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Volume 26, Number 4July/August 1975

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Monarch, Statesman and Patriarch:1905-1975

The grief is muted now and the sands of Riyadh sift gently over the gravethe grave of Faisal ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud, monarch, statesman and patriarch.

It is a simple, even austere grave. But a grave in keeping with his character and in harmony with his life.

The story of Faisal spans epochs rather than years. Epochs in which war and revolution swept whole continents. In which old empires fell and new ones rose to take their place. In which power shifted restlessly from the Old World to the New and on to the oldest world of all. In which an Arabian chieftain forged a kingdom that would, in the last third of the 20th century, suddenly emerge as a decisive force in the history of the Arab East and beyond.

The first chapter of that story had already been written when, in 1905, Faisal ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud was born. For by then the towering Ibn Sa'ud, Faisal's father, had launched the first of the campaigns which would weld the scattered tribes of Arabia into the nation that would bear his family's name. And the prologue had been written even earlier: in the 18th century when Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, a far-sighted Muslim thinker, had joined forces with the House of Sa'ud in a movement to reform Islam, a movement called, in the West, Wahhabism. Out of this union would come the uncompromising faith and the strong men on which the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would be founded and ruled.

The emergence of Arabia, of course, would come later. Indeed when Faisal was born, the thought of Arabia as a world power would have been inconceivable, even to Ibn Sa'ud, one of the most far-sighted leaders in the Arab world. Ibn Sa'ud's goal was more immediate: the recapture of Saudi lands from the Rashid family which, years before, had driven the Saudis into exile in Kuwait. At the time of Faisal's birth Ibn Sa'ud had made his first moveby recapturing Riyadhand by the time Faisal was 13 was ready to move again. Now, however, he had a new lieutenant: Faisal, his slight, delicate third son, of whom he would later say: "I only wish I had three Faisals."

In common with most young Arabs of that era, Faisal's first duty was to master the teachings of his faith. And under the tutelage of his maternal grandfather, Shaikh 'Abd Allah ibn 'Abd-al-Latif Al ash-Shaikh, a direct descendant of Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab, Faisal did—so thoroughly that they would be the cornerstone of his character throughout his life. But as a scion of the House of Sa'ud he had other lessons to master too: the arts of war and the arts of peace.

Faisal's experience in battle was extensive: at 14 he rode by his father's side in the early, far-ranging raids against the Rashids; at 18 he led 5,000 men to 'Asir to quell a rebellion; at 20 he participated in the conquest of the Hijaz which planted the Saudi banner in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina; and at 29 he commanded the columns that pressed the growing kingdom's frontiers back to those of Yemen. But in later years Faisal himself would dismiss his role as warrior. To him, as to Ibn Sa'ud, the arts of peace were infinitely more important.

Faisal's first diplomatic mission was ostensibly to extend congratulations to the King of England on Britain's victory in the First World War. But for Faisal it was also the beginning of an extensive education in the ways of the West and his first appreciation of what lay behind the industrial and military might of the Western nations. As required he called at Buckingham Palace and saw the king. As required he held discussions with the statesmen of the day. But he went further too: he entrained for Wales and studied a Welsh steel mill; he walked the docks of London and thoughtfully observed the teeming merchant fleets of the world; he saw arms factories and an automobile assembly plant. In war ravaged Europe he also tramped the battlefields, deserted trenches and cemeteries of France.

Later he would range even further and see much more. As the kingdom's first Minister of Foreign Affairs, he would travel to the capitals of Europe and drive calmly through blacked-out London as German bombs fell in the streets. He would also meet Churchill and de Gaulle and, in 1943, with his brother Khalid, now King of Saudi Arabia, confer withPresident Rooseveltthe first of six American presidents he would come to know. But as in Europe, the formalities were not enough. He also had to see the factories, farms, dams and the mines which, he soon realized, were the framework on which a nation's strength depends.

In these early years Faisal also assumed a growing burden of responsibilities within the kingdom. In swift succession, and sometimes simultaneously, he served as Viceroy of the Hijaz, President of the Consultative Council, Minister of the Interior, Minister of Commerce, Minister of Finance and National Economy. President of the Council of Deputies, Vice-President and President of the Council of Ministers.

These were the formative years in Faisal's life, the years in which he quietly polished the qualities that would mark his kingship: discretion, foresight, patience and a precise knowledge of the needs of his people. In which, furthermore, he shaped the philosophy of government that would mark his reign, a philosophy that embraced the teachings of Islam and the demands of the modern world.

The essence of that philosophy was the responsibility of a ruler to provide "... a better life for his people and a better future for his country." But it embraced other elements as well. One was the necessity for progress at a deliberate and careful pace. "Change," he said, "but change slowly." Another was the need to anticipate the rising tides of expectation. If there were more progress from the throne, he believed, there would be fewer upheavals in the streets.

In concrete terms this, for Faisal, meant the gradual development of a modern infrastructure: financial stability, public education for girls, schools for everyone, universities, hospitals, roads, airports, harbors, telephones, printing presses and television. It also meant the creation of an educated corps of leaders and the investment of the kingdom's swelling oil revenues in the massive programs of industrialization that were taking shape even as he died. It meant, in sum, the creation of a modern society in a land devoted to the past and the preservation of the past in a land needing the future.

And even that task was but a part of Faisal's story. For these were also the years in which turbulent political currents swept through the Middle East toppling one regime after another and in which war and revolution pressed hard against the kingdom's frontiers. They were also the years when the Arab oil states, and especially Saudi Arabia, emerged as a dominant force in world economics and when again Faisal walked with the leaders of the world.

As in the early days, however, Faisal was equal to the role. With the same methodical patience with which he approached the internal transformation of his kingdom, he quietly assumed the de facto leadership of the Arab world and guided its policies into the channels of moderation which, he felt, could best serve the interest of his country and, as always, the interests of Islamic peoples throughout the Arab East.

In the West, to be sure, this approach was not always seen as one of moderation. For in the West Faisal, even more than most Arab leaders, was a faintly mysterious figure. He was a desert warrior fully at home in the tents of his Bedouins yet a statesman moving with ease and dignity in the chanceries of Europe and America. A frugal, even ascetic, man who commanded wealth beyond imagining. A man steeped in the traditions of an ancient faith but a leader determined to reshape his kingdom in a modern image. A direct and open man skilled in the arts of discretion and compromise. An autocrat to the world, a democrat to his people. In sum, a paradox.

But there is no mystery. Faisal was, quite simply, a man of two worlds: the world of man and the world of God. It is the heart of his story and the legacy of his life.

This article appeared on pages 18-23 of the July/August 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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