Why did Faisal choose Washington over Moscow?
To tackle Zionism, he tried to isolate the Zionists from the Jews by adopting a policy of differentiation between Zionism and Judaism terming the Jews as the ‘People of the Book’ while branding Zionism as the creed that was bent upon seizing and destroying Muslims’ holy places
Presently, Saudi Arabia is the most powerful state in the Muslim world, for which it owes greatly to one man — Faisal — who ruled it during the ‘60s and ‘70s and to whom the nonagenarian Henry Kissinger, the guru of American diplomacy, referred to as “the mightiest Arab in a millennium.” There were many twists and turns in Faisal’s life. He started as a barefoot boy in a tattered shirt wandering in the desert and with good luck first became a prince; then the envoy of his father sauntering Western capitals; later, the viceroy of the territory that housed Islam’s most sacred places; to be followed as prime minister expected to save the country from bankruptcy and eventually the king whose immediate task was to save the kingdom from disintegration. To consolidate his hold on the complex internal dynamics of the country, he worked out a ‘success formula’ which was ‘a step forward, half a step back, quarter of a step forward again.’
At the external level, the challenges included the threat of Zionism, popularity of secular nationalism in the Arab world under the Egyptian President Gemal Abdel Nasser and the Cold War bloc politics at the global level. To tackle Zionism, he tried to isolate the Zionists from the Jews by adopting a policy of differentiation between Zionism and Judaism terming the Jews as the ‘People of the Book’ while branding Zionism as the creed that was bent upon seizing and destroying Muslims’ holy places as well as exiling Palestinian Muslims and inhabiting their lands with Jews. This type of politics complemented his standpoint in the Cold War as he openly sided with capitalist America against Marxist Russia because he thought though wrongly as we now know that Communism was the creation of Zionism and these two isms only pretended to oppose each other. This means Faisal hated Communists as much as he hated Zionists. It became natural for him to oppose Communism and by implication the Soviet Union at every level.
Why did Faisal choose Washington over Moscow? One explanation is that he was a devout Muslim totally opposed to any ideology or secular philosophy that contradicted with Islamic laws. That is why he refused any form of cooperation with the Soviet Union, China or any other communist country. To buttress this argument, one can quote his exchange with a Soviet ambassador during the visit to Afghanistan in which when the ambassador demanded, “Your Majesty, the Soviet Union was the first to recognise your father’s government. Why will you not open an embassy in Moscow, and not recognise the Soviet Union;” to which Faisal replied, “Mister Ambassador, go to Moscow and tell them to recognise God, and tomorrow I shall open an embassy in Moscow.” No one should question his commitment to religion yet this religious stance served a dual purpose: one, without walking any diplomatic tightrope, he could join the American camp by accepting them as ‘Ahle al-Kitab’ (People of the Book) and reject the Soviet commies as godless atheists. Two, by opposing Moscow, he could oppose Russia’s friend Nasser, who was ruling the hearts and minds of the Arabs and in this way could stake a claim to the leadership of the Arab world.
Despite close relations with the US, neither the CIA nor the Israeli intelligence “ever discovered that Faisal had fully endorsed Sadat’s decision to go to war” with Israel in 1973 and within forty-eight hours of the hostilities told the visiting envoys of the Egyptian President Sadat that “You have made us all proud
Initially, in the 1950s, Nasser was young Faisal’s idol but by the end of the ‘60s, the latter became the greatest foe of the former because the Egyptian president had allowed the Russians a strong foothold in the Middle East by inviting twenty thousand of their military personnel to strengthen his air defence system which in turn provided an excuse to the Americans to keep strengthening the Israelis to avert the ‘Soviet military threat’ in the region. Nasser’s 1967 war with Israel also caused a tempest in the Saudi street. Not only the Saudi but the entire Arab street stood right behind Nasser. First, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Algeria and even Kuwait stopped the oil supply to the US and Britain; and later, Yemen, Sudan, Syria, Iraq and Algeria severed diplomatic ties with these two Western nations. Faisal tried to cool the burning passions by holding a public meeting at the racecourse in Riyadh but was howled down by the restive crowd amid shouts of “Cut off the oil!” After the war, he did announce 50 million pounds in aid to Egypt; which, the critics felt that “Saudi Arabia helped Egypt after the 1967 war not out of love for that country. Faisal was afraid of [Nasser’s] regime. If he had not helped Egypt in its crisis, his regime would have come down on him.” After Nasser’s death, Faisal filled the vacuum as the leader of the Arab world.
Despite close relations with the US, neither the CIA nor the Israeli intelligence “ever discovered that Faisal had fully endorsed Sadat’s decision to go to war” with Israel in 1973 and within forty-eight hours of the hostilities told the visiting envoys of the Egyptian President Sadat that “You have made us all proud. In the past we could not lift our head up. Now, we can.” As the Arabs began to close their ranks, the Israelis shot an SOS to the US requesting supply of arms worth $850 million but much beyond their expectations the US provided about 22,600 tons of armaments through 550 air missions to Tel Aviv which President Nixon boasted was “an operation bigger than the Berlin airlift in 1948-49,” to which Faisal angrily responded, “In view of the increase of American military aid to Israel, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has decided to halt all oil exports to the United States.” Within two weeks of closing the oil taps, the US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger rushed to Saudia and begged Faisal to lift the embargo but returned empty-handed because Faisal insisted that “the United States should first order Israel to withdraw” and “the Palestinians should be restored to their rightful homeland.” The Americans refused to accept his preconditions and instead began preparations to take over the Saudi oilfields in late 1973; however, saner elements prevailed that curbed such reckless action.
The Americans could neither forget nor forgive Faisal’s defiance. Around the end of 1974 or in January 1975, Faisal had two dreams: in the first one, his dead mother invited him to join her whereas in the second his grandfather, father, eldest brother and an uncle — all dead — dragged him into a car against his will which Faisal concluded were the premonitions that his end was near. Within two months — in March 1975 — he was assassinated by a nephew, Faisal bin Musaid. His death has remained a mystery mired in conspiracy theories such as a reprisal from CIA to punish him for the oil embargo; headstrong opposition to Israel; revenge by the assassin of a brother killed a decade ago or a grudge against the king who had put a ban on the foreign travels of the killer due to past shady activities. Although Faisal’s successor, King Khalid, told a Lebanese newspaper that the murder was an “isolated act by a deranged person, and not any foreign conspiracy,” yet the doctors pronounced the murderer sane which meant that the crime was intentionally committed and that is why he was publicly executed otherwise the punishment would have been milder.