Faisal of Saudi Arabia

"Shah Faisal" redirects here. For other uses, see Shah Faisal (disambiguation).

King Faisal in May 1971
Native name Arabic: فيصل بن عبدالعزيز آل سعود
Born 14 April 1906
Riyadh, Emirate of Nejd and Hasa
Died 25 March 1975(1975-03-25) (aged 68)
Saudi Arabia
Title King of Saudi Arabia
  • King Abdulaziz (father)
  • Tarfa bint Abdullah bin Abdullatif Al Sheikh (mother)
Relatives Abd Allah ibn Abd al-Latif Al ash-Sheikh (maternal grandfather)
King of Saudi Arabia
Reign 2 November 1964 – 25 March 1975
Bay'ah 2 November 1964
Predecessor Saud
Successor Khalid
Burial 26 March 1975
Al Oud cemetery, Riyadh
Spouses Sultana bint Ahmed Al Sudairi
Al Jawhara bint Saud Al Kabir
Haya bint Turki Al Turki
Iffat Al-Thunayan
House House of Saud
Religion Islam

Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (Arabic: فيصل بن عبدالعزيز آل سعود Fayṣal ibn ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Āl Su‘ūd; 14 April 1906 – 25 March 1975) was King of Saudi Arabia from 1964 to 1975. As king, he is credited with rescuing the country's finances and implementing a policy of modernization and reform. His main foreign policy themes were pan-Islamism, anti-Communism, and pro-Palestinian nationalism.[1][2] He successfully stabilized the kingdom's bureaucracy, and his reign had significant popularity among Saudis.[3] In 1975 he was assassinated by his nephew Faisal bin Musaid.

Early life

Faisal bin Abdulaziz was born in Riyadh on 14 April 1906.[4][5][6] He is the third son of Saudi Arabia's former king, King Abdulaziz.[7] His mother was Tarfa bint Abdullah bin Abdullatif Al Sheikh,[8] whom Abdulaziz had married in 1902 after capturing Riyadh. She was from the family of the Al ash-Sheikh, descendants of Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab.[9][10] Faisal's maternal grandfather, Abdullah bin Abdullatif, was one of Abdulaziz's principal religious teachers and advisers.[11][12]

Faisal's mother died in 1912 when he was quite young,[11] and he was raised by his maternal grandfather, who taught him the Quran and the principles of Islam, an education that left an impact on him for the remainder of his life.

Faisal had only one full sister, Nurah. She was married to her cousin, Khalid bin Muhammad bin Abdul Rahman, son of Muhammad bin Abdul Rahman.[13]

Faisal, like most of his generation, was raised in an atmosphere in which courage was extremely valued and reinforced. He was motivated by his mother to develop the values of tribal leadership.[14]

In 1919 the British government invited King Abdulaziz to visit London.[15] He could not go, but sent 14-year-old Prince Faisal, making him the first ever Saudi royal to visit England.[15] His visit lasted for five months, and he met with the British officials.[15] During the same period, he also visited France, again being the first Saudi royal to pay an official visit there.[16]

Early experience

As one of King Abdulaziz's eldest sons, Prince Faisal was given numerous responsibilities to consolidate control over Arabia. After the capture of Hail and initial control over Asir in 1922, he was sent to these provinces with nearly six thousand fighters.[17] He achieved complete control over Asir at the end of the year.[17]

In 1925 Prince Faisal, in command of an army of Saudi loyalists, won a decisive victory in the Hejaz. He and Prince Mohammad were given the responsibility for the Ikhwan.[18] Prince Faisal was appointed viceroy of Hejaz in 1926.[19] He often consulted with local leaders during his tenure.[20]

In 1930 Prince Faisal became minister of foreign affairs, a position he continued to hold even as king.[21] Prince Faisal visited Europe several times in this period, including Poland in 1932 and Russia in 1933.[22][23]

Crown Prince and Prime Minister

Upon the accession of Prince Faisal's elder brother, King Saud, to the throne in 1953, Prince Faisal was appointed Crown Prince. King Saud embarked on a lavish and ill-considered spending program[1] that included the construction of a massive royal residence on the outskirts of the capital, Riyadh. He also faced pressure from neighboring Egypt, where Gamal Abdel Nasser had overthrown the monarchy in 1952. Nasser was able to cultivate a group of dissident princes led by Prince Talal, who defected to Egypt (see Free Princes). Fearing that King Saud's financial policies were bringing the state to the brink of collapse, and that his handling of foreign affairs was inept, senior members of the royal family and the ulema (religious leadership) pressured Saud into appointing Faisal to the position of prime minister in 1958, giving Faisal wide executive powers.[24] In this new position, Faisal set about cutting spending dramatically in an effort to rescue the state treasury from bankruptcy. This policy of financial prudence was to become a hallmark of his era and earned him a reputation for thriftiness among the populace.

A power struggle ensued between King Saud and Crown Prince Faisal, and on 18 December 1960, Prince Faisal resigned as prime minister in protest, arguing that King Saud was frustrating his financial reforms. King Saud took back his executive powers and, having induced Prince Talal to return from Egypt, appointed him as minister of finance.[25] In 1962, however, Prince Faisal rallied enough support within the royal family to install himself as prime minister for a second time.[24]

It was during this period as head of the Saudi government that Prince Faisal, though still not king, established his reputation as a reforming and modernizing figure.[1] He introduced education for women and girls despite the consternation of many conservatives in the religious establishment. To appease the objectors he allowed the female educational curriculum to be written and overseen by members of the religious leadership, a policy which lasted long after his death.

In 1963 Prince Faisal established the country's first television station, though actual broadcasts would not begin for another two years.[26] As with many of his other policies, the move aroused strong objections from the religious and conservative sections of the country. Faisal assured them, however, that Islamic principles of modesty would be strictly observed, and made sure that the broadcasts contained a large amount of religious programming.

Crown Prince Faisal helped establish the Islamic University of Madinah in 1961. In 1962 Prince Faisal helped found the Muslim World League, a worldwide charity to which the Saudi royal family has reportedly since donated more than a billion dollars.[27]

Struggle with King Saud

The struggle with King Saud continued in the background during this time. Taking advantage of the king's absence from the country for medical reasons in early 1963, Faisal began amassing more power for himself. He removed many of Saud's loyalists from their posts and appointed like-minded princes in key military and security positions,[28][29] such as his brother Prince Abdullah, to whom he gave command of the National Guard in 1962. Upon King Saud's return, Prince Faisal demanded that he be made regent and that King Saud be reduced to a purely ceremonial role. In this, he had the crucial backing of the ulema (elite Islamic scholars), including a fatwa (edict) issued by the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, a relative of Prince Faisal on his mother's side, calling on King Saud to accede to his brother's demands.[30] In other words, Prince Faisal was backed by the religious establishment, which is headed by the Al-Shaykh, the descendants of Muhammad bin Abd al Wahab. In addition, Prince Faisal sought authority through significant Sudairi backing which he cemented by his marriage to a Sudairi.

King Saud refused, however, and made a last-ditch attempt to retake executive powers, leading Prince Faisal to order the National Guard to surround King Saud's palace. His loyalists outnumbered and outgunned, King Saud relented, and on 4 March 1964, Prince Faisal was appointed regent. A meeting of the elders of the royal family and the ulema was convened later that year, and a second fatwa was decreed by the grand mufti, calling on King Saud to abdicate the throne in favor of his brother. The royal family supported the fatwa and immediately informed King Saud of their decision. King Saud, by now shorn of all his powers, agreed, and Prince Faisal was proclaimed king on 2 November 1964.[24][29] Shortly thereafter, Saud bin Abdulaziz went into exile in Greece.

King of Saudi Arabia

In an emotional speech shortly after he came to power on 2 November 1964,[31] Faisal said:

I beg of you, brothers, to look upon me as both brother and servant. 'Majesty' is reserved to God alone and 'the throne' is the throne of the Heavens and Earth.

In 1967 King Faisal established the post of second prime minister and appointed Prince Fahd to this post.[32]


Upon his accession, King Faisal still viewed the restoration of the country's finances as his main priority. He continued to pursue his conservative financial policies during the first few years of his reign, and his aims of balancing the country's budget eventually succeeded, helped by an increase in oil production.


Early in his rule, he issued an edict that all Saudi princes had to school their children inside the country, rather than sending them abroad; this had the effect of making it "fashionable" for upper-class families to bring their sons back to study in the Kingdom.[33] King Faisal also introduced the country's current system of administrative regions, and laid the foundations for a modern welfare system. In 1970 he established the Ministry of Justice and inaugurated the country's first "five-year plan" for economic development.[34]

Television broadcasts officially began in 1965. In 1966 an especially zealous nephew of Faisal attacked the newly established headquarters of Saudi television but was killed by security personnel. The attacker was the brother of Faisal's future assassin, and the incident is the most widely accepted motive for the murder.[35] Despite the opposition from conservative Saudis to his reforms, King Faisal continued to pursue modernization while always making sure to couch his policies in Islamic terms.

Steps against coups d'état

King Faisal with Muammar Gaddafi early 1970s

The 1950s and 1960s saw numerous coups d'état in the region. Muammar al-Gaddafi's coup that overthrew the monarchy in oil-rich Libya in 1969 was especially ominous for Saudi Arabia due to the similarity between the two sparsely-populated desert countries.[36] As a result, King Faisal undertook to build a sophisticated security apparatus and cracked down firmly on dissent. As in all affairs, King Faisal justified these policies in Islamic terms. Early in his reign, when faced with demands for a written constitution for the country, King Faisal responded that "our constitution is the Quran".[37] In the summer of 1969 King Faisal ordered the arrest of hundreds of military officers, including some generals,[1][38] alleging that a military coup was being planned.[39] The coup was planned primarily by air force officers and aimed at overthrowing the monarchy and founding a Nasserist regime in the country.[39] The arrests were possibly based on a tip from American intelligence,[36] but it is unclear how serious the threat actually was.

Religious inclusiveness

King Faisal seemed to hold the pluralist view, favouring limited, cautious accommodation of popular demands for inclusive reform, and made repeated attempts to broaden political representation, harking back to his temporarily successful national integration policy from 1965 to 1975. King Faisal acknowledged his country's religious and cultural diversity, which includes the predominantly Shia Ahsa in the east; the Asir in the southwest, with tribal affinities to Yemen, especially among the Ismaili tribes of Najran and Jizan; and the Kingdom of the Hejaz, with its capital Mecca. He included non-Wahhabi, cosmopolitan Sunni Hejazis from Mecca and Jeddah in the Saudi government. However, after his reign, discrimination based on sect, tribe, region, and gender became the order of the day and has remained as such until today.[40]

The role and authority of the ulema declined after the rise of King Faisal even though they had helped bring him to the throne in 1964. Despite his piety and biological relationship through his mother to the Al as Shaykh family, and his support for the pan-Islamic movement in his struggle against pan-Arabism, he decreased the ulema's power and influence.[41] Unlike his successor, King Faisal attempted to ensure that the most radical clerics did not hold society's most powerful religious posts. He tried to block extremist clerics from gaining dominion over religious institutions such as the Council of Senior Ulema, the kingdom's highest religious body, or rising to high religious positions such as Grand Mufti, a politically recognized senior expert charged with maintaining the entire system of Islamic law. Still, at least some of the king's advisers warned early on that, once religious zealots were encouraged, they would come back to haunt the kingdom.[27] King Faisal rejected the ulema's opposition to aspects of his accelerated modernization attempts, sometimes even in matters considered by them to be major issues.[41]

Corruption in the royal family was taken very seriously by a religious group that had its basic orientation in the Islamic theological colleges and that challenged some of the accepted theological interpretations adopted by the Saudi regime. One such influential figure was Shaykh bin Baz, then rector of the Al Medina college of theology. King Faisal would not tolerate his criticism and had him removed from his position. But his teachings had already radicalized some of his students. One of them was Juhayman al-Otaybi.[42]

Abolition of slavery

Slavery did not vanish in Saudi Arabia until King Faisal issued a decree for its total abolition in 1962. Peter Hobday stated that about 1,682 slaves were freed at that time, at a cost to the government of $2,000 each.[42] It is argued that the US began to raise the issue of slavery after the meeting between King Abdulaziz and US president Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1945 and that John F. Kennedy finally persuaded the House of Saud to abolish slavery in 1962.[43]

Foreign relations

Egypt's President Nasser with Yasser Arafat and King Faisal at an Arab summit, September 1970
King Faisal, US President Richard Nixon and his wife Pat Nixon (27 May 1971)

As king, Faisal continued the close alliance with the United States begun by his father, and relied on the US heavily for arming and training his armed forces. King Faisal was also anti-Communist. He refused any political ties with the Soviet Union and other Communist bloc countries, professing to see a complete incompatibility between Communism and Islam,[1][44] and associating communism with zionism,[45] which he also sharply criticized. He maintained close relationships with Western democracies including the United Kingdom: on his state visit in 1967, he presented Queen Elizabeth II with a diamond necklace.[46]

King Faisal also supported monarchist and conservative movements in the Arab world, and sought to counter the influences of socialism and Arab nationalism in the region by promoting pan-Islamism as an alternative. To that end, he called for the establishment of the Muslim World League, visiting several Muslim countries to advocate the idea. He also engaged in a propaganda and media war with Egypt's pan-Arabist president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and engaged in a proxy war with Egypt in Yemen that lasted until 1967 (see Yemeni Civil War). Faisal never explicitly repudiated pan-Arabism, however, and continued to call for inter-Arab solidarity in broad terms.

Between 23 and 25 September 1969, King Faisal convened a conference in Rabat, Morocco, to discuss the arson attack on the Al Aqsa Mosque that had occurred a month earlier. The leaders of 25 Muslim states attended and the conference called for Israel to give up territory conquered in 1967. The conference also set up the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and pledged its support for the Palestinians.[47]

Following the death of Nasser in 1970, King Faisal drew closer to Egypt's new president, Anwar Sadat, who himself was planning a break with the Soviet Union and a move towards the pro-American camp. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, launched by Sadat, King Faisal withdrew Saudi oil from world markets, in protest over Western support for Israel during the conflict. This action increased the price of oil and was the primary force behind the 1973 energy crisis. It was to be the defining act of King Faisal's career, and gained him lasting prestige among many Arabs worldwide. In 1974 he was named Time magazine's Man of the Year, and the financial windfall generated by the crisis fueled the economic boom that occurred in Saudi Arabia after his death. The new oil revenue also allowed Faisal to greatly increase the aid and subsidies begun following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War[2] to Egypt, Syria, and the Palestine Liberation Organization.[48] It is a commonly-held belief in Saudi Arabia, and the wider Arab world, that King Faisal's oil boycott was the real cause of his assassination, via a Western conspiracy,[49][50] his assassin having just returned from the United States (see below).

Personal life

King Faisal married four times.[51] Three of his spouses were from powerful families; Sudairi, Al Jiluwi and Al Thunayan.[52]

His first wife, Sultana bint Ahmed Al Sudairi, was the mother of his eldest son Prince Abdullah, whom King Faisal fathered when he was just fifteen. From the Sudairi family, she was the younger sister of Hassa bint Ahmed who was the mother of the Sudairi brothers.[51][53]

His second, and most prominent, wife was Iffat Al-Thuniyyan. She was born and raised in Turkey and was a descendant of the Al Saud family who were taken to Istanbul or Cairo by Egyptian forces in 1818 (see First Saudi State). They first met in Istanbul around 1932 while he was officially visiting Turkey.[15] Prince Faisal took Iffat to Jeddah where they wed in 1932.[15][54] Iffat is credited with being the influence behind many of her late husband's reforms, particularly with regard to women.[55][56]

His third wife, whom he married in October 1935, was Al Jawhara bint Saud bin Abdulaziz Al Saud Al Kabir, the daughter of his aunt, Nuora bint Abdul Rahman, with whom Faisal had a daughter, Munira.[51][57]

His fourth wife, who is the mother of Prince Khalid, was Haya bint Turki bin Abdulaziz Al Turki,[51] a member of the Al Jiluwi clan.[8][58]

Faisal's sons received exceptional education compared to other princes born to Saudi monarchs. Prince Turki received formal education at prestigious schools in New Jersey, and he later attended Georgetown University,[59] while Prince Saud was an alumnus of Princeton University. King Faisal's sons have held, and continue to hold, important positions in the Saudi government. His eldest son Prince Abdullah, was born in 1922 and held some governmental positions for a while. Prince Khalid was the governor of Asir Province in southwestern Saudi Arabia for more than three decades before becoming governor of Makkah Province in 2007. Prince Saud was the Saudi foreign minister between 1975 and 2015. Prince Turki served as head of Saudi Intelligence, ambassador to the United Kingdom, and later ambassador to the United States.[60]

King Faisal's daughter, Haifa bint Faisal, is married to Bandar bin Sultan. Prince Bandar had been all but disowned by his father Prince Sultan at the time due to his perceived inferior lineage. King Faisal, however, forced Prince Sultan to recognize Bandar as a legitimate Prince by giving Prince Bandar his own daughter's hand in marriage. Another daughter, Lolowah bint Faisal is a prominent activist for women's education in Saudi Arabia. In 1962 his daughter Princess Sara founded one of the first charitable organizations, Al Nahda, which won the first Chaillot prize for human rights organisations in the Gulf in 2009.[61] One of his daughters and Prince Khalid's full sister, Princess Mishail, died at the age of 72 in October 2011.[62] His granddaughter, Princess Reem Al Faisal, is a photographer and gallery owner based in Jeddah.[63]

King Faisal was fluent in English and French.[64]


On 25 March 1975 King Faisal was shot point-blank and killed by his half-brother's son, Faisal bin Musaid, who had just come back from the United States. The murder occurred at a majlis (literally 'a place for sitting'), an event where the king or leader opens up his residence to the citizens to enter and petition the king.[65]

In the waiting room, Prince Faisal talked to Kuwaiti representatives who were also waiting to meet King Faisal.[66] When the Prince went to embrace him, King Faisal leaned to kiss his nephew in accordance with Saudi custom. At that instant, Prince Faisal took out a pistol and shot him. The first shot hit King Faisal's chin and the second one went through his ear.[66] A bodyguard hit Prince Faisal with a sheathed sword.[66] Oil minister Zaki Yamani yelled repeatedly not to kill the Prince.[66]

King Faisal was quickly taken to the hospital.[66] He was still alive as doctors massaged his heart and gave him a blood transfusion.[66] Their efforts were unsuccessful, and King Faisal died shortly afterward. Both before and after the attack the prince was reported to be calm.[66] Following the killing, Riyadh had three days of mourning during which all government activities were suspended.[66]

One theory for the murder was avenging the death of Prince Khaled bin Musaid, the brother of Prince Faisal bin Musaid. King Faisal instituted modern and secular reforms that led to the installation of television, which provoked violent protests, one of which was led by Prince Khaled, who, during the course of an attack on a television station in 1966, was shot dead by a policeman.[67]

Prince Faisal, who was captured directly after the attack, was at first officially declared insane, but following the trial a panel of Saudi medical experts decided that he was sane when he shot the king. The nation's high religious court convicted him of regicide and sentenced him to execution. He was beheaded in the public square in Riyadh.[66] The public execution took place on 18 June 1975 at 4:30 pm  three hours before sundown before a throng of thousands at the Al Hukm Palace (Palace of Justice).

King Faisal's body was buried in Al Oud cemetery in Riyadh on 26 March 1975.[68][69] His successor, King Khalid, wept over his body at his funeral.[70]

Memorials and legacy

Faisal Mosque, named after King Faisal, in Islamabad, Pakistan

After his death, Faisal's family established the King Faisal Foundation, a philanthropic organisation.

King Faisal was eulogized by lyricist Robert Hunter in the title track of the Grateful Dead's 1975 album Blues for Allah.[71] In 2013 Alexei Vassiliev published a biography, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia: Personality, Faith and Times.[45]

In Pakistan



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Faisal of Saudi Arabia
Born: 1906 Died: 1975
Regnal titles
Preceded by
King of Saudi Arabia
2 November 1964 – 25 March 1975
Succeeded by
Saudi Arabian royalty
Preceded by
Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia
9 November 1953 – 2 November 1964
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by
Minister for Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia
Succeeded by
Ibrahim bin Abdullah Al Suwaiyel
Preceded by
Ibrahim bin Abdullah Al Suwaiyel
Minister for Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia
Succeeded by
Saud bin Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud
Preceded by
Saud of Saudi Arabia
Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia
Succeeded by
Saud of Saudi Arabia
Preceded by
Saud of Saudi Arabia
Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia
Succeeded by
Khalid of Saudi Arabia
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