Assassination of King Faisal Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

At a religious celebration, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia was shot and killed by his nephew. Faisal modernized his country by using millions of oil revenue dollars to improve his people’s daily lives and enhance Saudi Arabia’s position in the international community. After his death, more tradition-minded factions promoted Wahhābīism and the subsequent rise of jihadism and worldwide terrorism.

Summary of Event

King Faisal was ruler of Saudi Arabia for nearly ten years before he was assassinated by a possibly mentally unstable nephew. His reign was a period of progressiveness and modernization for Saudi Arabia. Faisal’s assassination could have been the result of his nephew’s Westernization, interest in the radical Arab politics that sought to uproot the House of Saՙūd (Saudi Arabia’s royal family), or desire to avenge his older brother’s death. Assassinations and attempts;Faisal Saudi Arabia;government [kw]Assassination of King Faisal (Mar. 25, 1976) [kw]King Faisal, Assassination of (Mar. 25, 1976) [kw]Faisal, Assassination of King (Mar. 25, 1976) Assassinations and attempts;Faisal Saudi Arabia;government [g]Middle East;Mar. 25, 1976: Assassination of King Faisal[02340] [g]Saudi Arabia;Mar. 25, 1976: Assassination of King Faisal[02340] [c]Crime and scandal;Mar. 25, 1976: Assassination of King Faisal[02340] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 25, 1976: Assassination of King Faisal[02340] Faisal Faisal bin Musad Khalid

Faisal was considered to be the most progressive, most clearheaded, and best educated of the Saudi kings. He made many improvements in his country. He increased oil production and used the profits to build factories, harbors, refineries, and hospitals and to acquire weapons and increase the size of his army. He introduced social reforms, bringing more educational opportunities to girls and women and providing modern media—such as television—to the common people.

Some Saudis considered King Faisal’s progressive mind-set and social reforms to be in direct opposition to the teachings of Islam. This was problematic: Faisal, after all, was the de facto spiritual leader of the world’s six hundred million Muslims; Saudi Arabia is home to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities. Although his family had always promoted Islamic Wahhābīism, Wahhābīism[Wahhabiism] Muslims;Wahhābīism[Wahhabiism] King Faisal’s drive to modernize Saudi Arabia was seen by religious fundamentalists as incompatible with the austere aims of Islam.

Wahhābīism, a puritanical Islamic movement founded in the eighteenth century, taught that precepts added to Islam after c. 1000 c.e. had to be expunged. The sect did not believe in the veneration of saints or the embellishment of the rites and places of worship. Followers of Wahhābīism also believed that holy wars should be mounted against any Muslim not accepting literal interpretations of the Qur՚ān.

King Faisal of Saudi Arabia waves during his welcoming ceremony at the White House in 1971 as President Richard M. Nixon looks on. Faisal, who sought to modernize his country and whose values conflicted with Islamic fundamentalism, was assassinated in 1976.

(NARA)

The House of Saՙūd allowed male members of the family to travel and be educated abroad. This practice brought criticism from those who believed exposure to other cultures could corrupt or compromise the Islamic faith. Prince Faisal bin Musad, King Faisal’s nephew, was one of the younger family members allowed to go abroad. He studied in the United States at San Francisco State College, then at the University of Colorado, and finally at the University of California, Berkeley. He accepted many Western ways while living in the United States: He had a blond American girlfriend, let his hair grow long, and even got arrested for selling drugs. Diplomatic immunity allowed him to leave the country without a conviction for drug dealing. Prince Faisal next went to Beirut, Lebanon, where, reportedly, he was involved in drugs and underwent psychiatric treatment. When he got back to Saudi Arabia, his passport was revoked, and he settled into a teaching position at Riyadh University.

Prince Faisal’s family was regarded as one of the more eccentric in the House of Saՙūd. In 1965, his brother Khalid, a religious extremist, was killed by Saudi police while participating in a protest at a Riyadh television station. Khalid, like other Wahhābīists, believed the depiction of images—like those on television—was against the teachings of Islam. Prince Faisal felt that Khalid’s death was the king’s fault.

The House of Saՙūd included more than three thousand princes and at least two thousand female members with husbands and sons, so King Faisal had little opportunity to interact with his nephew or even to be aware of his animosity. The king was concerned with the Yom Kippur War of 1973 between Israel and Arab states and with Saudi Arabia’s international place in the oil industry. Incentives and bribes from previously scornful governments started to flood into Saudi Arabia, and King Faisal was becoming a powerful international force. During the early 1970’s, the king was at the peak of his worldwide prestige because of his shrewd use of, and the world’s dependence on, his country’s oil.

On March 25, 1975, King Faisal held his customary majlis to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet Muḥammad; it was not remarkable that his nephew was in attendance. A majlis is a king’s “open house,” in which citizens can meet the king and voice concerns. On such occasions, the citizens can get close enough to touch or kiss the king as a sign of respect. On this occasion, King Faisal held his majlis in the royal palace in Riyadh; not only Arabs attended, but foreign delegates also. Arab television crews were on hand to record the event.

Prince Faisal took his place in the reception line to greet his uncle. King Faisal recognized him and leaned forward so his nephew could show respect by kissing the king’s nose. Without word or warning, the nephew pulled a pistol from his traditional white robe and shot the king at point-blank range, hitting him in the chin and ear. The first shot went through the king’s brain and was likely the one that killed him. There was some confusion about how many times the prince fired the gun, even though the entire assassination was recorded by the television crew.

A bodyguard struck the assassin belatedly with a sheathed sword. A king’s minister shouted not to kill the prince, who was immediately captured and restrained. King Faisal was rushed off to a hospital. Supposedly, as he lay dying, the king asked that the prince not be executed for his crime. On the contrary, other reports said that King Faisal died instantly from the first shot.

Prince Faisal revealed that he had undergone psychiatric treatment in Beirut. If it had been determined that the young man was insane at the time of his crime, as a member of the royal family, his severest sentence would have been life imprisonment. However, further investigation suggested he deliberately planned the assassination in retaliation for his brother Khalid’s killing and as a political statement. In June, 1975, just hours after the prince was found guilty, he was blindfolded and taken to the public square in Riyadh, where more than six thousand Saudis had gathered. He was beheaded with a huge sword, according to tradition. His head was displayed on the end of a stake for fifteen minutes. The prince’s body and severed head were then carried off by ambulance to be buried in an unmarked grave.

The royal family named Crown Prince Khalid, King Faisal’s half brother, the next king of Saudi Arabia.

Significance

King Faisal was a respected and resourceful Arab leader. His brief reign ushered his country—a region that had remained relatively unchanged for more than one thousand years—into the twentieth century. Faisal’s successor, Khalid, had a different temperament and poorer health. His rule did little to restrain the growing animosity of the Wahhābīists toward foreigners who had staked a claim in the increasingly wealthy Saudi Arabia. Part of the country’s wealth funded schools (madrassas) and mosques that spread Wahhābīism. The sect’s puritanical beliefs encouraged the Islamic fanaticism characteristic of Islamic jihadists and organizations such as al-Qaeda and the Taliban. These groups may have inevitably developed and spread their influence around the world. Nonetheless, King Faisal’s assassination removed a pragmatic influence from the Middle East and restraint on his countrymen’s religious zeal. Assassinations and attempts;Faisal Saudi Arabia;government

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beling, Willard A., ed. King Faisal and the Modernization of Saudi Arabia. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1980. Essays examine Faisal’s role in issues of Saudi Arabian modernization. Discusses the tenuous dichotomy of social change and Islamic traditions.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kechichian, Joseph A. Succession in Saudi Arabia. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Discusses the dynamics of succession in the House of Saՙūd. Details King Faisal’s work ethic and programs to modernize Saudi Arabia.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stefoff, Rebecca. Faisal. Edgemont, Pa.: Chelsea House, 1989. Discusses Faisal’s reign from 1964 to 1975, and his importance on the world economic stage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wynbrandt, James. A Brief History of Saudi Arabia. New York: Facts On File, 2004. A history of Saudi Arabia from pre-Islamic times to the twenty-first century. It details Faisal’s rise to power, his many achievements, and his assassination.

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