The Day FDR Met Saudi Arabia's Ibn Saud
by: Thomas W. Lippman
April - May 2005
The Link - Volume 38, Issue 2
Everyone who watched was mesmerized by the spectacle, at once majestic and bizarre. Over the waters of Egypt's Great Bitter Lake, an American destroyer, the USS Murphy , steamed toward a rendezvous with history. On a deck covered with colorful carpets and shaded by an enormous tent of brown canvas, a large black-bearded man in Arab robes, his headdress bound with golden cords, was seated on a gilded throne. Around him stood an entourage of fierce-looking, dark-skinned barefoot men in similar attire, each with a sword or dagger bound to his waist by a gold-encrusted belt. On the Murphy 's fantail, sheep grazed in a makeshift corral. It was, one American witness said, "a spectacle out of the ancient past on the deck of a modern man-of-war." Awaiting the arrival of this exotic delegation aboard another American warship, the cruiser USS Quincy, were three admirals, several high-ranking U.S. diplomats and the president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt. As they watched in fascination, the man in the throne was hoisted aloft in a bosun's chair and transferred from the Murphy to the Quincy, where he shuffled forward and grasped the president's hand in a firm grip. Thus began the improbable meeting between Roosevelt and the desert potentate with whom of all the world's leaders he had the least in common, King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia. In five intense hours they would bind together the destinies of their two countries and shape the course of events in the Middle East for decades to come.
It was February 14, 1945. The end of World War II was finally in sight as Allied forces advanced on Berlin and fought their way toward the Japanese heartland. With victory assured, Roosevelt was looking toward the future and envisioning new security and economic arrangements for the nation he had led through twelve tumultuous years. He ventured to Yalta, in the Soviet Crimea, to negotiate the postwar world order and the creation of the United Nations with Prime Minister Winston Churchill of Britain and the Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Before leaving Washington, he arranged to stop in Egypt after the Yalta conference for brief meetings with three leaders whose role in the war was marginal but whose place in the future might be significant: King Farouk of Egypt, Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and King Abdul Aziz, then commonly known as Ibn Saud.
That Roosevelt included Abdul Aziz on his list was a dramatic demonstration of how far and how rapidly American strategic thinking about the Gulf region had evolved during the war. Before 1942, the U.S. government had no official interest in Saudi Arabia, even though an American oil company had struck oil there in 1938 and had created a small community of American geologists, drillers and engineers to deliver the oil to global markets. No American official of higher rank than minister in the diplomatic service had ever before encountered the bedouin monarch, and the king, in all his 64 years, had ventured no further out of the Arabian peninsula than Basra, in southern Iraq. His domain was impoverished, isolated and backward; its levels of education, public health and mechanization were among the lowest in the world.
In strategic terms, Saudi Arabia, though never colonized, was in the British sphere of influence; the British were entrenched in Iraq, Bahrain, Oman and the trucial states on the Arab side of the gulf, as well as in Egypt and Palestine. The U.S. official presence was minimal in the entire Arab world, and so was official U.S. interest. In 1941, Roosevelt rejected State Department advice to provide financial assistance to Saudi Arabia under the Lend-Lease program with the comment, "This is a little far afield for us!" The war changed all that almost overnight.
Roosevelt's military and economic advisers, alarmed by the rate at which the war was consuming U.S. domestic petroleum, began to see the potential long-term value of the Saudi fields, the only ones in the Middle East where an American company held exclusive production rights. At the same time the U.S. Armed Forces, fighting a global war, wanted an air base someplace in the Middle East that was not under British or French control. And Roosevelt, looking past the combat, nursed the hope that Abdul Aziz, who despite his lack of formal education and his country's backwardness was a hero in the Arab world, would somehow be helpful in solving a daunting problem that the president knew was coming: the future of Palestine and the resettlement of Europe's surviving Jews. The Nazi death camp at Auschwitz had been liberated a month before the president left Washington en route to Yalta, and the full scope of the Holocaust was being revealed to the world. The Jews had a claim on the world's conscience, and on Roosevelt's.
The United States established diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in 1939, but no American diplomat resided in the kingdom; Saudi Arabia was the responsibility of the U.S. minister to Egypt, who lived in Cairo and rarely ventured into the Arabian peninsula. The Saudi Arabian government, which consisted of the king and handful of his favorite sons and trusted advisers, had no representative in Washington; when Abdul Aziz wanted to conduct business with the United States, he did so through the oil company, Standard Oil Company of California, known in Saudi Arabia as CASOC. (In 1944 the name was changed to Arabian American Oil Co., or Aramco.)