On this date in 1975, a Saudi prince knelt in the public square before Riyadh’s Great Mosque, and 10,000 onlookers watched a golden-hilted sword took off his head for regicide.
It is little enough to say that, twelve weeks before, Faisal ibn Musa’id (transliterated several different ways — ibn or bin; Musa’id, Musaid, Musaed, or Musad) had approached his uncle King Faisal and shot him three times at point-blank range.
The reason(s) why a prince of the realm should do such an extraordinary thing are the real issue. They were murky then, and remain so to this day.
Certainly, when the monarch of the world’s leading oil producer is slain shortly after denying his product to the world’s leading oil consumer … well, speculation is bound to happen, even if the oil embargo was wrapped up a year before the murder. The assassin had studied (lackadaisically) in the United States a few years before, fueling hypotheses of a CIA hit, but there’s not even much of a satisfying just-so story to go with that, to say nothing of supporting evidence.
Whatever reasons there were seem to have been internal — a personal vendetta arising ultimately from the kingdom’s uneven confrontation with modernity so sensitively treated in Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt novels.*
The prince’s brother Khalid (or Khaled) had been slain by Saudi Arabia’s security forces in 1965 after demonstrating against television’s entry into the kingdom, an innovation authorized by King Faisal to the chagrin of strict Wahhabists. Khalid remains a martyr figure to Islamic fundamentalists to this day, and the conventional supposition is that Prince Faisal shot King Faisal in vengeance served 10 years cold; some accounts have him announcing as much at the moment of the murder.
(The conspiratorial palace intrigue version suspects Prince Fahd (or Faud) of using the aggrieved young man as his instrument in a coup; a defector from the Saudi diplomatic corps also inculpated Fahd along these lines. King Faisal’s death made Fahd the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia upon the accession of a politically disinterested brother; Fahd ascended the throne officially when that brother died in 1982 — the succession was passing brother-to-brother, rather than father-to-son — and had steered the ship of state for 30 years by the time of his own death in 2005.)
The official inquiry concluded, as such things do, that Faisal killed Faisal alone, and though early reports had the shooter mentally unbalanced, authorities eventually figured him sane enough for trial and the full measure of the law’s majesty.
Faisal ibn Musa’id remains the only royal prince judicially executed by the House of Saud.
* An assassination inspired by Faisal’s shows up in the second novel of the cycle, Trench.