The Reign of Khalid

Saudi Arabia Table of Contents

KhalidFollowing the assassination of Faisal, Crown Prince Khalid immediately succeeded to the throne and received the oaths, formal pledges of support from the family and tribal leaders, within the traditional three days. Fahd, the minister of interior, was named crown prince, as expected.

Khalid's preparation for ruling a modern state included his accompanying Faisal on foreign missions and representing Saudi Arabia at the United Nations. He was a quiet but influential figure within the royal family. He was known, for instance, to have rallied the family to support Faisal in the ouster of Saud in 1964. The calm strength and consistency that he displayed during this delicate and potentially dangerous crisis in many ways typified his reign. Although he ruled quietly, he ruled effectively and was considerably more than the figurehead many had expected him to be.

Khalid's leadership style was remarkably different from Faisal's. He was more liberal in terms of informing the press of the rationale behind foreign policy decisions. And although he largely used the same policymaking team as Faisal did, he allowed them greater latitude in decisionmaking within their separate portfolios. In regional affairs he permitted the governors considerably more autonomy and even authorized their use of discretionary funds. Above all, he valued consensus and the team approach to problem solving.

The new king's first diplomatic coup was the conclusion in April 1975 of a demarcation agreement concerning the Al Buraymi Oasis, where the frontiers of Abu Dhabi, Oman, and Saudi Arabia meet. Claims and counterclaims over this frontier area had exacerbated relations among the three states for years. The successful conclusion of negotiations under Khalid's aegis added to his stature as a statesman among knowledgeable observers of the peninsula political scene.

In April 1976, Khalid made state visits to all the gulf states in the hope of promoting closer relations with his peninsular neighbors. These early visits, in retrospect, probably laid the foundation for the later establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Coinciding with Khalid's visits to neighboring states, Iran called for a formal, collective security arrangement of the shaykhdoms of the Persian Gulf. This proposal, although not summarily rejected, was received with great coolness by the Saudi government, as wary of Iran's hegemonistic pretensions as they were of Iraq's.

Probably the most sensitive areas of Saudi Arabia's relations with its neighbors during Khalid's reign were its relations with the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR--North Yemen) and the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY--South Yemen). Despite the establishment of relations with the YAR after the conclusion of its civil war in 1967 and massive Saudi aid, relations remained strained and marked by mutual distrust. The YAR government felt that Saudi Arabia wished to maintain it only as a convenient buffer state for protection of the kingdom against the PDRY, a major recipient of Soviet arms.

In a reorganization of the Council of Ministers in late 1975, Khalid named Crown Prince Fahd deputy prime minister and designated Abd Allah (another half brother and the commander of the Saudi Arabian National Guard) as second deputy prime minister.

Fahd, who had already participated in major decisions, became chief spokesman for the kingdom and a major architect of Saudi modernization, foreign affairs, and oil policy. In 1976 a major concern of the Saudi government was the year-old civil war in Lebanon. Although strongly committed to the official Saudi position that opposed outside intervention or interference in Lebanese affairs, Fahd nevertheless was instrumental in setting up a League of Arab States (Arab League) peacekeeping force. Despite this increasing reliance on Fahd, the strains of office began to tell on Khalid, forcing him to return to the United States for successful open-heart surgery in Cleveland, Ohio.

Much of the kingdom's attention in the late 1970s and early 1980s was focused on the construction of the Yanbu and Jubayl industrial complexes, to diversify the kingdom's industrial base. In addition to expanding industrial and petroleum facilities one of Khalid's major domestic accomplishments was his emphasis on agricultural development.

In the field of foreign affairs, United States-Saudi relations continued to be cordial under Khalid, although Saudi Arabia remained frustrated by perceived United States intransigence in the settlement of the Palestinian problem. In a January 1978 meeting with President Jimmy Carter in Riyadh, the king insisted that peace in the area could be achieved only by the complete Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, as well as self-determination and resettlement rights for the Palestinians.

Another topic reportedly discussed in Riyadh during this meeting was Soviet penetration and growing influence through arms sales and treaties of friendship with the two Yemens. Five months after the Riyadh meeting Khalid asked Carter to sell advanced fighter planes to Saudi Arabia to assist in countering communist aggression in the area. The first delivery of the sixty F-15s under the agreement approved by Carter arrived in the kingdom in January 1982. The sale and delivery of the F-15s, the subsequent United States release of sophisticated equipment to enhance the capabilities of the aircraft, and the negotiations resulting in the approval of the airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft owed much to Khalid's insistence on Saudi Arabia's being treated as a full partner in all United States-Saudi areas of joint concern.

In 1979 many of the kingdom's ideas about its own stability and its relations concerning its neighbors and allies were shattered. On March 26, 1979, as a result of the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty, Khalid broke relations with Egypt and led in seeking Arab economic sanctions against Egypt.

Some foreign observers thought in 1979 that traditionalism was no longer a strong force in Saudi Arabia. This idea was disproved when at least 500 dissidents invaded and seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca on November 20, 1979. The leader of the dissidents, Juhaiman ibn Muhammad ibn Saif al Utaiba, a Sunni, was from one of the foremost families of Najd. His grandfather had ridden with Abd al Aziz in the early decades of the century, and other family members were among the foremost of the Ikhwan. Juhaiman said that his justification was that the Al Saud had lost its legitimacy through corruption, ostentation, and mindless imitation of the West--virtually an echo of his grandfather's charge in 1921 against Abd al Aziz. Juhaiman's accusations against the Saudi monarchy closely resembled Ayatollah Ruhollah Musaui, Khomeini's diatribes against the shah.

The Saudi leadership was stunned and initially paralyzed by the takeover. The Grand Mosque surrounds the Kaaba, symbol of the oneness of God and believed by Muslims to have been built by the Prophet Abraham. The courtyard is one of the sites where the hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam, is enacted. Because of the holiness of the place, no non-Muslims may enter the city of Mecca. Furthermore, all holy places come under a special injunction in Islam. It is forbidden to shed blood there or to deface or to pollute them in any way. Despite careful planning on Juhaiman's part, a guard was shot dead by one of the nervous dissidents. Such a desecration is a major violation under Islamic law and merits crucifixion for the convicted offender.

Juhaiman's party included women as well as men, other peninsular Arabs, and a few Egyptians. A score of the dissidents were unemployed graduates of the kingdom's seminary in Medina. They had provisions for the siege they expected as well as extensive supplies of arms.

The government's initial attempts to rout the dissidents were stymied. Before any military move could be authorized, the ulama had to issue a dispensation to allow the bearing of arms in a holy place. When the religious problems were solved by announcement of the ulama's ruling, logistical problems bogged down the efforts of the military and the national guard for several days. Finally, two weeks later the military effort succeeded, and the dissidents were dislodged. All the surviving males were eventually beheaded in the squares of four Saudi cities.

Far from discounting the efforts of the rebels, the leaders examined themselves and their policies more closely. Khalid, particularly, was sensitive to their complaints. Many of the dissidents had come from two of the tribes that traditionally have been recruited for the national guard. Khalid had spent much time with these people in the desert.

Compounding the nightmare for the regime were Shia riots in Al Qatif in the Eastern Province two weeks after the siege of the Grand Mosque. Many of the rioters bore posters with Khomenini's picture. Although these were not the first Shia protests in the kingdom (others had occurred in 1970 and 1978), the December rioters had become emboldened by Khomeini's triumphal return to Iran in early 1979. Up to 20,000 national guard troops were immediately moved into the Eastern Province. Several demonstrators were killed and hundreds reportedly arrested.

Almost visibly shaken by the takeover of the mosque and the Shia disturbances, the Saudi leadership announced in the aftermath of these events that a consultative assembly (majlis ash shura) would soon be formed. The Shia disturbances in the Eastern Province encouraged the government to take a closer look at conditions there. Although it was clear that the Shia had been radicalized by Khomeini, it was also obvious that repression and imprisonment were stop-gap solutions and as likely to promote further resistance as to quell it. Further, the Shia lived in the area of the kingdom most vulnerable to sabotage, where numerous oil and gas pipelines crisscross the terrain. Aramco had adamantly refused to discriminate against the Shia in their hiring practices, as had Saudi governmental agencies. Aramco had a preponderance of Shia employees--not only because of Aramco's location but also because Aramco employment offered a Shia the best chance for mobility.

Compared with other towns in the Eastern Province, the Shia towns of Al Qatif and Al Hufuf were depressed areas. The Shia lacked decent schools, hospitals, roads, and sewerage and had inadequate electrification and water supplies. Violent Shia demonstrations occurred once against in February 1980, and, although they were as harshly repressed as the previous ones, the deputy minister of interior, Amir Ahmad ibn Abd al Aziz, was directed to draw up a comprehensive plan to improve the standard of living in Shia areas. His recommendations, which were immediately accepted and implemented, included an electrification project, swamp drainage, the construction of schools and a hospital, street lighting, and loans for home construction.

In early November, a week before Ashura--the most important Shia religious observance, which commemorates the death of Husayn--the government announced a new US$240 million project for Al Qatif. Shortly before Ashura, Fahd ordered the release of 100 Shia arrested in the November 1979 and February 1980 disturbances. Five days after Ashura, which was peaceful, Khalid toured the area--a first for a Saudi monarch. Co-optation, which served the Saudi leadership so well with the general populace, also seemed the palliative for the Shia problem.

After the troubles of 1979 and 1980, the Saudi leadership began to take a more assertive role in world leadership. Saudi Arabia obtained agreement on the kingdom as the site of the meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in January 1981. Hosting the conference of thirty-eight Muslim heads of state was seen as a vehicle for refurbishing the Saudi image of "guardian of the Holy Places." Also, the kingdom wished to present an alternative to the Islamic radicalism of Libya's Muammar al Qadhafi and Iran's Khomeini, both of whom had plagued Saudi Arabia in the previous two years.

Shortly after the conference the Saudi leadership announced the formation of the GCC project long favored by Khalid. Khalid and Fahd had been campaigning actively for such an organization for some time. The GCC included the six states of the peninsula that have similar political institutions, social conditions, and economic resources: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The aim of the GCC, as it was formally announced at its first summit in May 1981, was to coordinate and unify economic, industrial, and defense policies.

In the late 1970s Saudi Arabia faced a host of regional problems. In addition to the legacy of the Palestinian problem, early in Khalid's reign the civil war in Lebanon occurred. In December 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and in September 1980 Iraq attacked Iran over suzerainty of the Shatt al Arab waterway. In the latter connection, Saudi Arabia feared the war might spread down the Persian Gulf. Furthermore, because Iraq and Iran were so engaged, a unique opportunity existed of forming an alliance that excluded them both. The two Yemens, who registered their outrage at exclusion from the GCC, continued to be one of the many Saudi headaches. The Soviet Union appeared to be increasing its influence in both Yemens.

One month after the GCC second summit meeting in Riyadh, Iranian-trained Shia attempted a coup d'état in Bahrain in December 1981. The insurgents, most of whom were captured, included Shia from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, reminding the Saudis of one of their worst-case scenarios. Work was speeded up on a causeway to connect Bahrain to the Saudi mainland, completed in 1986. The Saudis believed that given an emergency that the Bahrainis could not contain, the Saudi national guard could use the causeway to provide support.

In another regional development, the Saudis were angry at the Syrians for having signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with the Soviet Union. The Saudis, however, remained conciliatory in the hope of maintaining the facade of Arab unity and also so that they could function as mediators. In December 1980, when Jordanian and Syrian troops were massed for confrontation, Amir Abd Allah was sent to avert a crisis. Abd Allah, whose mother hailed from a Syrian tribe and who maintained excellent personal relations there, was successful.

Fahd was especially active in advancing Saudi foreign policy objectives. He is credited with averting an escalation of tensions between Algeria and Morocco in May 1981. His major effort in 1980 and 1981 was in devising some alternative to the divisive Camp David Accords, which had isolated Egypt, virtually the only major state in the region on which the Saudis could depend. However, before there could be a Saudi-Egyptian rapprochement, a face-saving resolution to Egypt's agreement with Israel was necessary to preserve Saudi Arabia's legitimacy as an Arab mediator.

In August 1981, prior to Sadat's departure for the United States to discuss the resumption of the peace process, Fahd proposed his own peace plan to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Fahd peace plan, as it became known, stressed the necessity for a comprehensive settlement that included the creation of a Palestinian state and Arab recognition of Israel's right to exist in exchange for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Although the plan was endorsed by the PLO, dissident Palestinians, Libya, and Syria rejected it, leading to an early close of the Arab Summit in November 1988.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress