Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

King Faisal and the Shift of Regional Power to Riyad ( 1964- 1975)

Saudi King Faysal bin Abdel Aziz (L) and Lebanese Prime Minister Sami Solh in Riyadh
A picture dated 1957 shows Saudi King Faysal bin Abdel Aziz (L) and Lebanese Prime Minister Sami Solh in Riyadh. (Photo by SAMI SOLH ALBUM / AFP)

In 1964, after his brother had been disposed, Faisal assumed the titles of King and Prime Minister. He introduced a series of measures to control the government finances and new, modern institutions and bureaucracies, without seriously responding to demands for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy. The foundation of a highly centralized Saudi state with limited freedoms and political participation was laid down by him. He introduced a series of domestic reforms ranging from free health care and education to the introduction of television. On the economic front he would take a series of initiatives, culminating in a five year plan in the early 1970s.

With the defeat of Egypt in the 1967 June War and the death of Nasser three years later, Saudi Arabia emerged as contested leader of the Arab world. Given its oil resources and religious significance, King Faisal promoted the country as an alternative to the revolutionary Arab regimes of the 1960s by adopting a pan-Islamic agenda.

Power shifted from Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad to Riyadh. Faisal responded to Arab calls for an oil embargo during the Egyptian-Israeli War in 1973, which increased his popularity not only in the Arab world but also more broadly among Muslims. Notwithstanding a short-lived tension with the West, he emerged as an important player in regional politics.

King Faisal was assassinated by his nephew, Prince Faisal bin Musaid Al Saud, on 25 March 1975 (aged 68) presumably in revenge for the death of the assassin’s brother, Prince Khalid bin Musaid, in the 1960s at the hands of Saudi security services.