Faisal, second surviving son of King Abd el-Aziz, was proclaimed King of Sa'udi Arabia on November 2, 1964, and has thus passed his first official anniversary. It is true that he governed in reality during a considerable part of the reign of his older brother, Sa'ud, whose aptitudes for government were limited, but there is a difference between power wielded in the name of another and power exercised by sovereign right.

Islamic countries have never adhered to any strict doctrine of primogeniture or other legitimist ideas as known in the West. At different times and places different arrangements for the succession may be in favor, and the accidents of personality have always played a decisive part. Some of the monarchies of the past tended toward an emphasis on seniority; the Ottoman Empire did so for years, with the result that a monarch might well be succeeded by his oldest uncle if the family concurred. Seizure of the throne by a vigorous prince was never ruled out, and irregular successions were fairly common. Without an explicit constitution (either written or unwritten) the countries of the old empire and its successor states behaved much as the later Roman Empire did in leaving such choices to the Legions.

In Arabia there is, just the same, an established dynasty which has ruled in the central desert for two centuries and is known as the House of Sa'ud from its first conquering prince. Mohammed ibn Sa'ud, who reigned from 1747 to 1765, is the true founder of the dynasty in the sense that he enlarged its dominions beyond mere tribal limits and welcomed the doctrines of the great Puritan reformer Abd el-Wahhab, in whose name almost all the subsequent conquests were made. (The House of Sa'ud traces its ancestry into much more antique ages, but it enters documented history with these great men.) In spite of many vicissitudes, including an eclipse during which the Sa'ud family was exiled to Kuwait, this family has made Arabian history ever since. The great King Abd el-Aziz, Faisal's father, was as astute, as brave and as lucky as any prince in history; he captured his own ancestral capital, Riyadh, by a daring campaign when he was only 21, and during his long reign (1901-1953) he succeeded in vanquishing all his enemies and uniting the country as it had never been united before. He was, ancestrally, King of Nejd (the central oases and desert). In 1932, after he had unified the country with the exception of the small sheikhdoms around the southern coast, he proclaimed the new kingdom as "Sa'udi" Arabia, the Arabia of the Sa'ud family.

Abd el-Aziz, who was always known in the West as Ibn Sa'ud, a sort of clan or family name, was a true Bedou and never learned classical Arabic. Neither did he visit the West except on that one journey to Egypt (1945) to see Roosevelt and Churchill. But his intellectual curiosity must have been very keen, for the opening up of Arabia is primarily his doing. There are many stories of his valiant battles for progress, often against some rather out-of-date "holy men" or "learned men" who objected to everything new as being irreligious. (Radio, for example, was thought to be the work of devils). During the final phase of his life Ibn Sa'ud had the crowning gift of vast wealth from the oil discoveries on the Persian Gulf, and was able to start his country on its pilgrimage to modernity.

King Faisal inherits this heritage of a great innovator who was also in some fundamental ways a preserver and defender of tradition. It is a combination not often found in action, and demands a variety of gifts (including both wisdom and wealth) not any more common among princes than in ordinary mortals.

There was an interim, of course, when the old King's eldest son Sa'ud reigned (November 1953 to November 1964). For some of the time during these 11 years Faisal, who was Crown Prince and Prime Minister, governed without reigning; there were other intervals when Sa'ud dispensed with his services. These intervals brought on a financial crisis, in spite of the huge revenues of the government, and Faisal returned to power to achieve the foundation of the Monetary Fund and other reforms.

The actual transfer of power from one brother to the other was characteristic of both. King Sa'ud, an amiable man without any true interest in government that one could see, was notably lavish with the money which in the 1950s had become so abundant. He built vast palaces and other public buildings beyond the claims of necessity (he also built schools and roads, although these are seldom mentioned). He does not appear to have perceived that any revenue, however large, has limits. His brother Faisal has always been on the side of productive expenditure within reason, but has a healthy distrust of bankruptcy. The actual currency reserve had dwindled alarmingly by 1962, and it would not be prudent to say what figures are given (by credible men) as to the amount there was in the treasury.

At all events, Faisal returned as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. Under his influence during the Sa'ud reign a semblance of cabinet government had grown up, although many of the ministers were members of the royal family and there is no parliament to which they could be responsible. These transitional conditions were (and are) subject to shift and change, but as time goes on and the great government departments get more and more institutional strength (as by the beginnings of a civil service, for instance, or by an increase in numbers and delegated powers) it seems more and more as if the whole structure had come to stay. Only a very few years ago these great government departments did not even exist, and many men in Arabia remember the day when the King's Treasurer, Sheikh Abdullah es- Sulaiman, used to keep the resources of the kingdom in an iron-bound box under his bed. Now the most active ministries (Finance, Foreign Office, Petroleum, Education, Health) bear a distinct resemblance to similar institutions elsewhere, except, perhaps, that their buildings are newer and bigger. As power is delegated it solidifies, and the time may be near at hand when these great institutions will no longer be required to ask the King's consent and approval for administrative decisions. That time has not yet come: Faisal is an absolute sovereign as his father was before him, and I find it difficult to believe that anything of consequence is done in the government of Arabia without his orders. Much ordinary business is slowed up by this centralization, but on the other hand much bureaucratic red tape is cut by it.

An absolute monarchy is difficult for Western democratic minds to understand when it is combined, as it is here, with benevolence, a will to progress, a determination to raise the level of life for all inhabitants of the country. Some years ago, King Faisal, who was then Prime Minister and Crown Prince, told me that his educational program aimed at nothing less than adequate literacy for every child in Arabia. I said: "Did I understand Your Royal Highness to say every boy in Arabia, or every child in Arabia?" He frowned a little, as he often does. "What I said was every child in Arabia, and that is what I mean," he replied.

The idea of educating girls is in itself revolutionary east of the Jordan river, and the idea of educating all girls can be seen to cut at the very base of the age-old traditionalism of Islam. Schools for girls, which now flourish, are only three years old in Arabia and were bitterly opposed by many who live in the past. On one occasion the national troops had to be called in to ensure the continued existence of a girls' school. The idea of universal education, even for boys, is so strange and new that it has been much opposed amongst the tribes and in the villages, so that rewards of one sort or another have been invented to cajole the reluctant parents. Indeed it can be said that the entire system of education in Arabia is based more upon rewards and inducements than upon legal enactments. There is no reason why any boy in Arabia should not go through the entire school system, right up to the University of Riyadh and beyond that to Harvard or Oxford if he is good enough, without its costing him or his parents anything at all. His bills are all paid, including his maintenance, clothing and other requirements. In a country where there are, substantially speaking, no taxes, where a system of health and welfare is evolving at a great rate, where a traditional custom of outright gifts and other benefits has prevailed for centuries, it is difficult to see how any bright boy (and, pretty soon, any bright girl) can fail to evolve into the sunlight of opportunity.

This, of course, is what Faisal wants. He has taken an enormous interest in all the scholarship assignments and appointments for years past, and everybody acquainted with the subject knows that he has indefatigably supported the applications of talented boys for work in foreign fields. Six of his own sons (all the sons of his monogamous Queen) did advanced studies abroad, five in the United States and one in England; his eldest, who is the son of an earlier marriage, did not do so, but in many ways he is one of the most talented in a really talented family. This prince (Abdullah ibn Faisal) told me last summer that the social system of Arabia had too greatly increased the size of the royal family: "We are not a family, we are a clan," he said with a laugh. Thus he decided to forgo the advantages of that status and become a businessman, which he is today-Jiddah real estate, a most promising field.

Some effort should be made on the part of the Western democratic peoples to understand what an astounding thing it is for a country which has been substantially unchanged for 2,000 years to find itself, almost overnight (that is, in a couple of decades), on the threshhold of an unimaginable future. Social and economic revolution is already here; countless signs of it exist without being codified. For example, the camel, which was the lifeblood of Arabia for centuries, has practically vanished from all but remote districts. This summer I saw no camels anywhere, and in 1960 I saw only the King's herd of specially bred beasts, which are kept only for their milk. One of King Faisal's uncles, Prince Abdullah abd el-Rahman, told me that there exists a saying of the Prophet Mohammed (Upon Whom Be Peace!) to the effect that the day would come when in the land of the Arab the camel would no longer be of any use and the bride-price would go so high as to discourage marriage. Prince Abdullah assured me that this strange condition had already come to pass. Certainly the jeep and the motor in general have taken the camel's place in most of the land; I have flown over a good many Bedouin encampments where not a beast was visible, only motors. I cannot answer for the bride-price, but I have heard that parents nowadays ask so much for their girls that except in the Bedou tribes the age of marriage is going very high; the young men have to wait until they can pay.

One of the most remarkable things is the ease and even zest with which the people of Arabia accommodate themselves to this sudden change. Fresh from the desert, they come into Jiddah or Riyadh and other cities and start driving automobiles before they are used to wearing shoes. They take to air- conditioning so instantly that in a week or so they are saying they could never live without it-I have heard that said by an Arab friend who had not even heard of it five years ago. Of course these are cities, but all the cities are getting bigger precisely because they afford to the impoverished desert-dweller, oppressed and deprived for centuries, the glimpse of the new world.

King Faisal is making his way through formidable difficulties, although his advantages are also great. The principal intellectual difficulty in his situation is that he has had to invent not only his government (which those who govern must always do) but also his system of government. The apparatus of administration was unknown to Arabia in earlier years-certainly this King's father had nothing of the kind. Taxes, as I have said, are negligible; they consist of a slight customs tariff and a tax (Koranic in origin) of 2½ percent of a man's gains as a gift to the poor. Income tax, as such, does not exist. Eighty-seven percent of the kingdom's revenue derives from the royalties and other payments accruing from the oil companies, of which the chief is the Arabian-American Oil Company on the Persian Gulf, with the recent Japanese underwater exploitation growing in importance. (To these there has been added a French concession this year; it hopes to find oil in the land of Midian, in upper Arabia by the Red Sea.)

What King Faisal has done, even before he came to the throne, is to create a system of government where none really existed before. In Nejd and in central Arabia in general it was possible to rule despotically; the King received complaints and petitions; the King ruled on them. A somewhat more sophisticated way of doing things had grown up in the Hijaz, on the Red Sea, where the influences of Turkey and all the rest of Islam were strong, and where the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina brought in large numbers of foreign Moslems. There, after the First World War, the Sherifian family of Hussein and his sons (Colonel T. E. Lawrence's friends) were finally overwhelmed by Ibn Sa'ud's fierce desert warriors, and by 1932 the old King felt able to proclaim the entirely new Kingdom of Arabia as the successor to these and many states.

Faisal was then, by the official chronology, 27 years old, alert and intelligent, very keen to be of use to his father and to the new kingdom. He was sent on a mission abroad as special ambassador to announce his father's accession and to open up diplomatic relations with most of the countries of Europe. (He also visited Russia but, since there is little business to transact between them, there are no diplomatic relations.) He had travelled early and had been in the Hijaz since the first campaign there, some years before. There appears to have been in him some particular aptitude for literary Arabic, for poetry and history as well as for diplomacy. As his father's Viceroy in the Hijaz he came to know the foreigners, the corps diplomatique and the pilgrims from afar, dealing with them in a constant give-and-take which provided him with a depth of experience otherwise unknown in Arabia. He has been Foreign Minister since the office was created, and although the details of administration in the greatly enlarged new office are of necessity delegated, Faisal is still its head. And during these 33 years he has, except for absences overseas, been using the same offices in Jiddah, those of the Viceroy, where he is on duty every day when he is in that capital. (Jiddah is the diplomatic capital, Riyadh the ancestral capital of the royal family in the Nejd oasis, and Mecca the religious capital and center.) The Hijaz in general, with its history of relations with the outer world, has a different character from the rest of the country and a different cultural level in Islamic learning. It is significant that Faisal has spent so many years of his life in this seacoast region, far from his native desert in Central Arabia. (Up to recent decades Riyadh was from two to three weeks distant from the Hijaz by camel; the journey by jet takes as many hours.)

The main physical fact of life in Arabia is, of course, the desert, the lack of arable land and everything that depends upon it, including human life. The country is very largely uninhabited and you may fly for hours across it without seeing anything but sand. The nomads of the desert, roaming in search of water, have led a hard and bitter life for centuries, preying upon each other and their stepmother nature for the merest existence. Such a population, sparse and forever threatened, could not be expected to increase much, and only the new conditions have made posssible the movement of nomads to settlements, their transformation into sedentary workers. In the absence of a census it is impossible to make an informed guess about the size of the population. An estimate by United Nations experts a few years ago is said to have mentioned 3,200,000 as a probability; but this figure was never published and is said to be long surpassed. The Hijaz, on the Red Sea, and the Eastern Province, on the Persian Gulf (most of it once known as Hasa), must contain, between them, about half the population. If this is so, the desert nomads-the Bedouin- would constitute the other half, organized into tribes which only in the present century have been effectively brought under control. Ibn Sa'ud's combination of force and diplomacy proved to be the only means to this end, and a great part of his long life was given to the struggle. His sons have had to continue it, and it is essential to government in Arabia. The King must know the tribes, their family origins and connections, their grazing grounds and water-holes, their dialects, prejudices and legends. It is as important to his effective rule as a knowledge of foreign relations or finance. Faisal is reputed to be exceptionally skillful in such matters, and in his reception of tribal representatives-Thursdays in Riyadh, Saturdays in Jiddah-he manages to keep in touch with them. The Bedouin, with all their great reverence for his family, do not use titles and usually address him simply as "Faisal ibn Abd el-Aziz."

No foreigner can speak with much knowledge of the Bedouin, but in affairs which a foreigner can judge, it is clear that Faisal has made enormous progress both during his Prime Ministership and during this first year as King.

It is in foreign affairs and particularly Arab affairs that this progress has been most noticed. The invasion of the Yemen in the autumn of 1962 by an Egyptian army, under the pretext of defending a "republican movement" which had been conjured up three days before, was a glaring violation of international law. By its threat to the sovereignty of the backward mountain region it constituted a clear threat to the whole of Arabia, where the ambitions of Gamal Abdel Nasser have been under suspicion for some years. The national danger was indeed another of the reasons (along with financial trouble) why Faisal had to be recalled to power at the time. In the intervening three years he has cautiously, stubbornly opposed the Egyptian aggression almost to the point of open war. He has always been willing to negotiate and has done so, only to encounter the Egyptian's unwillingness to honor a bargain. Nasser's failing economy has made it impossible to continue an unpopular war so far away-it costs money to maintain an army of sixty to seventy thousand men, even if they are Egyptians accustomed to penury, at such a great distance-and there was never any sign of an end to the conflict. The "royalists," sustained by Faisal with money and supplies, indeed have had the advantage for the past year and more. (In the Yemen, these words, "royalist" and "republican," often mean merely Arab and Egyptian; this is not understood in Washington, which so hastily recognized the "revolutionary" régime set up by Nasser.) Faisal bided his time, although not without some anger and impatience. In the result, Nasser, faced with disaster, visited Arabia and accepted Faisal's terms in an agreement signed August 24 last, under which the Egyptian army was to be withdrawn from Arabia and a compromise régime set up. The agreement has been kept up to now and there even are signs that Nasser is hastening the withdrawal of his troops.

The impression on the Arab world of the triumph of Faisal's defensive policy has been great. Arabs in general have been swayed by Nasser at times almost to the point of folly, and "Arab socialism" has become fashionable in many countries which have no idea of what the expression means; but every indication in 1965 is that all this has ended. The "three circles" of Nasser's ambition, as shown in his book "The Philosophy of the Revolution," are Islam, Africa and the Arab world, which are partially overlapping but not concentric. It looks now as if his ambitions have failed in all three circles, and the chief reason is that Faisal, in defense of his own country and people, has not hesitated to accept Nasser's challenge. The prestige of Arabia, even among "Arab socialists," is much enhanced.

The atmosphere of very careful legality which surrounded Faisal's accession may or may not be a precedent or lead to constitutional legislation, but it certainly suggests (at least to a Western mind) that the progress may not be only in material advantages, such as schools and roads and airlines, but also in fundamental thought about the nature of the state. The King evidently does not like the word "constitution" whether it is described as written, like the American, or unwritten, like the British. He prefers a somewhat different expression translated as "basic law," which in Arabic refers to the authority of the Koran and the traditions of the Prophet. The trouble with this form of basic law is that it is subject to the interpretations of the "learned men" (the Ulema) who so often know nothing beyond their exegetical disputations.

Suggestions have been made, even publicly, that some system of representation might be evolved in Arabia. To this idea, clearly premature at present, the reply is that the patriarchal Islamic monarchy, with its provisions for general welfare, is as truly democratic as any system ever produced in the West. And yet one observes that every important move in Faisal's great activity is as carefully legalized as if there were a written constitution and a Supreme Court to guard it. It may be unnecessary to emphasize this legalism but it must play its part in the evolution of a system.

For example, when in March 1964 Faisal became Regent of the Kingdom, with all the kingly powers in his own person, it was done by a series of decisions as formal as words could make them. First, the Ulema decided that the differences between King and Crown Prince should be settled by transferring real power to the Crown Prince as Regent. Then the royal family in its own assembly at Riyadh confirmed this decision and asked the Crown Prince to carry it out. Then the Vice-President of the Council of Ministers signed a ministerial decree requesting Faisal to approve. (The Vice-President was Faisal's younger brother, Khaled, who was proclaimed Crown Prince afterward.) Finally, on March 30, 1964, Faisal issued a royal decree confirming these decisions. From then on, King Sa'ud, the legal sovereign, had no powers at all; all were vested in Faisal.

Then, on November 2, 1964, the same process of decision and decree was completed for the final step: Sa'ud was no longer King; Faisal acceded to the throne with full powers. But the care with which these decisions were worded, the extreme formality of their successive proclamations, reveal a sensitiveness toward the public conscience which looks more to the future than to the past. To some observers it seems that all these things put together indicate a steady, coherent tendency towards constitutionalization, under whatever name it may be done. The caution involved in all this is apparent-for in truth Faisal could have been King long ago if he had wished-but the general tug-and-pull and thrust of what has been happening are putting the Arabian peninsula into the middle of our time.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now