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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Saudi Arabia's King Fahd Dead at 84

NEW YORK -- King Fahd, the absolutist monarch of Saudi Arabia who guided his desert kingdom through swerves in the oil market, regional wars and the incessant scrimmage between Islamic tradition and breakneck modernization, died Monday, the Saudi royal court in Riyadh said. He was 84.

King Fahd ibn Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the fifth Saudi sovereign, transcended his early reputation as the playboy prince to become a leader of Arab states in the Persian Gulf region, a friend to the United States when that was not always easy and, most recently, though in a debilitated state due to repeated and deepening health problems, a principal in the war against terrorism.

King Fahd, who suffered the first of several strokes in 1995, was overweight, diabetic, and long suffered maladies from arthritis to gallbladder surgery to a blood clot in his eye. He used a cane or a wheelchair. His brother, Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, ultimately assumed many executive responsibilities, and was Monday appointed the country's new monarch.

King Fahd oversaw the exploitation of the kingdom's oil wealth, the expansion of its private sector and sent a generation of Saudis to be educated in the West. He let hundreds of thousands of American troops be based in Saudi Arabia during the first war against Iraq despite criticism from Arab countries.

His influence ranged from helping the administration of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan orchestrate and finance its complicated, illegal operation to sell arms to Iran while aiding Nicaraguan rebels; to giving hundreds of millions of dollars to Palestinians fighting Israel; to establishing religious schools, some of which have been described as breeders of terrorists, throughout the Islamic world.

The king used his ability to pump more oil almost at will as a damper on oil prices so as not to damage the world economy. But he understandably worried when prices fell too low to pay the kingdom's bills, and in 1986 sacked his famous oil minister, Ahmed Zaki Yamani, for allowing crude prices to fall to $10 per barrel from $30. Some have also said the royal family tired of the charismatic oil minister's media attention.

In 1986, King Fahd boldly declared his other source of power by naming himself Custodian of the Two Holy Places, referring to the Saudi cities of Mecca and Medina, Islam's most sacred sites. But it was exactly this religious role that was most challenged during the latter part of his reign, as Islamic conservatives derided the royal family as corrupt and the government's closeness to the United States as satanic.

The challenge has been to create farms and skyscrapers in the desert, while still allowing Wahabbi enforcers to wander public places with sticks to enforce Islamic law in matters like women's dress. Even as Saudi Arabia became a regional superpower on the strength of billions of dollars in arms purchases from the United States, conservatives criticized this dependency.

Where once there were only Bedouin, the legendary desert wanderers, King Fahd had to balance a gaggle of powerful constituencies. These included a new technocratic middle class, an estimated 5,000 princes, a legion of foreign workers and, to be sure, some still-extant Bedouin.