TOPICS > Politics

Saudi King Fahd Dies

August 1, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


LUCY MANNING: The news of King Fahd’s death announced on Saudi Arabian Television; the news reader breaking into normal programs to declare King Abdullah the new leader. The succession is unlikely to bring great differences in the day-to-day running of the kingdom. For as King Fahd fought serious illness over the last few years he suffered a stroke in 1995. The then Crown Prince Abdullah has been in charge.

PRINCE TURKI AL-FAISAL, Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom: The crown prince who has become king, King Abdullah, worked closely with the late King Fahd in implementing the policies of Saudi Arabia both external and internal. So I cannot imagine that there will be any particular change in that policy, but rather a continuation of the policies undertaken by the late King Fahd.

LUCY MANNING: In his 23 years as king, Fahd brought Saudi Arabia closer to the West but in later years left the kingdom having to battle with religious extremism. It was his invitation to western troops to base themselves on Saudi soil during the first Gulf War that stirred intense opposition in the country, the presence of foreign troops in the kingdom, home to two of Islam’s holiest sites, giving al-Qaida a rallying call. Saudi Arabia has found itself fighting suicide bomb attacks mainly against western targets, but it’s the strict Wahabi strain of Islam that is taught there that’s been blamed for giving rise to Saudi extremism. Osama bin Laden and 15 of the Sept.11 hijackers were from the country. Recent municipal elections have allowed Saudis to experiment with a limited form of democracy. For the new king, the challenge is whether dissent can be channeled into the democratic process and if it should be extended. President Bush considers King Abdullah a friend, the Saudi relationship crucial to America’s oil policy and its war on terror.

NAWAF OBAID, Saudi National Security Analyst: If killed most of the senior al-Qaida commanders in the kingdom at their hands most of the senior operatives have been killed or captured. A lot of information that’s been coming in has been taken out and has been sent abroad to the respective countries concerned with the information.

LUCY MANNING: King Fahd used Saudis’ enormous oil wealth to transform his kingdom. The news of his death sent oil prices rocketing, hitting a record $62 a barrel.

JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on what King Fahd’s death and Abdullah’s accession to the throne mean for Saudi Arabia, we’re joined by retired Ambassador Theodore Kattouf. He was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh from 1995 to 1998, in the first years after King Fahd’s stroke. He’s now president of AMIDEAST, a non-profit group offering education and training for Middle Eastern students and businessmen, and he travels frequently to the region. And Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York; she’s also director of the Council’s study group on future U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia. She last visited the kingdom in February. Welcome to you both.

Rachel Bronson, what would you say is the legacy of King Fahd for Saudi Arabia?

RACHEL BRONSON: King Fahd leaves behind a very mixed legacy. In many ways his legacy is that he took a desert kingdom and took the oil wealth that came in when he was either the power behind the throne or ultimately king and plowed it into the modernization of the kingdom. A lot of the infrastructure, he put in the highways, the programs, the colleges; he really invested significant amounts of money into the domestic infrastructure. At the same time though, however, because of things going on internationally including the fall of the shah in Iran, he is also responsible for a lot of the extreme fundamentalism imposed on the society that really happened after 1979. The calls for jihad to go fight in Afghanistan — a lot of that is also his legacy — so while he’s a modernizer, in some ways he didn’t really pay attention to they effects of drastic religious proselytizing that did happen under his watch.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you agree with that, Ambassador Kattouf, a modernizer on the economic front but backward looking or certainly not forward looking on the religious and social fronts?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Yes I would largely agree with that. But I think that the law of unintended consequences kicked in where education and proselytizing were concerned. Certainly, as Ms. Bronson said, he was a modernizer. He spent lavishly on infrastructure, education, healthcare and really created a very, very generous welfare state that perhaps is not sustainable today even with oil prices as high as they are. But at the same time in reaction to Khomeini’s coming to power, the threat that that revolution imposed to traditional monarchies on the other side of the gulf, the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, the monarchy thought that by encouraging very fundamentalist Sunni views they were serving their interests and even the interests of the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: And so, Ambassador, how much would you say he contributed, whether wittingly or unwittingly, to the rise of radical political Islam, the Jihadist movement as we know it today, as we saw it on 9/11 and see it today?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, I think, too, we have to remind ourselves that while he’s an absolute monarch in practice the Saudi royal family is made up of thousands of princes and at least dozens and dozens of them have to buy into these decisions. So this was more or less a collective decision. And let’s remember that the United States Government was in partnership with the Saudis in trying to undo the Soviet occupation. And we probably didn’t see the threat either.

MARGARET WARNER: Rachel Bronson, what is your understanding, what is your theory about why King Fahd gave such free rein to the conservative clerics? You explained some of the situational things in terms of what had happened in ’79 with the fall of the shah, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And I suppose you put in there also the siege at Mecca that took place in Saudi Arabia by radical Islamists?


MARGARET WARNER: But what also personally was driving him in that direction?

RACHEL BRONSON: Well, I think Saudi Arabia is really made up of sort of ideologues and pragmatics or I should say the ruling family, ideologues and pragmatics. And I see King Fahd very much as a pragmatist in this. It was that you had the seizure of the grand mosque of Mecca; you had Ayatollah Khomeini coming to power. You had the godless Communists moving into Afghanistan. Religion and the sort of pumping up of religion was very useful to all of those. It helped his legitimacy at home. It helped rebuff the Iranian aggression from the East, and it helped motivate fighters to go fight in Afghanistan. I think what the ambassador was saying was the U.S. sort of saw that very similarly. And I think him — he was pragmatic in this. He sort of let the ideologues in many ways do what they were going to do because it served a useful end.

MARGARET WARNER: But yet on a personal level, I mean his reputation before taking power was he was anything but a social conservative in his own life.

RACHEL BRONSON: That’s right. In fact what he was really known for is being a wonderful bureaucrat in many ways. He understood how to work the avenues between the different brothers. He wasn’t known as a pious man as Abdullah is known as. But he could work the system internally, and a lot of the criticism is that he tried to move too fast and he didn’t have the soft touch of the — of moving the nuances, maneuvering the nuances of Saudi religious politics and really understanding the tribes and the religious establishment; he sort of let them do what they were going to do because ultimately they were serving useful ends.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Ambassador Kattouf, let’s shift gears now to the new King Abdullah. We heard Prince Turki, the new — who is going to be the new ambassador to Washington, say not going to make much difference. What do you think?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, I think to a large extent he’s right but still for ten years, Abdullah has been in the uncomfortable position of being crown prince, being the day-to-day manager of Saudi policies but yet not having the de jure title of king. And theoretically he could have been removed any time by King Fahd although his health was badly impaired. And he’s had to look over his shoulder a lot. He will be in a stronger position and therefore issues on which he feels most strongly he’ll probably be able to pursue somewhat more vigorously than he did in the past.

MARGARET WARNER: And Rachel Bronson, what do we know about what issues Abdullah really cares about? What would you expect to see him push harder if indeed he does have more power to do so now?

RACHEL BRONSON: Well, there’s a couple of things. I think that he seems to have understood that Saudi Arabia needs some sort of political and social reform. He’s not a great western liberal reformer, but in the Saudi context he is viewed as a reformer. And I think that as king he will continue to try to push the envelope a little bit. He instituted a series of national dialogues which, among other things, brought together Sunni and Shia. Not a big deal for us here in the United States, but in Saudi Arabia that was a huge acknowledgment that a considerable part of their population, 15 percent is Shia, and they have to engage with them.

It was also elections happened under his watch. King Fahd had once said that democracy and Islam were incompatible. Now here we have the crown prince, now king, trying to push some sort of elections, granted, with a lot of restrictions on it but sort of understanding a need to move forward and trying to move from this morass that they had found themselves in. So I don’t think you’re going to see sudden change overnight but I think Washington is breathing a sigh of relief that he’s finally king. Saudi Arabia has been a monarchy without a monarch. It’s a very dysfunctional system.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Ambassador Kattouf, what stance do you expect him to take vis-à-vis the conservative clerical establishment which continues to be an ongoing point of tension in the kingdom?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, he already has taken some steps vis-à-vis the clerical establishment. For instance, he got the clerics after May, 2003, wake-up call when a major western compound was attacked to basically issue a fatwa denouncing this kind of terrorism and these kinds of attacks. And that’s very, very important in a Saudi context.

Also I recall even when I was in the kingdom a major Iranian figure came to visit — Shia, of course. They went to the mosque, the holy mosque in Medina and the preacher there denounced Shia Islam, and Abdullah removed him, chastised him. Nobody said a word.

So Abdullah, because of his rectitude, because of the fact that he’s viewed as a man of traditional values, can actually crack down a bit more on these religious conservatives than could Fahd with his reputation which, as a young man, was not one of piety.

MARGARET WARNER: Kind of a womanizer and a gambler as I understand. Rachel Bronson, what is the rival power center that King Abdullah faces now within the royal family? In other words, there are some princes, very powerful ones, who are closer to the clerical establishment. What can you tell us about that?

RACHEL BRONSON: There are. And I think the debate as far as I can read the royal family on this, the debate is how fast you can move and how far you can move. And the king, King Abdullah, seems to be willing to move a little further to engage the clerics but also remove them as the ambassador said when they get out of hand. And so we’ve had 2,000 clerics either removed or gone through reeducation.

For awhile, there was… you could see in the royal family a resistance to moving too fast. Then they had the bombs in May, in November of 2003 and sort of Abdullah’s side in some ways, won out. So he’s going to be good in that sense.

But another issue important here in the states is he’s going to be very focused on Arab-Israeli. This is an important issue for him and before Sept. 11 in August of 2001, relations between the Saudis and Americans had deteriorated very far because he did not believe that the Bush administration was paying enough attention to it. The Bush administration felt that Saudis needed to be more helpful on it. So I think we will — we should expect to see also renewed attention to Arab-Israeli from the Saudis and I think the Bush administration will be okay with that.

MARGARET WARNER: A brief final word for you, Ambassador Kattouf, back to this relationship with Jihadists and/or the clerical establishment. The view here in Washington was that Prince Nayef, the interior minister represented the rival power center within the royal family and was reluctant to move against Jihadists. Do you think that is still true or do you think the royal family is unified at least in how one fights terror or Islamic extremism?

THEODORE KATTOUF: I think this is one issue on which there is unity. Nayef, you’re right, I mean in the beginning when I was there even subsequently Nayef blamed bootleggers and the like for some of the killings and violence that was going on. But Nayef has also proven that he has a pretty effective police force and that they will die defending the country and the regime. And as we discussed earlier they have a pretty good track record now of killing or capturing some of the leading Jihadists in the kingdom. And that’s going to continue.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Kattouf and Rachel Bronson, thank you both