Monday, August 01, 2005

King Fahd is Dead: And the Oppressive Kingdom lives on...with Western support. If only you heard Khalid Mish`al (of the Hamas Movement) talk about King Fahd on Al-Arabiyya TV, and later on Dubai TV, this morning. I experienced something a step worse than nausea as a sensation. But this is the legacy of King Fahd: how much he corrupted Arab media and culture, and how much he ran political leaders in different Arab countries. It is fair to say that when we speak of the Saudi era (which was inaugurated after the death of Nasser in 1970), we are mostly talking about the era of this corrupt man--first as Crown Prince and then as King, or as Servant of the Two Holy Places, as he officially has been known. From 1975, King Fahd was the key personality in Arab politics, and NOT due to exceptional talents or skills, although he played on several ropes, as we say in Arabic. He was many things to many people: a man who spends on Islamic charities to appeal to the pious, and the man who spent years in European casinos and brothels, appealing to the partying younger generation of the House of Saud. He appealed to Ronald Reagan and to Usamah Bin Laden simultaneously. He was key in bringing an end to the ideological struggle in the region (the so-called Arab cold war) by starting his preferred practice of buying people off and using (and controlling) the Arab and even international media to produce crude Saudi propaganda and to end the avalanche of anti-Saudi rhetoric that Nasser perfected in the 1960s, but that he had to abandon after his humiliating defeat in 1967. These will be very difficult few days for anybody reading or watching the Arab media: you will hear every Arab politician, journalist, intellectual, thinker, and diplomat heap praise and watch them shed tears on this corrupt and hypocritical king--a man who never had to face a popular vote of any kind. King Fahd is primarily responsible for the proliferation of fundamentalist fanatical groups in the region, nay in the world, having been the main beneficiary of the oil boom in the 1970s. As somebody with a long history of indulgences in (officially defined) "sins"--allowed for members of the royal family but outlawed for the Saudi population--in a kingdom notorious for its suffocatingly puritanical laws, regulations, and ideology--see the pictures in the well-known but still underground book History of the House of Saud by Saudi dissident Nasir As-Sa`id who was kidnapped by Yasir `Arafat's men in Beirut and surrendered (for a fee no doubt) to the Saudi government who killed him for his book, the King (even as Crown Prince under King Khalid) felt that he had to prevent any attacks on his person by not only buying off the Arab media--which was quite easy given how easily purchasable the influential Lebanese media has been all along--but also by spending lavishly on religious organizations and groups worldwide in order to send an image of piety that he was not able to attain by personal piety or example. This explains the tears that Khalid Mish`al of Hamas was shedding this morning. Mish`al dared to speak about Fahd's services "to the Palestinian cause." How shameful; how untrue. King Fahd was the one who gave his name to the ill-cited Fahd's "Peace Plan" which began to achieve acceptance for Israel in Arab countries, something that eluded Israel even after its military victories. The plan and Saudi diplomacy in general was an attempt by Fahd to please successive US administrations, although he particularly admired and appreciated Ronald Reagan--must be the intellectual vigor of both men. The second thing that Fahd did was to start a foreign policy that is based on covert services for US foreign policy not only to obtain US support (for domestic, regional, and international reasons) but also to demonstrate Saudi utility beyond oil prices and production. This also explains lavish Saudi spending on the fanatical fundamentalist groups (with full US support and coordination of course) that produced the likes of Bin Laden and Zarqawi during the war in Afghanistan, or even his funding for the Contras in Nicaragua. King Fahd foolishly thought that Saudi Arabia could become a strategic partner of the US in the same way that Israel has been. And for those who lament the weakness of secular and enlightenment thought in the Arab world, you really have to blame King Fahd. He changed the nature of Arab discourse and intellectual debates by using his oil wealth (Saddam did that too for his own purposes in the 1970s and 1980s) to instill rigid and obscurantist thought in the Arab world: at media, publishing houses, mosques, research centers, universities, and Arab and Islamic organizations worldwide. But his death will only strengthen the divisions within the royal family. Crown Prince `Abdullah is now weaker than when he started to take things into his own hand after the debilitating stroke that Fahd had suffered years ago. The domestic disturbances and the foreign policy crisis suffered by the House of Saud have diminished his standing. His rivals in the kingdom are well-known: not only will he have to deal with the traditional rivals: Prince Sultan (Minister of Defense and 2nd in line now), Prince Salman (perhaps the most popular Prince), and Prince Nayif (Minister of Interior and the most detested man in the entire kingdom). But there is now the new factor of `Azzuz (Fahd's favorite son `Abdul-`Aziz, selected by a fortune teller to be the favorite) who with his mother Jawharah has wielded tremendous power behind the throne in recent years, and who has now much of the control over the fortune that Fahd has left behind, and who is the one who has the control over the Arab media outlets that are funded by "Saudi Arabia". One also notices that Faysal's sons (Turki in particular, but less in the case of Saud (Minister of Foreign Affairs) who suffers from Parkinson disease) are increasingly visible and assertive. You can see that in the resignation of Prince Bandar and the appointment of Turki as the new Saudi ambassador in the US. But the official jockeying for power among the second generation of the princes has just begun; that will be interesting to watch--although we are not allowed to even look. People say that Crown Prince `Abdullah is popular in the kingdom; he may very well be but his tenure so far has left many Saudis with a feeling of unease. He has not been able to effectively tackle any of the major challenges facing the kingdom. Yes, he is well-connected in the region perhaps because half of Arab men are his brothers-in-law, due to his compulsive marrying and divorcing. The US will most likely try to interfer in the succession struggle, but US intervention often produces opposite results than what is intended, especially when the president is George W. Bush.