Saudi Arabia's King Fahd Dead

Saudi Arabia's King Fahd, ruler of the world's top oil-producing nation, died early today, the Saudi royal court said. He was said to be 84 years old.

"With all sorrow and sadness, the royal court in the name of his highness Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and all members of the family announces the death of the custodian of the two holy mosques, King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz," according to a statement read on state-run Saudi TV by the country's information minister.

Fahd died at approximately 2:30 a.m. ET, at King Faisal Specialist Hospital in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where he was admitted on May 27 for unspecified medical tests, an official at the hospital told The Associated Press. Saudi official sources had said then said that the monarch had been running a fever and "had water in his lungs" which required hospitalization. The king's funeral reportedly is scheduled for Tuesday.

The king has had a less-prominent role in Saudi Arabian affairs since suffering a stroke in 1995, but he has kept the country involved in international affairs. Despite the cooling of relations since 2001, he remained a close ally of the United States.

His half-brother Crown Prince Abdullah, 81, has been running the kingdom since his illness and has been appointed the new king. According to the Saudi statement said the new King Abdullah announced that his half brother and the Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, 77, would be the nation's next crown prince.

Learning the Ropes

King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud was born in the early 1920s in Riyadh. His exact birthdate is unknown, but Saudi TV today said the king was 84. He was the son of King Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, the founder of the kingdom, and Hassa bint Ahmadi al-Sudayri. He was one of seven sons born to King Abd-al-Aziz's favorite wife.

He attended the palace school and later learned the ropes at his father's court. From an early age, he was exposed to domestic and international political events. He was a youngster in 1932 when the kingdom was officially founded, and by his early 20s he was helping out his brother Faisal, who was then foreign minister. In 1945, the brothers attended the signing of the United Nations Charter in San Francisco. In 1953, he was the sole Saudi Arabian representative at Queen Elizabeth II's coronation and later became the nation's first minister of education.

In the 1950s, Fahd supported Faisal in a squabble with their eldest brother, King Saud, over the throne. The line of succession to the Saudi throne passes through the sons of the late King Abdul Aziz in order of seniority unless someone gives up his right voluntarily. When a king takes over, he appoints the new crown prince and heir-apparent with the consultation of the senior princes of the royal family.

Faisal secured the crown in 1964 and rewarded Fahd by appointing him second deputy prime minister three years later. When Faisal was assassinated in 1975, Khalid bin Abdul Aziz, another of Fahd's brothers, became the king. Fahd was named crown prince and first deputy prime minister. Due to Khalid's poor health, Fahd took over more and more of the palace affairs.

On Khalid's death in 1982, Fahd became the king and prime minister of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Modern King

Fahd's reputation as a former gambler and womanizer made him a particular target of the Islamic fundamentalists who gained prominence in the late 1970s. Religious opponents also criticized the royal family for its conspicuous consumption and privileges, demanding strict observation of Islamic principles and rituals. The kingdom regarded the Islamic opposition merely as an irritant devoid of serious political aspirations -- yet to appease them, Fahd poured millions of dollars into the religious establishment and into enlarging fundamentalist universities..

When Fahd became king he also took on the title of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques. These are the holiest sites in the Islamic religion: one the birthplace of Muhammad in Mecca, the other his burial site in Medina. Saudi Arabia remains one of the most conservative places in the world, where alcohol is nonexistent, the large number of foreign workers are strictly segregated from Saudis, and women seen in public are in full chador. Fahd's title reflected a renewed expression of the Al-Saud family's commitment to Islam.

While Saudi Arabia has always maintained close relations with the United States, Fahd was considered to be more pro-West than other royal family members, which unnerved Islamic fundamentalists even more.

A turning point came after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990 and set his sights on Saudi Arabia; the United States persuaded Fahd to allow hundreds of thousands of U.S. and other Western troops, including women, into his insular, rigidly Muslim kingdom to face the Iraqis. The move enraged fundamentalist Muslims and spawned the first potent opposition to Fahd's rule, including demonstrations and 1995 bombings at two U.S. military posts that killed 25 Americans. Osama bin Laden, who had been stripped of his Saudi citizenship by Fahd's government, was furious that the Saudis opted to rely on Western troops for protection, rather than the mujahedeen who had fought in Afghanistan to liberate Kuwait.

U.S. Relations

The Saudi relationship with the United States cooled after 2001. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks came from Saudi Arabia, in addition to bin Laden. Many in the U.S. administration blamed kingdom's strict Wahabi school of Islam for fueling terrorism.

The United States has pressured Saudi Arabia to adopt counterterrorism measures and support the war in Iraq. In February 2003, Saudi Arabia allowed the United States the use of the Prince Sultan air base, home to 5,000 U.S. troops, for the enforcement of a "no-fly" zone over southern Iraq, but not for offensive use in a war. Abdullah has overseen a crackdown on Islamic militants and has championed a campaign against extremists and this year introduced the kingdom's first ever elections.

After the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the oil embargo and subsequent oil price hike, Saudi Arabia emerged as a major player in the international arena and a leading power in the Arab world. King Fahd played a significant role in the modernization of his country, which occupies more than 75 percent of the Arabian Peninsula.

Oil wealth increased the standard of living of most Saudis, but significant population growth strained the government's ability to improve the country's standard of living. Heavy dependence on oil revenues continues and the lack of private-sector jobs remains the principal obstacle to economic diversification and development.

By then, Fahd's state of health had deteriorated and he had turned his powers over to Crown Prince Abdullah, who was widely considered to be king in all but name. Abdullah is regarded as a conservative, with a strong sense of Arab and Islamic identity.