The first of my many visits to Saudi Arabia was in 1981. Therefore, for most of the time that I have known the Kingdom and its people, Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud was king and a friend of the United States.
Saudis and "experts" in the affairs of the country will make their own assessments of his reign. I write merely as an American friend and an observer. What’s clear to me is that during the time of King Fahd, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia made remarkable progress, faced significant challenges, and was forced to make critical and difficult decisions. In order to begin to define the legacy of Fahd’s rule, I believe that it is important to weigh all of these factors in the balance: the progress, the challenges, and the fateful decisions-since they are all intimately connected to one another.
While US critics of the Kingdom (and there are a few) deride the country’s traditionalism, it is important to consider how rapidly the country has been transformed. Within the past half-century, for example, the population of Saudi Arabia grew from 3.5 million to over 24 million. During that same time, its capital, Riyadh, was transformed from a desert outpost of several thousand to a modern metropolis of four million.
King Fahd’s reign, which covered about half of this period, oversaw much of this expansion and its massive investment in infrastructure, social services, and development. Such rapid modernization and urbanization, inevitably, created social and cultural strains and pressures for change.
While dealing with these internal factors, the Kingdom was also being confronted by dramatic external challenges that also had internal consequences. The Iranian revolution posed not only a regional security threat to Saudi Arabia and its Arab Gulf allies, but, an internal threat, as well, as became clear in the wake of Iranian-inspired violent clashes in Mecca in the early 1980’s. Further complicating Gulf stability was the long, bloody, and costly Iran-Iraq war and the 1990 Iraq invasion and occupation of Kuwait.
These regional challenges were not the only crises roiling the Arab world and impacting Saudi society during the period of Fahd’s rule. There was, of course, the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The initially homegrown Afghan resistance against the Soviets inspired broad support among Muslims, including Saudis. Lebanon’s long civil war, compounded by Israel’s brutal invasion, bombardment, and occupations took a toll, as did the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, culminating in 1987 in the first Palestinian intifada.
In the face of all these challenges and crises, King Fahd made a strategic decision to deepen the political and military ties that already existed between the US and Saudi Arabia, support a moderate course of action in international affairs, and foster continued domestic development, all the while attempting to balance domestic pressure (both those resulting inevitably from social change and those occurring in reaction to external events).
It was, as we say, "a tough row to hoe." But as his leadership was challenged, King Fahd responded with decisions to protect his country, its traditions and role, and its development.
The US and Saudi-backed Afghan resistance defeated the Soviets and, in Desert Storm, Kuwait was liberated. The Saudi-supported Taef Accords brought an end to Lebanon’s terrible decade and one-half of war. King Fahd also took leadership on the Palestinian issue in proposing the historic 1982 Fahd peace plan and providing critical support for the convening of the US-led Madrid Peace Conference.
Even in years of declining oil revenues, domestic development programs continued and, later in King Fahd’s rule, initial steps were taken toward internal reform. Too small for some, too threatening to others, these steps, nevertheless, have laid the foundation for further advances.
While confronting challenges and making critical decisions, King Fahd attempted to make the best of an extraordinarily difficult set of circumstances, many beyond his control. The deplorable behavior of Saddam Hussein, the unpredictable nature of the revolutionary Iranians, the failures of the United States (to "stay the course" in post-Soviet Afghanistan, to be more vigorous in pressing for peace in the post-Madrid era, to restrain aggressive Israeli behavior in the occupied lands and Lebanon, and to act in a more consultative manner with friends and allies in the region), all compounded the difficulties faced not only by Saudi Arabia.
Through it all, the Kingdom, under King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdallah, remained resolute allies of the US-even as their friendship was tested and challenged by some at home and abroad.
King Abdallah, Fahd’s partner for may years, now assumes the mantle of leadership, facing many of the same challenges and building on the foundation he helped to prepare with his predecessor. As he proceeds, King Abdallah will need to continue to face down the threat of domestic terror, while moving forward with his domestic reform agenda and finding new ways to expand job creation for an ever-growing Saudi population. He will also need to work hard to strengthen ties and resolve outstanding issues with Saudi Arabia’s Gulf partners.
The US can help, of course, principally by relieving pressures on the entire region created by the Iraq debacle and the lack of real progress in establishing Palestinian rights. It’s the least we can do to reward the friendship and provide support for an ally.