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Smokers’ Corner: Once upon a Saudi king

Updated May 10, 2015
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

A few years ago while attending a media conference in Dubai, I had an interesting conversation with a delegate from Egypt.

He was a graduate of a university in Riyadh where he had enrolled in the late 1960s after escaping the rule of Gamal Abel Nasser in Egypt.

In Riyadh he became an ardent supporter of Saudi monarch, Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (aka Shah Faisal).

He told me: ‘Had Faisal not been killed (in 1975), Saudi Arabia would have been a very different country than what it became and what it is today …’

But the historical verdict on Faisal largely remains somewhat schizophrenic.


A peek into what Saudi Arabia might have been if King Faisal was still alive


Many who hail him as a dynamic force who attempted to tenaciously modernise a ‘backward tribal society,’ also accuse him (in the same breath) of being the original initiator of the controversial practice of dishing out ‘Petro-Dollars’ across the Muslim world to promote the highly intransigent strand of the Muslim faith that is prevalent in Saudi Arabia.

This view is highlighted by leading documentary film-maker, Adam Curtis, in his recent documentary (on Afghanistan), Bitter Lake (BBC).

Curtis suggests that Faisal’s legacy cuts both ways. On the one hand it set the pace that turned Saudi Arabia into becoming an extremely rich and highly influential monarchy and state, while on the other hand it saw the country promoting an ideology that eventually mutated and triggered various faith-oriented fissures in the Muslim world.

But did Faisal know what he was unleashing?

Farzana Moon in her book, No Islam But Islam, explains how Faisal’s ascension to the Saudi throne (in March 1964) was not a smooth, seamless event. He was Prime Minister during the regime of King Saud bin Abdulaziz (who had been on the throne since 1953).

Though both men belonged to the same family (the Ibn Saud), Faisal was often at loggerheads with the King.

The entry on Faisal in Encyclopaedia of the Orient suggests that he was often critical of Saud’s regime, accusing it of squandering the wealth that had begun to pour in from Saudi Arabia’s vast oil reserves.

According to American professor of political science and author, R. Hrair Deckmejien (in his 1994 book Islam in Revolution), the Ibn Saud family had risen to power in the 1920s with the help of armed militias made up of highly conservative Bedouins called the Ikhwan.

After establishing itself as the ruling dynasty in the region, the Ibn Saud (on the insistence of the Ikhwan) agreed to implement hidebound religious dictates. However, according to Robert Lacey’s account of Saudi history (Inside the Kingdom), Ibn Saud (in 1930) began to eliminate and disband the militias (because they had turned against the King).

Faisal was made Crown Prince when his brother King Saud came to the throne in 1953. James Wynbrant in A Brief History of Saudi Arabia maintains that when (in 1958) Faisal was also made prime minister, he quietly cultivated relations with the powerful official clergy of the country.

This helped him gain their trust, enough to get them to back him when he finally demanded that he be made regent.

Michael G. Roskin and James J. Coyle in their detailed study, ‘Politics of the Middle East: Culture & Conflicts’ describe how King Saud refused to budge, but as the Royal Guards loyal to Saud surrounded Faisal’s residence, Faisal (as Prime Minister) ordered the Saudi National Guard to surround the King’s palace.

Consequently the ulema issued a fatwa in Faisal’s favour, and he became the King. Saud was sent into exile to Greece.

Faisal became the king during a period when populist left-leaning ideologies like Ba’ath Socialism, Arab Nationalism and Islamic Socialism had begun to sweep across numerous Muslim countries.

Middle-East expert, James P. Jankowski, in his book Nasser’s Egypt (2002) suggests that the Saudi monarchy’s main opponents at the time were Egyptian ruler, Gamal Abel Nasser, and the Ba’ath Socialists in Iraq and Syria.

Nasser was a passionate and progressive Arab Nationalist and a popular leader in the Muslim world.

Across the 1960s, so-called ‘Nasserism’ would go on to inspire youthful uprisings in Yemen, Sudan, and Libya and even in Pakistan; whereas progressive regimes had emerged in Algeria and Tunisia.

The Muslim world was awash with leftist ideas that fused socialism with Islamic ideals of egalitarianism. These ideas were also vehemently critical of Arab monarchies, Israel and the United States.

In her book on the Saudi monarchy, Professor Sherifa Zuhur explains how Faisal actually tried to imitate this sense of populism by asking the Saudis to treat him as their servant instead of King.

He began to organise and streamline the country’s oil wealth to set up a state welfare system that is still in place in Saudi Arabia today.

He strengthened his country’s relationship with the United States and offered to help it fight its Cold War against the Soviet Union.

To Faisal, the ‘dangerous’ populist ideas and movements that were erupting in the Muslim world at the time were being instigated and bolstered by the Soviets.

To counter the spread and influence of Nasserism in Saudi youth, Faisal tried to rapidly modernise Saudi Arabia. He introduced television, encouraged modern education and allowed Saudi women to work alongside men in offices.

Mordechai Abir, in his 1987 essay, ‘The Consolidation of the Ruling Class and the New Elites in Saudi Arabia’ explains that (consequently), many of the powerful ulema who had supported Faisal in his bid to gain power, eventually turned against him.

According to Abir, they accused Faisal of introducing ‘alien ideas’ and ‘corrupting Saudi culture and society.’ As a result, Faisal kept them at an arm’s length and blocked their entry into the higher echelons of his regime.

In 1966 a group of men attacked Saudi Arabia’s first TV station, and one of the attackers was killed by security guards. The dead man was actually a distant cousin of the King. A decade later, the cousin’s younger brother would return to haunt Faisal.

Nasser died in 1970 and Faisal stepped up his efforts to replace Nasser as the Arab world’s main leader.

To do this, Faisal also began to overtly oppose Israel. He supported Egypt and Syria in their 1973 war against Israel and then shocked the world by dramatically increasing the price of Saudi oil to weaken the economies of the United States and those Western countries that had backed Israel.

Faisal’s move finally saw him becoming one of the most powerful Arab monarchs and a popular leader in the Muslim world. No other Saudi monarch before or after him has been able to match the kind of populist appeal and fame that Faisal finally cultivated for himself.

To retain this appeal, Faisal began to fund various movements both on the left and the right. For example, he bankrolled various left-wing Palestinian outfits fighting against Israel, and on the right, bolstered radical right-wing groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood who were opposed to Nasserism and Ba’ath Socialism.

He also began to pump in money into the coffers of the poorer Muslim countries as long as they espoused ideals dear to Faisal’s Saudi Arabia.

But, alas, in 1975 Faisal was assassinated by the brother of the man that the security forces had killed during the 1966 Saudi TV station attack.

It was a case of revenge, but some theories suggested that the Israelis had him killed, while others pointed the finger at the many powerful Saudi conservatives who had been sidelined by Faisal.

Faisal was succeeded by his brother Khalid who at once slowed down Faisal’s modernisation project and toned down his foreign and internal policies.

But Faisal’s demise also gave the ultra-conservatives the space to rebound.

In 1979, dozens of armed Saudi fanatics stormed the Holy Mosque in Makkah. According to author Yaroslav Trofimov (in Siege of Mecca), the uprising was an expression of repressed anger among Saudi conservatives against Faisal’s modernisation policies.

The uprising was crushed by Khalid, but it made future Saudi monarchs give a lot more space to the conservatives, slow down modernisation and channel the radicals by exporting their energy and ideas out of the Kingdom and into Muslim lands that were recipients of large Saudi economic hand-outs.

But by then Nasserism was dead, Ba’ath Socialism was receding and the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse.

So the exported ideas and energies were now being disseminated into a tumultuous vacuum. That is why they violently transfigured and became almost entirely nihilistic, further tarnishing the legacy of perhaps the most unique Saudi monarch ever.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 10th, 2015

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