Saudi Arabia's King Fahd Dies

Thomas Lippman
Adjunct Scholar, Middle East Institute
Monday, August 1, 2005; 1:00 PM

Thomas Lippman , adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute, was online to discuss the passing of Saudi Arabia's King Fahd and what this means for U.S.-Saudi relations.

Read more about King Fahd 's life and reign in Saudi Arabia: King Fahd, Man of Maddening Contradictions.

The transcript follows.


Arlington, Va.: Who is the apparent front-runner to replace Abdullah?

Thomas Lippman: Abdullah has succeeded Fahd as king. Abdullah has designated his half brother Prince Sultan, the minister of defense, as next in line.


Hartford, Conn.: Do you know which lobbying firm(s) the Saudi's (and their major corporations) have been using to pay-off our elected officials, after they leave office?

Thomas Lippman: Saudi Arabia is represented in Washington by Qorvis Communications. I'm not aware of any Pay-offs to "our elected officials after they leave office." what would be the point of paying them off if they're no longer in office?


Arlington, Va.: Is it known what percentage of Saudi's state income gets distributed as stipends to the royal family and what gets used for more traditional public-welfare uses?

Thomas Lippman: This is very hard to figure out because money is channeled to the princes through many conduits -- not just through direct cash grants, which are indeed very large, but also through government contracts and semi-legitimate business deals. However, in fairness to the House of Saud, the kingdom has over the past 25 years spent many hundreds of billions of dollars to develop the country and improve the health and education of its citizens.


Anonymous: Is it true that the Abdullah faction of the royal family is less attached to the U.S. than King Fahd's group? Did Prince Bandar leave his position as Ambassador because of this change?

Thomas Lippman: Some people used to think this was true about Abdullah, but I'm not sure I agree. Abdullah is personally more reserved than Fahd was, and is more representative of the Bedouin tradition; he has never been associated with the fleshpots of Europe or Beirut, as Fahd was. I don't necessarily think that makes him less enthusiastic about the US when it comes to strategic or political issues.

Why did Bandar leave? I have no personal knowledge, but surely he understood that it was time to go. The things Bandar was good at -- i.e. schmoozing the Congress to get big arms sales approved -- are no longer the issues Saudi Arabia's ambassador here needs to address.


Arlington, Va.: Is there a resource online that you know of where one can view a family tree of the Saudi family? At least one with the members who are active in government?


Thomas Lippman: There is a vast treasury of information about Saudi Arabia online, but strangely, I'm not aware off the top of my head of a place where you would find this particular information. I always have to look in an old fashioned place, a book -- see the family genealogy at the end of "The House of Saud," by David Holden and Richard Johns.


Frederick, Md.: Professor Lippman, thank you for this chat. Upon King Fahd's death, the media immediately printed more negative information about the man then his good attributes. (Typical of the media though). The King was in power during a turbulent time, both in Saudi Arabia and the world and he made immense strides toward reform and international relations. I applaud his determination and contributions to our world. What do you think he will be most remembered for? Thank you.

Thomas Lippman: I'm not a professor. I'm just a writer who has a longstanding interest in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world.

I appreciate your good feelings about King Fahd, but I think that the one thing he will be most remembered for is the one that may have been his greatest mistake: inviting more than 500,000 foreign troops into his country.


Bethesda, Md.: Can you highlight some of the similarities and differences between King Fahd and King Abdullah in terms of their domestic and foreign policies?

Also, how do you see the House of Saud's future now?

Thomas Lippman: In general, I believe their differences have been stylistic, rather than substantive. It has been a decade since Fahd had direct control over the Kingdom's affairs, so it's hard to say how he would have responded to the greatest issue of the day, i.e. terrorism. Domestically, Abdullah much more than Fahd has presented himself as representative of the righteous Bedouin tradition and a man of the people, untainted by the corruption associated with some of his brothers, including Fahd in the past.

In the short run- which means as long as Abdullah stays healthy --the House of Saud's future is more of the same. I see no serious challenges from outside the country, and inside the Saudis always try to operate by consensus. However, trouble could lie ahead in the issue of the succession after Prince Sultan. that issue has been punted into the future, but since Abdullah and Sultan are in their 80's, it must be dealt with before too long.


Virginia: How many wives and children did the King have?

Thomas Lippman: Fahd had at least six sons. I don't know how many wives he had or whether he had daughters because by tradition the women aren't counted.


Montgomery County, Md.: In 1979, the Saudi National Guard (not the Army) stormed Mecca when it was captured by dissidents. Was it the French GIGN who provided assistance?

Thomas Lippman: This is a very good question to which there has never been a very good answer. to the best of my knowledge, the outside troops who went in were Francophone Muslims, not actual Frenchmen -- perhaps from Senegal.


Bowie, Md.: What do the females born into the royal family do with their lives? Who do they marry? Do they get a secular education?

Thomas Lippman: One of them, princess Loulwah, was here in Washington just this past week promoting investment opportunities in Saudi Arabia. But beyond a few anecdotes such as that, I don't know much about this because outsiders have very little access to the women of the royal households. Very few people in Saudi Arabia of any social or economic status get what we would call a "secular education." Saudi law specifies that the purpose of education is the promotion of Islam.


Herndon, Va.: In the long-term do you think Saudi Arabia will remain stable? If there is a revolution how much will it affect the rest of the world, since it is one of the world's largest oil producers ?

Thomas Lippman: I don't have any reason to think there any serious threat of instability in Saudi Arabia. Even if there were a revolution, though, I don't believe it would have much impact on oil markets because experience has shown that even the revolutionary regimes (Iran, Iraq, Libya) continue to sell all the oil they can produce. they have no choice, really, because without oil revenue they can't run their countries.


Tampa, Fla.: You stated the Saudis operate by consensus. So does Japan. Could you compare the two? It seems both suffer from similar problem: a weak economy which the government can't fix because it is unwilling to step on toes.

Thomas Lippman: I don't much about Japan. I can say with confidence, however, that its economy is the polar opposite of Saudi Arabia's. Japan is an industrial powerhouse of immense sophistication and diversity. Saudi Arabia is a one-product economy in which the dominant industry, petroleum, employs only a very small percentage of the population. the largest component of the Saudi work force is employed in agriculture.


Arlington, Va.: Do you envision that King Abdullah will allow any more candor in discussing Saudi oil production status? It seems in the past year there have been very much mixed reports from Saudi official from saying that they had plenty of capacity to saying they needed to develop more capacity to saying they will not have the capacity to meet future demand for petroleum.

Thomas Lippman: I disagree that the Saudis have been less than forthcoming about their oil resources and their plans for expansion. The most complete articulation of these points that I know of was in the Wall Street Journal on the Friday before Abdullah met with Bush in Texas in April. There have been a few reports to the effect that Saudi Arabia has overstated its reserves and that its aging wells have passed their peak, but those reports have not been substantiated. Note that the joint statement issued by Bush and Abdullah in Crawford says, "the United States appreciates Saudi Arabia strong commitment to accelerating investment and expanding its production capacity to help provide stability and adequately supply the market."


Saudi Arabia: Does Fahd's death really change anything in the kingdom? Abdullah has been in charge of most of the functions of government for a decade. So is this a cosmetic turnover, or is there something I'm missing?

Thomas Lippman: In the short term I don't believe much will change. Indeed, as was predicable, the Saudis have already said exactly that. It may be that as king Abdullah will feel empowered to make some changes, but they will only be within a very narrow band.


Reston, Va.: Thanks for your time in addressing this complex issue. With the ascension of Abdullah to the throne of the House of Saud, do you see any change in the support -- either overt or covert -- given to the extremist Wahabist Muslims and their support for terrorist activities?

Thomas Lippman: This issue was dealt with at length by the 9/11 commission and I don't have any additional insights. Abdullah and his half brother Prince Nayef, the interior minister, appear to have had some differences on this subject, but I don't see any major changes coming.


Arlington, Va.: As far as Prince Sultan succeeding Abdullah, Sultan is also in his 80's. So, the obvious question is who would succeed Sultan? Is this why oil is over $63 right now?

Thomas Lippman: I believe I said in response to an earlier question that the issue of who comes after Sultan is the great unknown factor in assessing Saudi Arabia's prospects for the next decade or so.

as for the price of oil, it basically has nothing to do with who is king of Saudi Arabia. There was a brief spike in the price this morning, as there always is when traders sense some uncertainly in the supply lines (hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico, new president in Iran, death in Saudi Arabia, whatever) but the price of oil in the market this year is not a function of Saudi domestic politics.


Alexandria, Va.: Why are so many of the Saudi princes such reprobates and hedonists? Don't they have jobs? I have also heard that the princesses are pretty decadent, too.

Thomas Lippman: I don't know; you'll have to ask them. Plenty of them have very responsible and productive jobs; others, I'm told, are pretty worthless. Isn't that human nature?


Bowie, Md.: Two factual question -- why was Fahd a "prince" not a king; does the Arabic language distinguish the two titles?

Under Saudi-style Islam, what's done with the body of someone of his stature?

Thomas Lippman: Fahd was king; that was his title. He will be buried, in a grave with no marker or headstone.


San Antonio, Tex.: Does the Safari Club, formed in the mid-70's, still exist? If not, when did it dissolve or when did it disband--whether formally or informally?

Thomas Lippman: I never heard of it, so I have no idea.

_______________________ Thank you all for joining us today.


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