyed by
Wahhabis. Only weeks after the Lebanese Professor
Kamal Salibi suggested in the late 1990s that
once-Jewish villages in what is now Saudi Arabia might
have constituted the location of the Bible, Fahd sent
bulldozers to destroy the ancient buildings in these
Saudi religious authorities have destroyed hundreds of
historic structures in the name of religion in Mecca
and Medina, and former UN officials have condemned the
bulldozing of Ottoman buildings in Bosnia by a Saudi
aid agency backed by the Fahd government which claimed
they were "idolatrous".
So all the talk of "restive" princes, of potential
rivalries between the half-brothers now that Fahd is
dead has a kind of pseudo-importance to it. Saudi
Arabian society is not - and cannot be - a "modern"
society in our sense of the word as long as Wahhabism
holds its power. But it must be allowed to do so - to
protect the king. And since it increasingly becomes a
poor country, the Wahhabi authorities and the
religious police grow stronger.
And as we depend ever more on the Saudis to pump oil,
we are ever more silent about what is wrong in the
kingdom. Our policy towards Saudi Arabia is now
exactly what it was in Iran before the fall of the
Shah in 1979.
When he was governor of Riyadh, Prince Sultan,
according to that brilliant American journalist
Seymour Hersh, was once heard to say on a US telephone
intercept that King Fahd didn’t know what was
happening during an international flight. "He’s a
prisoner of the plane," he remarked. "Like all the
Saudi royal family."
The Crown Prince who becomes King at last
Crown Prince Abdullah now formally takes on a role
that he has served de facto for nearly a decade. The
half-brother of King Fahd, Prince Abdullah has become
the face of the kingdom.
He served as commander of the National Guard for 30
years before taking over day-to-day affairs of state
after his half-brother Saud’s strokes in 1995 and
Diplomats said they did not expect major changes in
Saudi foreign or oil policy under Abdullah who talks
quietly, with a stutter, but is described as imposing
There are 30 surviving sons of the late King
Abdul-Aziz, who founded Saudi Arabia in 1932. But with
only half-brothers in the royal family, diplomats say
the octogenarian Abdullah’s power has limits. Fahd has
six full brothers who wield great influence and can
band together at family meetings.
His crackdown on al-Qa’ida suicide bombers in 2003 who
aimed to topple the House of Saud was unprecedented.