Saudi Arabia's King Fahd Dies

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King Fahd in 1989

A 30-year era ended in Saudi Arabia Monday when King Fahd bin Abdulaziz al Saud succumbed to his numerous ailments and died in a Riyadh hospital at the age of 84. Fahd effectively took the reins of power in 1975, serving as the de facto ruler under his brother King Khalid and then becoming King himself upon Khalid's death in 1982. Apart from Ibn Saud, the family patriarch who founded the country after conquering Arabian tribes, King Fahd has left a mark on the country—for better or worse—that no other ruler has rivaled.

Fahd hoped to be remembered as the great modernizer who was also a faithful servant of Islam; a pro-American leader who used the Kingdom's vast oil wealth to build schools, hospitals, roads and airports as well as to commission a vast reconstruction of Islam's holiest mosques in the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina. But many Saudis will also recall the Fahd era for the profligate lifestyle of many senior members of the royal family—and for the regime that ultimately needed the U.S. to save it from its neighbors, such as Iraq.

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, orchestrated by Saudi native Osama bin Laden and carried out by 15 Saudi militants, ensured that Fahd would go down in history as the Saudi ruler who turned a blind eye to growing Islamic extremism. To protect the regime from spreading Islamic revolution following Ayatullah Khomeini's overthrow of the Shah of Iran, Fahd gave the Kingdom's ultra conservative Islamic establishment the green light to promote an ever rigid Wahhabi form of Islam so long as it continued to recognize the legitimacy of the House of Saud as Saudi Arabia's political leadership. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, he worked with the U.S. government to encourage a jihad against the Red Army. During Fahd's reign, the country imposed a stricter dress code for women, continued to ban women from driving and spent billions exporting Wahhabi teachings and building mosques throughout the Islamic world. The policy backfired not only with the September 11 attacks in the U.S. but two years later inside the Kingdom itself, when Bin Laden's organization started a jihad against Al Saud rule with a series of terrorist attacks.

Fahd leaves grave challenges behind for his successor, King Abdullah, 81, though as royal advisors are anxious to point out, Abdullah has been the Kingdom's ruler in all but name since Fahd began his decade-long health decline with a stroke in 1995. Fears of a messy succession struggle subsided when immediately after announcing Fahd's death following a bout with pneumonia Monday morning, Saudi television also declared that Abdullah would become King and that he had named Prince Sultan, 77, the powerful head of the Saudi armed forces, who recently recovered from colon cancer, as his crown prince and heir apparent. Sources close to the Saudi leadership tell TIME that top members of the royal family gathered at the hospital in the early morning hours after hearing of Fahd's death and quickly appointed Abdullah as king during a meeting inside the medical center.

The Saudi sources also tell TIME that there is a behind-the-scenes battle underway for the No. 3 slot, which would position another prince to succeed as King after Abdullah and Sultan die or relinquish the post. An important factor is seniority in the line of succession, which is restricted to the sons of Ibn Saud. But competence and Byzantine family politics also play a part. The current contest pits influential Interior Minister Prince Nayef, who is known for appeasing the Kingdom's hard-line religious figures for the sake of maintaining their political backing for the regime, against a number of other similarly aging princes. The others to watch are Prince Mithab, minister of municipal and rural affairs, who is considered close to the new King, and Prince Abdulrahman, deputy minister of defense, who like Nayef, Sultan and the late king, hails from the rival Sudeiri branch of the family. A long shot is Prince Talal, who runs an Arab reform organization and is the father of billionaire global investor Prince Alwaleed.