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A Leader Who Fostered Progress Even as He Held to Insular Traditions
Outsiders' knowledge of Saudi affairs in Fahd's youth is sketchy. By most accounts, Fahd was a favorite of his father, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, and groomed from his early days for a position of importance and eventual succession to the throne. He had little formal education, other than training in the Koran, but learned traditional Arabian skills such as falconry and camel racing from his father. Abdul Aziz reportedly kept young Fahd nearby during Council of Ministers meetings, ready for whatever tasks needed doing.
At age 24, at a time when few Saudis had traveled outside the Arabian Peninsula, Fahd went to San Francisco to participate in the 1945 international conference that wrote the United Nations charter. He developed a strong attachment to things American, an attachment that earned him his reputation as the most pro-American and pro-Western of the ruling princes.
In 1953, he was appointed education minister. He moved in 1962 to the key post of interior minister, the kingdom's chief guardian of security and public order. That was a time of tension, provoked by a conflict with Egypt's Nasser over the civil war in Yemen and exacerbated by internal debates over whether and when to oust Abdul Aziz's successor, the weak and erratic King Saud.
The princes did finally remove Saud in 1964, with Fahd playing an important role in a bloodless and orderly transition that placed his older brother, Faisal, on the throne.
Fahd was building up an impressive résumé, but it took him some time to overcome the playboy reputation he had built up in the 1950s in the fleshpots of Beirut and Europe. According to one 1990 account in Time magazine, Fahd was "a sybarite who virtually abandoned his desert kingdom for a career of overseas carousing."
"He drank Scotch freely, ordered caviar by the pound, attended the raunchy shows in the nightclubs of Beirut so frequently that he knew all the leading belly dancers by name, engaged in myriad liaisons with women (he is said to have paid the wife of a Lebanese businessman $100,000 a year to make herself available) and, if the old stories are to be believed, gambled away $1 million in the casinos of Monte Carlo during a single weekend."
Most accounts of Fahd's life say he changed his ways, or at least moderated his displays of excess, after his older brother, then Crown Prince Faisal, summoned him home for a warning that his behavior was jeopardizing his claim to succession.
King Faisal was assassinated in 1975, to be succeeded by the amiable but ineffectual Khalid, who was troubled by a weak heart and paid little attention to governing. Fahd was designated crown prince. In that capacity, he presided over several years of spectacular growth and change as the kingdom cashed in on fast-rising oil prices.
In those days Saudi Arabia was awash in money. Its ports were so clogged with ships bearing goods that perishables had to be unloaded by helicopter. Almost overnight, freeways and air conditioning supplanted caravans and tents.
Many people in Saudi Arabia became immensely rich, including Fahd and members of his immediate family and a network of brokers and middlemen who were in favor with the ruling princes. While ordinary Saudis benefited from a state largess matched in few other societies -- free education and medical care, subsidized housing, tax-free wages -- many also became resentful of the obvious profligacy of the super-rich, whose lavish palaces sprang up around Riyadh and Jiddah.
As the bills came due in the 1980s and oil prices plummeted, Fahd faced a new challenge: maintaining the lifestyle to which Saudis had become accustomed. Fahd responded by emphasizing an effort to promote private-sector industries and diversify the country's economy away from oil, but his success was limited because the country has few natural resources other than petroleum.
The portly, fun-loving Fahd was renowned for his erratic work habits.
Weeks would pass in which he all but ignored affairs of state in favor of camping in the desert with his brothers. Then he would work almost nonstop for several days, preferably in the Red Sea port city of Jiddah, which he always preferred to the more austere Riyadh.
Fahd was married and had at least six sons and several daughters.