Death of a King
by Stephen Schwartz
KING FAHD BIN ABDUL AZIZ of Saudi Arabia has died in Riyadh at 84, after 10 years in a coma. Crown Prince Abdullah, Fahd's half-brother and himself aged 81, has taken the throne.
We may expect a flood of praise from credulous Westerners for Fahd, hailing him as a friend of the United States and a moderate. In reality, the 10-year vegetative state in which Fahd survived was characterized by the opposite of either sincere friendship with the West or Islamic moderation.
It is true that Fahd's partner in power, defense minister Prince Sultan, enriched himself on American arms deals while reassuring the United States of his and his cohort's undying love for their Western protectors. But the reign of Fahd also saw the militant eruption of al Qaeda, the terrorist conspiracy linked to the Saudi monarchy and the Wahhabi cult that is its state religion.
Regarding domestic affairs, Ali al-Ahmed of the Washington-based Saudi Institute, a human-rights monitoring group, commented, "I will not miss Fahd, who was an oppressive dictator. I was imprisoned, my family members were killed, reformers were arrested, and the economy went in crisis under Fahd."
The death of Fahd was no surprise to Saudi-watchers. He had been hospitalized two months ago, and the recent replacement of the long-serving Saudi ambassador to Washington, Bandar bin Sultan (Fahd's nephew), by Prince Turki ul-Faisal was interpreted as an indicator of an imminent succession. Fahd, Sultan, and Bandar all came from the hard-line faction of the royal family known as the Sudairis, who have pursued the classic Saudi strategy of appeasing Western rulers with one hand while promoting Wahhabism with the other.
Turki ul-Faisal and his faction, as well as Crown Prince Abdullah, have been reputed to prefer a more moderate line, which would curb the power of Wahhabism. Abdullah himself has long been rumored to detest Wahhabism, which he considers dangerous for Islamic and Arab unity. In a surprising development, Crown Prince Abdullah appeared at the funeral of Syed Mohamed Alawi Al-Maliki, a non-Wahhabi cleric, late last year, praising al-Maliki for his devotion to Islam and to the welfare of the nation. Al-Maliki, a devotee of Sufism as well as a leading Sunni jurist, had previously suffered heavy repression under the Riyadh authorities.
But as Ali al-Ahmed puts it, "now is the time for proof that Abdullah is a reformer. With the power he has, let him declare freedom for the non-Wahhabi Muslims, especially the Arab Shia minority, grant the right of women to drive cars, cut off financing of the global Wahhabi campaign of religious colonialism and support for terror in Iraq, change the educational curriculum to remove hateful ideology from it, arrest the financiers of al-Qaeda who operate publicly in the kingdom, and permit U.S. and other civil society groups into the country."
While reforms by Abdullah may be slow in coming, other positive developments may emerge from the death of Fahd. The royal family may retire to its tents to debate details of the succession, and in such a situation it is likely that support for radical Islam may be put on hold while the family's internal affairs are attended to.
In addition, aggrieved liberal reformers in Saudi Arabia, who are much more numerous than the kingdom's rulers and their Western shills want to admit, may take the death of Fahd as an opportunity to press their demands.
Westerners should not be gulled by claims that Fahd was a saint, that the kingdom requires stability above all other things, and that Western critics, pluralist Muslims outside the kingdom, and reformers within it should quiet down. Indeed, the opposite is appropriate. With Fahd gone, the way may finally open for a transition to freedom in one of the world's biggest and most influential tyrannies.