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2005-08-02

Death in the House of Saud: King Fahd 1921-2005

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The death of Saudi Arabia’s ruler King Fahd and the recent appointment of Prince Turki as the new Saudi ambassador to the United States highlight long-standing connections to the bin Ladens and the Bush dynasty. We speak with As’ad AbuKhalil of the Angry Arab News Service. [includes rush transcript]

Saudi Arabia’s longtime ruler, King Fahd, died in the hospital yesterday at the age of 83 and was immediately succeeded by his elderly half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah. Saudi Arabia’s 24 million people awoke to state television and radio carrying a reading from the Koran, followed a short while later with Iyad Madani, the information minister, announcing King Fahd’s death after 23 years as monarch. Fahd had close relations with Washington and was reviled by many muslims internationally. In 1990, Fahd allowed the Pentagon to station hundreds of thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia ahead of the first Gulf War and the kingdom served as the main operating base for the United States in the region. The move sparked outrage across the Muslim world because Saudi Arabia is home to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Under Fahd, the Saudis allowed the US to use its territory and airspace to launch consistent attacks against neighboring Iraq. This is particularly relevant given that Fahd declared that his most important title was not king of Saudi Arabia, but "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques."

Fahd’s policies as king were central to the formation of Osama bin Laden’s world view and are mentioned consistently in bin Laden’s speeches and interviews. King Abdullah’s accession to the throne maintains the grip on power held by the House of Saud— descendants of King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the tribal leader who founded the country in 1932. Abdullah is the fifth of his sons to serve as king.

Fahd’s death comes just days after the departure of the kingdom’s longtime Washington ambassador known popularly as "Bandar Bush" for his closeness to the Bush dynasty. The new Saudi ambassador to the US, Prince Turki al-Faisal, said he will adhere to Saudi Arabia’s long-standing oil policy aimed at ensuring global markets are well supplied. His comments came after oil prices shot to a record above $62 a barrel in part due to uncertainties about the future of the kingdom, which has enjoyed rare closeness with the White House.

  • Prince Turki, new Saudi ambassador to Washington:
    "The crown prince who has become king, King Abdullah, worked closely with the late King Fahd in implementing the policies of Saudi Arabia both external and internal. So, I cannot imagine that there will be any particular change in that policy, but rather a continuation of the policies undertaken by the late King Fahd."

Saudi Arabia’s next ambassador to the US, Prince Turki, is a leading member of the Royal Family and served as the head of Saudi intelligence for nearly a quarter of a century. Most recently, he was ambassador to London. His arrival in Washington is likely to cause controversy. The prince was among several leading Saudi figures who were named in a $1 trillion lawsuit filed by the families of the victims of the September 11 attacks, who claimed that he helped to fund Osama bin Laden’s network. And, on at least 5 occasions, Prince Turki met personally with bin Laden and his lieutenants. He described bin Laden as "very soft- spoken" and "quite a pleasant man."

The Times of London reported in 2002 that before the 9/11attacks, diplomatic sources said that the Saudi Government had come under intense pressure from Washington to replace Prince Turki as head of Saudi intelligence because of his past association and support for bin Laden. Well to go through all of this—the death of King Fahd, the arrival of Prince Turki in Washington, the future of the world’s greatest oil producing nation.

  • As’ad AbuKhalil, Professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus and visiting professor at UC, Berkeley. He is the author of several books, his latest is "The Battle for Saudi Arabia: Royalty, Fundamentalism, and Global Power." His blog is The Angry Arab News Service.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Prince Turki, the new Saudi ambassador to Washington.

PRINCE TURKI BIN FAISAL: The crown prince who has become king, King Abdullah, worked closely with the late King Fahd in implementing the policies of Saudi Arabia, both external and internal. So, I cannot imagine that there will be any particular change in that policy, but rather a continuation of the policies undertaken by the late King Fahd.

AMY GOODMAN: Saudi Arabia’s next ambassador to the U.S., Prince Turki. As we talk about developments in Saudi Arabia, Prince Turki is an interesting figure to look at, as well. He is a leading member of the Royal Family and has served as head of Saudi intelligence for nearly a quarter of a century. Most recently he was ambassador to London.

His arrival in Washington is likely to cause controversy. The prince was among several leading Saudi figures who were named in a $1 trillion lawsuit filed by the families of the victims of the September 11 attacks, who claimed he helped to fund Osama bin Laden’s network. And on at least five occasions, Prince Turki met personally with bin Laden and his lieutenants. He described bin Laden as "very soft-spoken" and "quite a pleasant man."

The Times of London reported in 2002 that before the 9/11 attacks, diplomatic sources said the Saudi government had come under intense pressure from Washington to replace Prince Turki as head of Saudi intelligence because of his past association and support for bin Laden. Well, to go through all of this, the death of King Fahd, the arrival of Prince Turki in Washington, the future of the world’s greatest oil producing nation, we are joined from California by As’ad AbuKhalil, Professor of Political Science at California State University, Stanislaus. He’s the author of The Battle for Saudi Arabia: Royalty, Fundamentalism and Global Power. His blog, the Angry Arab News Service is at AngryArab.blogspot.com. As’ad AbuKhalil is Professor of Political Science. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Thank you very much. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Well, let’s begin with the death of King Fahd.

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Well, I think there’s a lot of hypocrisy going on in the coverage I’m being subjected to, especially in the Arab media and slightly also from CNN International, among others. First, there is a hagiographic coverage, the likes of which I have not seen about any person before. And I think that’s a testimony, not to the man, but to the extent to which he has used oil wells to buy off all Arab media without exception. Not a single dissenting voice is coming out in all the Arab media, talking about him. And the hypocrisy is there is a lot of commentators, including in western media, saying about the vacuum that he will leave and how much he will be missed. Well, let us be candid here. The guy has been in a vegetative state for ten years, and people have barely noticed.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about how he rose to power, how he became king? And then we’ll talk about who is replacing him.

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Well, there is no doubt that his rise within the Royal Family is a testimony to the factional politics that goes on inside that family itself. This is why the oil markets seem to know more about Saudi Arabia than the western or Arab media, because they have reacted with some alarm to the news of the ascension of Crown Prince Abdullah.

All these people are sons of the founder of the kingdom, as you mentioned, King Abdul Aziz. But Crown Prince Abdullah has no brothers, only half-brothers. King Fahd was — he assembled seven brothers of one particular wife of his father. As a result, they were able to create a front within the Royal Family, and monitoring and controlling most of the important crucial sets of power in the kingdom. This Crown Prince doesn’t have any allies. And the second man today, the Prince, bin Sultan, the father of the ambassador — the former ambassador in Washington, Bandar, is somebody with other allies. And it is predicted that they are not going to be allowing the new king to have the kind of powers that former kings of Saudi Arabia enjoyed.

Most importantly, the battle for succession in Saudi Arabia and even to the king himself, Abdullah, has just begun. Because of his age limitation, people are already lining up to see who is going to be the second heir apparent. Because we now know that bin Sultan is the heir apparent to Crown Prince. But who is going to be the third? It is likely that the brothers of King Fahd are going to insist to make one of them to be in that spot.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to As’ad AbuKhalil, Professor at California State University, Stanislaus. Can you talk about the Bush family and their relationship with Fahd and the whole family in Saudi Arabia?

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: You see, this is one area where I am in dissent to some of the left wing coverage here in America about the Bush and the El-Saud family, as in Michael Moore’s movie. I take the view that it is well beyond the Bush family. This is not a family connection. This is a connection between this oppressive family in Saudi Arabia and successive U.S. administrations since the days of F.D.R. Why should we single out the Bush family, for example, and not the self-designated human rights president, like Jimmy Carter, who was as fawning around King Fahd as was any other president.

This is something that is beyond familial connection. It is one that entails a relationship that covered not only coordination about the pricing and the production of oil, but we should also remember so many covert operations that now we realize were so foolish and so deadly and dangerous to world peace and security. When we speak about the legacy of this man, we have to say that he was without a doubt quite close at some point to the bin Laden family and to Osama bin Laden, like everybody else in the senior members of the Royal Family, met with him, coordinated with him, and they cultivated ties with the kind of fanatical groups in Afghanistan that produced the likes of Zarqawi and al Qaeda. And they did so, we should always remember, with close association with the United States.

But there is something also being left here. This is a man that is also responsible for the menace of Saddam Hussein. For much of the 1970s and 1980s, this guy, King Fahd himself, was somebody who sputtered something in Saddam Hussein and arranged for a very wide Arab governmental financial support in order to arm and finance the adventures of Saddam Hussein and his deadly invasion of Iran back in 1980. Because he miscalculated assuming that he was going to take over the entire Iranian state and end the export of revolution, so to speak, and the result, he was the one who financed this cultivation of the personality cult of Saddam, which was responsible for the kind of Napoleonic complexes that triggered all these adventures and even invasion of Kuwait later on.

AMY GOODMAN: As’ad AbuKhalil, can you talk about the man who will replace — well, who the Bush family call fondly Bandar Bush, the long-time Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki?

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Yes. Well, first of all, it’s important that we note that Prince Turki was sacked or he left on his own his job as head of the foreign intelligence in Saudi Arabia a mere ten days before September 11. Nobody explained the circumstances under which he left. We know for sure that he was tasked by the United States government back in the late 1970s and on to assemble the kind of Arab Muslim fanatical volunteers to help the United States and the C.I.A. in the fight against the Soviet communist regime. In the course of doing that, this man is single-handedly most responsible for the kind of menace that these fanatical groups now pose to world peace and security. And yet there is very little accountability that is being demanded on him.

But we should also remember that King Fahd, there is another legacy he left behind, he was quite unhappy, unlike his predecessor, with the level of American-Saudi relationship, the fact that they were confined to issues of oil and oil production. So, he wanted to elevate it a step further. He wanted to mimic the strategic partnership between Israel and the United States. Of course, he couldn’t do that, but as result, he was volunteering his services and providing his vast wealth — it’s the wealth of the Saudi people, of course — for various American-Saudi joint covert operations. And this extended all around the world, from the war in Afghanistan, on which we know much about, to some adventures against communism in Africa and in South Yemen, and it also extended to arming the Iranian Contras in Nicaragua.

And for those today in the Western press, in particular, when they speak about the status of the Arab world, when they speak about the clerics, when they speak about the lack of progress and lack of secularism and liberties, it’s all due to King Fahd. He is a man since the 1970s who utilized all this vast wealth from his kingdom in order to buy off so much of the media, the publishing houses, the mosques, the research centers, universities, in much of the Middle East and, also, to use them in a more sinister way, by funding various covert operations that would target left-wing or Arab nationalist critics of the kingdom, and this was the case with a famous Saudi dissident, Nasir As-Sa’id who wrote a scathing book about the House of Saud, containing embarrassing pictures of the king in his famous, notorious youthful days. And as a result, money was paid to one of Yasser Arafat’s lieutenants, and the man was kidnapped, never to be seen again. His family, of course, assumes he was killed by the men of King Fahd.

AMY GOODMAN: As’ad AbuKhalil, there is hardly a critical word about him in the U.S. press right now, of the king. Do you think that’s just because he has died, and there’s a respectfulness?

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: There are a lot of people who die who don’t get respect in the Western press. There are a lot of Palestinians who die regularly and civilians in Iraq from U.S. occupation who do not get any respect whatever. I think this coverage is deliberately motivated by the need, on the part of the United States, to keep close the relationship with this kingdom, who has provided so much services to the United States, and yet, there is a glaring contradiction between the declared war for the change of the Middle East and the support for democracy and human rights, and yet, we are talking about one of the most archaic, certainly the most misogynistic political systems on earth, and you don’t get any of that. I think a lot of world leaders are willing to prostrate themselves before the oil wealth of Saudi Arabia. And they’re demonstrating it on regular basis in the last two days.

AMY GOODMAN: The situation now in Saudi Arabia — I mean, we rarely hear, for example, about regular gun battles that are taking place in the streets. Who are they between, and what do you think will happen?

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: I hear from a lot of people who are coming from Saudi Arabia, and I met many Saudis in the last several weeks when I was in Lebanon. I’ll tell you that many of them are telling me that people who are in the middle class or above are scrambling to arrange for themselves to leave the kingdom. Some people who lived in Lebanon’s civil war tell me that some streets in Riyadh at some points look like the Lebanese civil war. Checkpoints are rising up in so many parts of the kingdom. And the kingdom is all blaming it on some underground network for bin Laden, but my impression, talking to many Saudis, that they don’t even know what is happening. And the man who is in charge of dealing with terrorism and dissent in Saudi Arabia, because they never make a distinction between the two, is one of the most hated and detested people in the kingdom. I am talking about Minister of Interior Nayef, the brother of King Fahd, who has a very long record of persecution, torture, against dissidents, including some liberal dissidents, the likes of which usually would get the support of Condoleezza Rice if they happened to be in a country that doesn’t have oil wells.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Prince Turki and his relationship with Osama bin Laden, the man who will now be Saudi ambassador to the United States. When did he meet with Osama bin Laden? And how do you know he did?

AS’AD ABUKHALIL: Well, first of all, I — when I heard the news that Prince Turki was appointed without much criticism here in the United States, at least in the United Kingdom, perhaps because they follow more foreign affairs, there was quite an outcry. And he had to be put on the defensive and he had to explain to the British people about his background and so on, not with any candor, of course. Here in the United States, I was amazed that there was not a whimper about that appointment.

I will tell you that a week ago when he was first named, I put on my site some links in order to tell readers about the background of this man. I would say, Amy, don’t take me word for it. See what he says about the man. Read his interview with The Indypendent last year. Read his interview last year with Der Spiegel magazine or the talk he gave at the Center for Contemporary Studies at Georgetown two years ago. And all of these remain online. And you will find out that he continues to speak fondly of bin Laden. I mean, basically his theory is that bin Laden was great man and a wonderful man, but that he slipped only on September 11. That before that, he was somebody with whom he was close.

And some people believe that when he last went to Afghanistan and met with the Taliban about surrendering bin Laden, that he may not be forthcoming about that account, that he may have met bin Laden back then. We are talking about the 1990s. So, there are claims that his relationship with bin Laden continued long, long after he was asked to leave the kingdom. And let us remember that there was a footnote in the September 11 Commission which indicated that bin Laden was able to leave the kingdom through the help of a disaffected member of the Royal Family. That also didn’t get attention in the press or in Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us, As’ad AbuKhalil, author of The Battle for Saudi Arabia: Royalty, Fundamentalism and Global Power. His blog is The Angry Arab News Service at AngryArab.blogspot.com. And we’ll connect to it now at DemocracyNow.org. Thanks for joining us.

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