Robert Fisk: The terrible legacy of the man who failed the world

Robert Fisk

The Indepenedent

Published: 02 August 2005

So the old man will be buried this afternoon on the edge of the Saudi capital, Riyadh, in a desert graveyard of no memorials.

The strict Wahhabi tradition - to which, of course, that far more famous Saudi, Osama bin Laden, belongs - demands no statues, no gravestones, no slabs. So Fahd will be laid in the desert sand, his head touching the earth, covered over and left for the after-life. Not a single stone will mark his place.

Would that some of our own great leaders would suffer such humility - if less ostentatiously so - on their deaths.

King Fahd of Saudi Arabia has died after 22 years on the throne. His successor, Crown Prince Abdullah, will formally take his place tomorrow.

But the old king really died in 1995, when an embolic stroke disabled him, paralysed his mind, befuddled his senses - the 84-year-old Keeper of the Two Holy Places would often ask servants to pour coffee for Muslim guests during Ramadan - when drinking and eating is forbidden in the hours of daylight.

In effect, his half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah has been "king" since then and, now aged 82, is still, as the cliché goes, "clinging to power". Another half-brother - and all these half-brothers reflect the Bedouin background of the Saudi monarchy - Prince Sultan Abdul Aziz, will be the new crown prince. And he is already 81.

Those who claim the Saudi royal family is led by sclerotic old men have a point - but perhaps they do not go far enough. Like the massive Muslim oil nation to the north, Iran, Saudi Arabia has become a necrocracy: government by, with and for the dead.

For years, we had been saying that Fahd would die - at his massive family palace in Andalusia (he knew, of course, that this was once part of a fine Arab empire) or on his gorgeous, preposterous, jet airliners, their interiors designed to look like Arab tents, or just in that hideously famous swimming pool. He suffered from pneumonia and a high fever, officials would insist. Anything else was "malicious speculation" - which meant that it was all true.

This was the man, however, who had funded the Arab legions against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 when, as we know, Bin Laden took the role of "prince" because Fahd's real princes, including 7,000 official and unofficial ones, preferred the bars of Monaco or the whores of Paris to drawing the sword for the religion in whose lands stood their greatest shrines, Mecca and Medina.

And it was this same Fahd who brought down upon the Arab Gulf - and eventually upon the Americans - the wrath of Bin Laden and his al-Qa'ida, by asking the US to send troops to protect the land of the Prophet after Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait. And his fate might have been to have died in an assassination before; but it's difficult to murder an already dead man.

This was the king who had poured his vast coffers into Saddam Hussein's war chest against Iran, studiously saying nothing about the gassing of up to 60,000 Iranian soldiers and civilians during that conflict, in the hope that the Beast of Baghdad (our friend at the time, needless to say) would overthrow that far more terrible beast, the revolutionary Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

When Saddam arrived in Kuwait, Fahd wrote him a letter, reminding him of how much the Saudis had contributed to his brutal war against Iraq. "Oh Ruler of Iraq," Fahd wrote, "the Kingdom extended to your country $25,734,469,885. 80 cents." Analysing that sum, I once calculated the figure issued by Fahd courtiers was out by a dollar and a cent. By contrast, Fahd's bankers calculated they spent $27.5bn on paying for America's liberation of Kuwait - slightly more than they paid to Saddam.

It was Fahd and the Pakistanis who had, on America's behalf, helped to arm the militias of Afghanistan against the Soviet Union and - disgusted by the victors' feuding - supported Mullah Omar's Wahhabi army of self-righteous peasant clerics, the Taliban. Under Fahd, the kingdom poured millions into the madrassas in Pakistan which have made the news again following 7 July. The Taliban (like some of the London suicide bombers) were an authentic product of Wahhabism, the strict, pseudo-reformist Islamist state faith of Saudi Arabia founded by the 18th cleric Mohamed Ibn Abdul-Wahab.

Journalists like to claim that Wahhabism is "obscurantist" but it is not true. Abdul-Wahab was not a great thinker or philosopher but, for his followers, he was a near-saint. Waging war on fellow Muslims who had erred was an obligatory part of his philosophy, whether they be the "deviant" Shia Muslims of Basra - whom he vainly attempted to convert to Sunni Islam (they chucked him out) - or Arabians who did not follow his own exclusive interpretation of Muslim unity. But he also proscribed rebellion against rulers. His orthodoxy threatened the modern-day House of Saud because of its corruption, yet secured its future by forbidding revolution. The Saudi ruling family thus embraced the one faith which could protect and destroy it.

Which is why all the talk in modern Saudi Arabia of "cracking down on terror", protecting women's rights, lessening the power of the religious police, is so much hokum.

Saudi Arabia's role - under Fahd's nominal leadership - in the 11 September 2001 crimes against humanity has still not been fully explored. While senior members of the royal family, especially the then Crown Prince Abdullah, who was never as convinced of America's foreign policy wisdom in the Middle East as Fahd, expressed the obligatory shock and horror that was expected of them, no attempt was made to examine the nature of Wahhabism and its inherent contempt for all representation of human activity or death.

The destruction of the two giant Buddhas of Bamian by the Taliban in 2000 - along with the vandalism in the Kabul museum, fit perfectly into the theocratic wisdom. So too, it might be argued did the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre.

In 1820, the much-worshipped statues of Dhu Khalasa, dating from the 12th century, were destroyed by Wahhabis. Only weeks after the Lebanese Professor Kamal Salibi suggested in the late 1990s that once-Jewish villages in what is now Saudi Arabia might have constituted the location of the Bible, Fahd sent bulldozers to destroy the ancient buildings in these towns.

Saudi religious authorities have destroyed hundreds of historic structures in the name of religion in Mecca and Medina, and former UN officials have condemned the bulldozing of Ottoman buildings in Bosnia by a Saudi aid agency backed by the Fahd government which claimed they were "idolatrous".

So all the talk of "restive" princes, of potential rivalries between the half-brothers now that Fahd is dead has a kind of pseudo-importance to it. Saudi Arabian society is not - and cannot be - a "modern" society in our sense of the word as long as Wahhabism holds its power. But it must be allowed to do so - to protect the king. And since it increasingly becomes a poor country, the Wahhabi authorities and the religious police grow stronger.

And as we depend ever more on the Saudis to pump oil, we are ever more silent about what is wrong in the kingdom. Our policy towards Saudi Arabia is now exactly what it was in Iran before the fall of the Shah in 1979.

When he was governor of Riyadh, Prince Sultan, according to that brilliant American journalist Seymour Hersh, was once heard to say on a US telephone intercept that King Fahd didn't know what was happening during an international flight. "He's a prisoner of the plane," he remarked. "Like all the Saudi royal family."

The Crown Prince who becomes King at last

Crown Prince Abdullah now formally takes on a role that he has served de facto for nearly a decade. The half-brother of King Fahd, Prince Abdullah has become the face of the kingdom.

He served as commander of the National Guard for 30 years before taking over day-to-day affairs of state after his half-brother Saud's strokes in 1995 and 1996.

Diplomats said they did not expect major changes in Saudi foreign or oil policy under Abdullah who talks quietly, with a stutter, but is described as imposing and statesmanlike.

There are 30 surviving sons of the late King Abdul-Aziz, who founded Saudi Arabia in 1932. But with only half-brothers in the royal family, diplomats say the octogenarian Abdullah's power has limits. Fahd has six full brothers who wield great influence and can band together at family meetings.

His crackdown on al-Qa'ida suicide bombers in 2003 who aimed to topple the House of Saud was unprecedented.

Daniel Howden