He successfully stabilized the kingdom's bureaucracy and his reign had significant popularity among Saudis. In 1975, he was assassinated by his nephew Faisal bin Musaid.
Faisal bin Abdulaziz was born in Riyadh in April 1906. He is the third son of Saudi Arabia's founder, King Abdulaziz. His mother was Tarfa bint Abdullah bin Abdullatif Al Sheikh, whom Abdulaziz had married in 1902 after capturing Riyadh. She was from the family of the Al ash-Sheikh, descendants of Muhammad bin Abdul-Wahhab, Faisal's maternal grandfather, Abdullah bin Abdullatif, was one of Abdulaziz's principal religious teachers and advisers.
Faisal's mother died in 1912 when he was quite young, and he was raised by his maternal grandfather, who taught him the Quran and the principles of Islam, an education which left an impact on him for the remainder of his life.
Faisal had only one sister, Nurah. She was married to her cousin, Khalid bin Muhammad bin Abdul Rahman, son of Muhammad bin Abdul Rahman.
Faisal was raised in an atmosphere in which courage was extremely valued and reinforced, unlike that of most of his half-brothers. He was motivated by his mother to develop the values of tribal leadership.
In 1919, the British government invited King Abdulaziz to visit London. However, he could not go, but sent 14-year-old Prince Faisal, making him the first ever Saudi royal to visit the country. His visit lasted for five months, and he met with the British officials. During the same period, he also visited France, again being the first Saudi royal to pay an official visit there.
As one of King Abdulaziz's eldest sons, Prince Faisal was delegated numerous responsibilities to consolidate control over Arabia. After the capture of Hail and initial control over Asir in 1922, he was sent to these provinces with nearly six thousand fighters. He achieved complete control over Asir at the end of the year.
In 1925, Prince Faisal, in command of an army of Saudi loyalists, won a decisive victory in the Hejaz. He and Prince Mohammad were given the responsibility for the Ikhwan. Then, Prince Faisal was appointed viceroy of Hejaz in 1926. He often consulted with local leaders during his tenure.
In 1930, Prince Faisal became minister of foreign affairs, a position he continued to hold even as King. Prince Faisal visited Europe several times in this period, and also Poland in 1932 and Russia in 1933.
Upon the accession of Prince Faisal's elder brother, King Saud, to the throne in 1953, Prince Faisal was appointed Crown Prince. King Saud, however, embarked on a lavish and ill-considered spending program that included the construction of a massive royal residence on the outskirts of the capital, Riyadh. He also faced pressure from neighbouring Egypt, where Gamal Abdel Nasser had overthrown the monarchy in 1952. Nasser was able to cultivate a group of dissident princes led by Prince Talal who defected to Egypt. Fearing that King Saud's financial policies were bringing the state to the brink of collapse, and that his handling of foreign affairs was inept, senior members of the royal family and the ulema (religious leadership) pressured Saud into appointing Faisal to the position of prime minister in 1958, giving Faisal wide executive powers. In this new position, Faisal set about cutting spending dramatically in an effort to rescue the state treasury from bankruptcy. This policy of financial prudence was to become a hallmark of his era and earned him a reputation for thriftiness among the populace.
A power struggle ensued thereafter between King Saud and Crown Prince Faisal, and on 18 December 1960, Prince Faisal resigned as prime minister in protest, arguing that King Saud was frustrating his financial reforms. King Saud took back his executive powers and, having induced Prince Talal to return from Egypt, appointed him as minister of finance. In 1962, however, Prince Faisal rallied enough support within the royal family to install himself as prime minister for a second time.
It was during this period as head of the Saudi government that Prince Faisal, though still not king, established his reputation as a reforming and modernizing figure. He introduced education for women and girls despite the consternation of many conservatives in the religious establishment. To appease the objectors, however, he allowed the female educational curriculum to be written and overseen by members of the religious leadership, a policy which lasted long after his death.
In 1963, Prince Faisal established the country's first television station, though actual broadcasts would not begin for another two years. As with many of his other policies, the move aroused strong objections from the religious and conservative sections of the country.
Faisal assured them, however, that Islamic principles of modesty would be strictly observed, and made sure that the broadcasts contained a large amount of religious programming.
Crown Prince Faisal helped establish the Islamic University of Medina in 1961. In 1962, Prince Faisal helped found the Muslim World League, a worldwide charity to which the Saudi royal family has reportedly since donated more than a billion dollars.
Prince Faisal also commanded a section of the Saudi forces that took part in the brief Saudi-Yemeni War of 1934, successfully fighting off Yemeni claims over Saudi Arabia's southern provinces. In September 1943, Prince Faisal and Prince Khalid were invited to the US, and then-vice president Henry Wallace organized a dinner for them at the White House. They stayed at the official government guest house, Blair House, during their visit. They visited the West Coast by a special train that was officially provided by the US government. On 25 April 1945, Prince Faisal, as foreign minister, represented Saudi Arabia at the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco.
ARAMCO's development of Saudi oil after World War II nearly sextupled revenue from $10.4 million in 1946 to $56.7 million in 1950. As King Abdulaziz's health declined and his leadership became lax, Prince Faisal comprehended the necessity for better economic management. In the summer of 1951, King Abdulaziz enlarged the government bureaucracy to include many more members of the extended royal family. Prince Faisal's eldest son Prince Abdullah was appointed firstly minister of health and then, of interior at the end of the 1940s and at the beginning of the 1950s.
The struggle with King Saud continued in the background during this time. Taking advantage of the king's absence from the country for medical reasons in early 1963, Faisal began amassing more power for himself. He removed many of Saud's loyalists from their posts and appointed like-minded princes in key military and security positions, such as his brother Prince Abdullah, to whom he gave command of the National Guard in 1962. Upon King Saud's return, Prince Faisal demanded that he be made regent and that King Saud be reduced to a purely ceremonial role. In this, he had the crucial backing of the ulema, including a fatwa (edict) issued by the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, a relative of Prince Faisal on his mother's side, calling on King Saud to accede to his brother's demands. In other words, Prince Faisal was backed by the religious establishment, which is headed by the Al Shaykh the descendants of Muhammad bin Abd al Wahab. In addition, Prince Faisal sought authority through significant Sudairi backing which he cemented by his marriage to a Sudairi.
King Saud refused, however, and made a last-ditch attempt to retake executive powers, leading Prince Faisal to order the National Guard to surround King Saud's palace. His loyalists outnumbered and outgunned, King Saud relented, and on 4 March 1964, Prince Faisal was appointed regent. A meeting of the elders of the royal family and the ulema was convened later that year, and a second fatwa was decreed by the grand mufti, calling on King Saud to abdicate the throne in favor of his brother. The royal family supported the fatwa and immediately informed King Saud of their decision. King Saud, by now shorn of all his powers, agreed, and Prince Faisal was proclaimed king on 2 November 1964. Shortly thereafter, Saud bin Abdulaziz went into exile in Greece.
In an emotional speech shortly after he came to power on 2 November 1964, Faisal said: "I beg of you, brothers, to look upon me as both brother and servant.'Majesty' is reserved to God alone and 'the throne' is the throne of the Heavens and Earth." However, it was King Abdulaziz who used family royal titles and his son King Faisal expanded them. Indeed, regulations about royal titles instituted by the Saudi civil service during his reign required that all the direct descendants of King Abdulaziz should be referred to as "His Royal Highness".
Those of his brothers and some of his uncles should be referred to as "His Highness", and members of other recognized branches of the Sauds as "His Excellency", a title they share with commoners who held senior governmental positions.
In 1967, King Faisal established the post of second prime minister and appointed Prince Fahd to this post.
Faisal embarked on a modernization project that encompassed vast parts of the kingdom and involved various public sector institutions. The pinnacle of his achievements in modernizing the Kingdom was the establishment of a judicial system, a project led and executed by an international lawyer and judge, the former Syrian Minister of Justice, Zafer Moussly. Several universities were established or expanded during his rule, and he continued to send a great number of students to foreign universities, especially in the United States. These students would later form the core of the Saudi civil service.
Many of the country's ministries, government agencies, and welfare programs were begun during Faisal's reign, and he invested heavily in infrastructure. He also introduced policies such as agricultural and industrial subsidies that were later to reach their height under his successors, Prince Khalid and Prince Fahd.
King Faisal also put down protests by Saudi workers employed by the international oil company, Aramco, in the Eastern Province, and banned the formation of labour unions in 1965. In compensation for these actions, however, Faisal introduced a far-reaching labour law with the aim of providing maximum job security for the Saudi workforce. He also introduced pension and social insurance programs for workers despite objections from some of the ulema.
Early in his rule, he issued an edict that all Saudi princes had to school their children inside the country, rather than sending them abroad; this had the effect of making it "fashionable" for upper-class families to bring their sons back to study in the Kingdom. King Faisal also introduced the country's current system of administrative regions, and laid the foundations for a modern welfare system. In 1970, he established the Ministry of Justice and inaugurated the country's first "five-year plan" for economic development.
Television broadcasts officially began in 1965. In 1966, an especially zealous nephew of Faisal attacked the newly established headquarters of Saudi television but was killed by security personnel. The attacker was the brother of Faisal's future assassin, and the incident is the most widely accepted motive for the murder. Despite the opposition from conservative Saudis to his reforms, however, King Faisal continued to pursue modernization.
As king, Faisal continued the close alliance with the United States begun by his father, and relied on the U.S. heavily for arming and training his armed forces. King Faisal was also anti-Communist. He refused any political ties with the Soviet Union and other Communist bloc countries, professing to see a complete incompatibility between Communism and Islam, and associating communism with Zionism, which he also criticized sharply. He maintained close relationships with western democracies including the United Kingdom: on his state visit in 1967, he presented Queen Elizabeth II with a diamond necklace.
King Faisal also supported monarchist and conservative movements in the Arab world, and sought to counter the influences of socialism and Arab Nationalism in the region by promoting pan-Islamism as an alternative. To that end, he called for the establishment of the Muslim World League, visiting several Muslim countries to advocate the idea. He also engaged in a propaganda and media war with Egypt's pan-Arabist president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and engaged in a proxy war with Egypt in Yemen that lasted until 1967. Faisal never explicitly repudiated pan-Arabism, however, and continued to call for inter-Arab solidarity in broad terms.
Between 23–25 September 1969, King Faisal convened a conference in Rabat, Morocco, to discuss the arson attack on the Al Aqsa Mosque which occurred a month earlier. The leaders of 25 Muslim states attended and the conference called for Israel to give up territory conquered in 1967. The conference also set up the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and pledges its support for the Palestinians.
Following the death of Nasser in 1970, King Faisal drew closer to Egypt's new president, Anwar Sadat, who himself was planning a break with the Soviet Union and a move towards the pro-American camp. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, launched by Sadat, King Faisal withdrew Saudi oil from world markets, in protest over Western support for Israel during the conflict. This action increased the price of oil and was the primary force behind the 1973 energy crisis. It was to be the defining act of King Faisal's career, and gained him lasting prestige among many Arabs worldwide. In 1974, he was named Time magazine's Man of the Year, and the financial windfall generated by the crisis fuelled the economic boom that occurred in Saudi Arabia after his death. The new oil revenue also allowed Faisal to greatly increase the aid and subsidies begun following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War to Egypt, Syria, and the Palestine Liberation Organization. It is a commonly-held belief in Saudi Arabia, and the wider Arab world that King Faisal's oil boycott was the real cause of his assassination, via a Western conspiracy, his assassin having just returned from the United States (see below).
King Faisal also developed a close alliance with Pakistan, where he is regarded highly for his foreign policy and pan-Islamic ideals. He was a very close friend of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto renowned Prime Minister of Pakistan, as well as General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq.
On 25 March 1975, King Faisal was shot point-blank and killed by his half-brother's son, Faisal bin Musaid, who had just come back from the United States. The murder occurred at a majlis (literally ‘a place for sitting’), an event where the king or leader opens up his residence to the citizens to enter and petition the king.
In the waiting room, Prince Faisal talked to Kuwaiti representatives who were also waiting to meet King Faisal. When the Prince went to embrace him, King Faisal leaned to kiss his nephew in accordance with Saudi culture. At that instant, Prince Faisal took out a pistol and shot him. The first shot hit King Faisal's chin and the second one went through his ear. A bodyguard hit Prince Faisal with a sheathed sword. Oil minister Zaki Yamani yelled repeatedly to not kill Prince Faisal.
King Faisal was quickly taken to the hospital. He was still alive as doctors massaged his heart and gave him a blood transfusion. They were unsuccessful and King Faisal died shortly afterward. Both before and after the assassination the prince was reported to be calm.
Following the killing, Riyadh had three days of mourning and all government activities were at a standstill.
One theory for the murder was avenging the death of Prince Khalid bin Musa’id, the brother of Prince Faisal. King Faisal instituted modern and secular reforms that led to the installation of television, which provoked violent protest, one which was led by Prince Khalid, who during the course of an attack on a television station was shot dead by a policeman.
Prince Faisal, who was captured directly after the attack, was officially declared insane. But following the trial, a panel of Saudi medical experts decided that Faisal was sane when he gunned the king down. The nation's high religious court convicted him of regicide and sentenced him to execution. Despite Faisal's dying request that the life of his assassin be spared, he was beheaded in the public square in Riyadh. The public execution took place on 18 June 1975 at 4:30 pm—three hours before sundown—before a throng of thousands at the Al Hukm Palace (Palace of Justice).
King Faisal's body was buried in Al Oud cemetery in Riyadh on 26 March 1975. His successor, King Khalid, wept over his body at his funeral