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Funded by Fahd

Saudi Arabia | An infamous playboy leaves a legacy of Islamic extremism

Issue: "Space: Dawn of Discovery," Aug. 13, 2005

Under Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi Islam, the burial of a king is not a time for pomp and circumstance: All men are equal in death. So when Saudi King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz died on Aug. 1, mourners laid him in an unmarked desert grave, and clerics prohibited extravagant public displays of grief.

Politically, the impact of King Fahd's demise was just as nondescript. After suffering a stroke 10 years ago, he largely receded from running his kingdom. His half-brother, Crown Prince Abdullah-now king-has been the de facto leader since then. Few analysts expect policy changes from the succession. Saudi Arabia's main problem persists: how to battle homegrown terrorism, and how to assuage U.S. concerns over the worldwide spread of Wahhabism.

That Saudi Arabia is now synonymous with Islamic extremism is owed in part to King Fahd's legacy. A playboy in his youth, tales of his 1950s excesses include being on a first-name basis with Beirut belly dancers and frittering away $1 million gambling in Monte Carlo one weekend. Conservative Saudi Muslims detested his un-Islamic behavior.

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"Fahd was more Western-leaning and has always been friendly to the West," said Fahad Nazer, a fellow at the Saudi Institute, a Washington think tank. "By many accounts he was enamored of the Western lifestyle. Abdullah is more low-key and moderate, not necessarily Western-leaning. He's always had a more pan-Arab approach to things."

While King Fahd's youthful experiences made him a smooth diplomat with the West, he grew more conservative as he aged. By the time he ascended to the throne in 1982, he hoped to win points with Islamists. Three years earlier militants had seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam. In response, King Fahd adopted the title "Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques" in Mecca and Medina in 1986.

He also solidified the influence of the Wahhabi religious sect, whose most visible symbol is the mutawaa, stick-wielding religious police who seek out improperly veiled women and other infractions of Islamic law. With Saudi petro-dollars, King Fahd financed the building of thousands of Wahhabist mosques and Islamic schools worldwide, now breeding grounds for terrorists.

Now the militants are striking within Saudi Arabia, creating an almost daily need for police crackdowns and heightened security. Domestic terrorism has spiked since 2003, when terrorists attacked a Riyadh housing complex, killing 35. What will not change for King Abdullah is the "permanent damage-control campaign" the Saudis have launched with the United States, Mr. Nazer said, to prove they are fighting and not feeding terrorism.

That is a hard story to sell to the West while Saudi Arabia still funds Wahhabism abroad and teaches it in local schools. A January Freedom House study of 15 U.S. mosques detailed hair-raising Wahhabi literature prescribing animosity and jihad toward non-Muslims. Several insurgents terrorizing Iraq have also proved to be Saudi.

Another ever-present headache for the Saudi royal family is maintaining the lavish benefits its citizens now take for granted: free schooling, health care, and tax-free wages. One pressure is simply Saudi population growth-the average Saudi woman bears six children. John Sardar, a Missouri lawyer who worked more than three years in Saudi Arabia, said Saudi society is now stratified between rich and poor. Combined with Wahhabism, the results are proving dangerous: "Imagine how attractive this gospel of hate is to the poorer classes."

When oil prices fell in the 1990s, the first desires for political reform surfaced. Even though oil-revenue flow is again at $60 a barrel, some discontentment has lingered. "I think the political culture has changed quite dramatically in the last 15 years," Mr. Nazer said.

But there are few signs of lasting reform. In June, the kingdom handed down prison sentences to three prominent dissidents. For now, the aging sons of Saud remain firmly in power. Only when the next generation comes in might the kingdom take a reforming direction.

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