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.
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.