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King Fahd, Man of Maddening Contradictions

"He drank Scotch freely [even though alcohol is prohibited in Saudi Arabia], 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 least moderated his public 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 Fahd of Saudia Arabia, right, died today. He was succeed by Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz, left. Crown Prince Abdullah has been the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia since King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995.
King Fahd of Saudia Arabia, right, died today. He was succeed by Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz, left. Crown Prince Abdullah has been the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia since King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995. (Saleh Rifai - AP)

Faisal, who became king when Saud was deposed, 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 largesse 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 Jeddah.

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 in a time of dwindling resources. Fahd responded by emphasizing an effort to promote private-sector industries and diversity the country's economy away from oil, but his success was limited because the country has few natural resources other than petroleum. The most critical moment of Fahd's rule came when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and appeared poised to go after Saudi Arabia as well. Despite the billions spent on military equipment, Saudi Arabia was clearly unprepared to defend itself. Fearing Saddam Hussein more than he feared domestic reaction to the presence of tens of thousands of non-Muslims, Fahd acquiesced to the deployment in his country of the U.S.-led international expeditionary force that was to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait in 1991.

That decision may have saved his kingdom, but it also exposed Fahd to virulent criticism from Saudi Arabia's rigidly conservative religious establishment and from nationalists who questioned why foreign troops -- including women -- were needed after the country had spent so many billions on defense.

The war cost Saudi Arabia a reported $50 billion to $60 billion, compounding the country's economic problems just as criticism of the foreign influx reached its peak. Fahd's response, as soon as the war ended, was to close the kingdom back in on itself, shedding whatever liberalizing influences the troops may have represented and cracking down on all forms of political dissent and public disorder. Within a few months after the troops left, visitors to the kingdom found few traces of what had been a massively disruptive foreign presence.

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 while papers piled up unattended on this desk. Then he would work almost nonstop for several days, preferably in the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, which he always preferred to the more austere Riyadh.

Fahd was married and had at least six sons, and may have had daughters as well.

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