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The fabulous oil-wealth of doomed King Faisal of Saudi Arabia

Posted in Famous crimes, Historical articles, History, Industry, Politics, Religion, Royalty on Thursday, 10 May 2012

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This edited article about King Faisal of Saudi Arabia originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 703 published on 5 July 1975.

King Faisal, picture, image, illustration

King Faisal of Saudi Arabia

Dressed in a long white gown that effectively concealed the pistol he was holding. Prince Faisal bin Museid Ibn Abdel Aziz of Saudi Arabia began slowly to walk the length of a hall in the royal palace in Riyadh, the capital. At the far end of the hall sat his uncle, King Faisal, who was receiving the members of his family and court. It was March 25th, this year, the birthday of the prophet Mohammed, a holy day.

The courtiers had given the king the customary kiss on each cheek, and they drew to one side to allow the prince to do the same.

When he was only a few yards from the king, the prince stopped. While the attendants waited politely for him to advance, he drew his pistol. They saw the glint of metal, heard the sound of three shots fired at point blank range and saw the king collapse with blood staining his royal attire. The attendants rushed the king to hospital, but they were too late. Thirty minutes after the shots had been fired, he was dead.

The killer’s motives were not clear. Some said that his mind was deranged. Others declared that he had murdered out of revenge for his brother, who was killed at a political demonstration by Faisal’s security forces.

But whatever the motive was, the fact remains that with Faisal’s death there passed from the Middle Eastern scene a man with the power to control the flow of one of the world’s most vital commodities – oil!

King Faisal, a man of austere habits and untold wealth, was becoming the most important chieftain of all Arabia. This was because a measure of unity had been reached among the desert lands after the 1973 war with Israel. The fuel crisis in the West stemmed directly from his decision to stop exports of oil to countries which supported Israel. Even those like Britain, which tried to remain neutral, suffered from the oil restrictions.

The soaring price of oil brought vast riches to the already wealthy land of Saudi Arabia, where the king counted his fortune in millions of pounds. As the country with the largest oil fields in the world, Saudi Arabia earned £10,000 million last year – or roughly £300 a second. Her financial reserves grew almost too fast for accurate assessment.

But how did King Faisal spend the mounting millions? Abroad, he signed arms deals with the US and France worth £700 million, spent £130 million on rebuilding the Suez Canal, gave Syria £140 million and Egypt £434 million to repair war damage, provided the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which is pledged to return refugees to their Israeli-occupied homeland, with about £3,400,000, and distributed millions more to under-developed countries.

At home, where the illiteracy rate is 70 per cent, the king was about to launch a five year, £42,550 million development plan. Schools, houses and hospitals were to be built, but the main aim of the plan, strangely enough, was to gear industry to the day when the oil has stopped flowing – probably in forty to fifty years time. Other industries need to be introduced to keep the money pouring into Saudi Arabia.

Throughout the years of see-sawing Middle East diplomatic manocuvrings, King Faisal had always remained much on the sidelines and, despite his great riches, he had never used them, until recent years, to make his challenge in the political arena.

In the 1960s, this handsome, hook-nosed monarch with dark eyes clashed with the late President Nasser of Egypt. Whatever political decisions the king took, he always found himself opposed by the Egyptian leader, whom he felt coveted the oil-rich land of Saudi Arabia. This division was clearly seen in the Yemeni war when King Faisal supported the Royalist government of Sanaa while President Nasser put his weight behind the republicans. President Nasser often referred to the king as “His Majesty twenty per cent.”

But after the president’s death in 1970, King Faisal hoped that in time his wealth and opposition to Israel would put the land of the Prophet Mohammed into the forefront of Arab nations.

Faisal was regarded by his people with reverence and awe as a member of the 5,000 strong Saud family that traces its history back into the depths of Arabian history, as a politician who worked 15 hours a day, and as a religious monarch who prayed five times daily.

He was the second of more than forty sons of King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, who forged Saudi Arabia out of the many tribes and kingdoms that once warred across its sun-seared sands.

He was trained as a soldier and in his late ‘teens went on military operations with his father. At the age of 22, he was appointed Viceroy of Mecca and four years later he became foreign minister, travelling throughout the world.

When his father died in 1953, Faisal’s elder brother Saud became king. Faisal was proclaimed Crown Prince, but before 1960 he had taken on the jobs of prime minister and foreign minister as well as acquiring responsibilities for managing the nation’s finances.

King Saud was happy to leave the burdens of state to his younger brother, indulging himself in a life of extravagance and pleasure. By contrast, Faisal’s life-style was frugal in the extreme; he ate sparingly and never smoked or drank.

It was King Saud’s spendthrift habits that finally proved to be his downfall. In 1964, the Saud family decided that they could tolerate his greed no longer and forced him to abdicate, inviting Faisal to ascend the throne. It was with reluctance that he agreed.

And from that time the economic wealth of Saudi Arabia improved. Ex-King Saud’s death in 1969 was almost unnoticed as King Faisal worked at projecting his country from its ancient ways into modern times.

He industrialised the nation as never before, establishing a firm financial foundation on raising oil revenues. Highways were built, hospitals and schools appeared, businesses blossomed and flourished as millions of pounds poured from the treasuries into schemes for modernising the country. Limousines like Chryslers and Ferraris appeared on the streets, desert irrigation plans went into operation, building projects multiplied everywhere. And so did the wages of the labour force.

King Faisal introduced television. There are now eight stations and nine out of ten families have sets.

With such comparatively sudden material wealth, there was little wonder that the Saudis idolised their ruler, who governed them in feudal style, taking counsel with a small group of family members and ministers. For in Saudi Arabia there are no political parties and therefore no elections.

Yet labour unrest finds no place in the country where there are still cruel penalties for breaking the code of the Koran: like the loss of a hand for theft and beheading for murder.

Immediately after King Faisal’s death, Crown Prince Khalid was proclaimed monarch. He was expected to continue ruling the country with a similar emphasis on modernisation to that introduced by Faisal. In fact, Khalid had even suggested that his country should have a consultative council to guide the king. This would be an important step towards democratic rule because it would be the nation’s closest approach to a parliament.

Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia still possesses the world’s greatest reservoir of oil. And as this is the key to its wealth, it is expected to continue selling it to the West at the best price it can obtain.

If oil gave Faisal the Midas touch, it will continue to do the same for his successors who will maintain Saudi Arabia as a powerful force in Middle Eastern affairs.

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