I have written several articles on postings related to politics. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address different aspects on these political events.
75 years after a historic meeting on the USS Quincy, US-Saudi relations are in need of a true re-think
On Valentine’s Day 1945, President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Saudi King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud on an American cruiser, the USS Quincy, in the Suez Canal. It was the dawn of what is now the longest U.S. relationship with an Arab state. Today the relationship is in decline, perhaps terminally, and needs recasting.
FDR and Ibn Saud, as they were known popularly, could not have been more different. FDR was in his fourth term as the elected president of the most powerful country in the world, and on the eve of winning World War II. He had traveled the world and was returning from the Yalta summit with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin. He was gravely ill and had only weeks to live. His blood pressure was 260 over 150. But he was convinced that Saudi Arabia would be crucial to America in the post-war world, thanks to its oil.
Ibn Saud had never been to sea before, or outside the Arabian Peninsula except for a brief trip to Basra, Iraq. He was a warrior who had created the modern Saudi kingdom through endless battles. He had little experience in international diplomacy. He was an absolute monarch backed by the fanatical Wahhabi clergy. But he had sent two of his sons, Faisal and Khaled, to America in 1943 to meet Roosevelt, tour across the country, and report home that America was the strongest and most advanced country in the world.
The substance of this meeting on the Quincy was dominated by a disagreement over the future of Palestine: FDR argued for a Jewish state, and Ibn Saud protested that the Jews should get their state in Bavaria. But the substance was secondary to the good atmosphere of the session. The president abjured his usual cigarette and cocktail to honor the king’s Islamic sentiments. They exchanged gifts and left very impressed with each other.
And they forged the basis of a long relationship: America’s security guarantees for the kingdom in return for access to affordable energy supplies. The relationship has had ups and downs but every American president has courted the Saudis. None has been as accommodating — even sycophantic — than Donald Trump. He has praised the Saudis for buying American weapons that they have not actually purchased. He has continued support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen, which has created the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world and which costs the kingdom a fortune it doesn’t have, given low oil prices.
Worst, the administration has ignored the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. The execution was the work of the Saudi state, according to the United Nations investigation, and the mastermind was the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The president has absolved his favorite.
But it won’t work. The crown prince is toxic, his reputation permanently stained. And the bargain struck on the Quincy is out of date. The United States doesn’t need Saudi oil anymore, it is almost energy independent. The White House has sent American combat troops back to Saudi Arabia (they left in 2003), but they did not deter the Iranians from striking the kingdom’s most critical oil facilities last September. The Saudis were literally shaken out of their complacency, and their acute vulnerability was exposed to all.
The next president should bring American troops home immediately from the kingdom and cut off all military support to the Saudis, at least until there is a permanent political settlement in Yemen. Saudi diplomatic facilities in the United States should be shut or stripped down because they are used to spy on dissidents like Khashoggi. Saudi soldiers in the U.S. for training or other tasks should be sent home. The Saudis should understand that anyone implicated in the Khashoggi murder will not be welcome in the U.S. The attorney general should review what judicial process may apply to the case.
All of this should be part of a larger review of policy toward the region to reduce our military footprint and use more diplomacy. Iran should be engaged, and the Iran nuclear deal should be revived and strengthened. A serious political process between Israel and the Palestinians should be initiated, not the sham deal announced by this administration. It will certainly be challenging, but it is time for fundamental changes.
Washington, Riyadh and the legend of the Quincy Pact
Among the stories that might be considered urban legends – shared by many but unverified, based partly on fact and providing an explanation of contemporary events in the Middle East – there is the Quincy Pact, named after the US warship where President Franklin Roosevelt met with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdul Aziz al-Saud on 14 February 1945 after the Yalta Conference.
This pact, guaranteeing the Saudi monarchy’s military protection in exchange for access to oil, is said to have covered five main points:
– Ibn Saud would not transfer any part of the territory, and concessionary companies would only be tenants on the land;
– the length of concessions was set at 60 years. On expiry of the contract (in 2005) the wells, installations and equipment would be entirely returned to the monarchy. The contract could be renewed for a similar length of time;
– by extension, the stability of the Arabian peninsula constituted part of the vital interests of the United States;
– US support involved securing not just its role as a supplier of cheap oil, but also as the hegemonic presence in the Arabian peninsula;
– Washington guaranteed the stability of the peninsula and that of the Gulf region, in the form of legal and military assistance in litigation pitting the al-Sauds against the other Emirates in the Gulf.
Author after author (some of whom are very well respected) have recounted this version of events, and it can also found on various websites.
We might talk of a “Google effect” here, where truth is founded on repetition rather than the verification of original documents. That said, the content of the Quincy conversation was published very early on, for the first time in 1948 in a fragmented form, and for a second time in 1954 by the person serving as the interpreter at the meeting – the US envoy in Jeddah, William A Eddy.
His minutes from the meeting were authenticated by both parties and were officially published in 1969.
What they really talked about
These three texts essentially give the same information.
The first issue discussed was the Jews of Palestine. The two heads of state mostly agree on the question of refugee Jews in Europe: they could be resettled in countries forming the Axis [Nazi Germany, Italy, Japan etc], which had oppressed them, or in Poland.
Ibn Saud pointed out that the Arabs would be willing to give their lives before they would cede Palestine. It is at this moment that Roosevelt makes the only promise of that meeting, assuring the king that he will do nothing to help the Jews against the Arabs, and that he will lead no hostile action against the Arab people.
This pledge was not about the debates which were sure to ensue in the press and in Congress, over which he had little control, rather his own policy as the executive head of the US government.
Next they talked about Syria and Lebanon. The United States agreed, by contrast, to do everything possible to ensure France fulfilled its commitment to grant them independence.
Finally, the two men agreed on the need to develop agriculture. Discussion here of the Quincy Pact is clearly altogether absent.
In terms of Palestine, Roosevelt had indeed imagined a kind of “Saudi solution” during the war, which, however, failed to materialize. On board the Quincy, the president became aware of Arab resolve on the subject.
On his return, he would state that he had learned more about Palestine in five minutes with Ibn Saud than he had in his lifetime. His loyal right hand man, Harry Hopkins, said that he had simply discovered what everyone already knew: that the Arabs did not want to see any more Jews enter Palestine.
Harry S Truman did not respect the commitment made by his predecessor, although the United States did back the independence of Syria and Lebanon in the crisis of June 1945 in Damascus.
If the two figures did not broach the question of oil, this was because the deal had already been brokered. In 1933, Saudi Arabia granted oil concessions to Standard Oil of California (Socal) which founded the California Arabian Standard Oil Company (Casoc).
In 1936, Socal joined forces with Texaco in the Middle East to form Caltex. Casoc found oil in 1938 and built an oil terminal in Ras Tanura and a small town in Dhahran.
The Persian corridor – and oil
In 1939, the United States established diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. During the Second World War, Washington became aware of the geopolitical importance of the Arabian peninsula.
It was from the Gulf that the “Persian corridor” ran, supplying the Soviet Union with US weapons from 1942. Political stability in Saudi Arabia became strategically important, which explains why the kingdom benefitted directly from the “Lend-Lease” law from February 1943 (previously US aid had arrived via the British).
In March 1942, a permanent legation was opened in Jeddah, and in April 1944, Eddy took the helm. In September 1944, it became independent from Cairo.
The US became progressively more aware of the importance of Saudi oil reserves that would allow them to preserve those on the American continent after the war. At one point, Washington mooted the idea of a direct majority stake in Casoc’s capital, based on the model of British shares in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (British Petroleum, now know as BP).
The other leading oil companies (“the majors”) opposed this, however, just as they resisted the 1944 attempt to establish an oil cartel in the Middle East controlled by the United States and Britain.
By contrast, Casoc began to gain independence from its parent companies, Socal and Texaco. The decisive step came with its change of name in January 1944 and with the creation of the Arab American Oil Company (Aramco).
It is significant that priority was given to the word “Arab”, unlike the reverse formulation used by the British. Given the need to attract considerable investment, the other US majors purchased shares in Aramco after the Second World War.
There is not a trace of written evidence of any discussion about oil aboard the Quincy, though there was no reason for them to have brought it up, as it may well have been seen as a done deal.
A new geopolitical reality
Implicit in February 1945 was the Anglo-American competition that the old and cunning King Ibn Saud knew how to agitate.
He had led the Americans to believe that the British wanted to take control of the oil concessions, and had led the British to believe the Americans wanted to chase them out of the region.
In fact, at the beginning of 1945, the fundamental question was the transformation of Dhahran into a US military base, thereby creating a permanent military presence in Saudi Arabia. This would end the British military monopoly that had begun with the Persian corridor.
At the time of Yalta, long-term concern over Saudi oil production seemed secondary to the fundamental geopolitical question of the times that everyone has since forgotten: the transfer from Europe of the US army towards the Pacific once Germany had capitulated.
Millions of men and their equipment had to cross the Middle East to participate in the decisive battle against Japan. The explosion of the first nuclear bomb on 16 July 1945 would change that situation.
The Saudis had a clear understanding of the importance that they had acquired for the US. The Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs (and future king) Emir Faisal made his first visit to the US in November 1943, and insisted on the threat posed by Hashemite projects for Arab unity from Transjordan to Iraq to the Saudi kingdom.
The US politely informed him that they did not wish to get involved in Arab affairs – and that it was up to the Arabs to freely decide their future.
In the months that followed the meeting on the Quincy, Saudi diplomacy continued to play on Anglo-American rivalry, which insisted on the Hashemite danger and showed concern over Palestine.
It obtained an explicit commitment from the US that Washington would not meddle in the domestic affairs of Saudi Arabia – in return for the supremacy granted to the USA in exchanges between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the (non-Arab and non-Muslim) world.
The Cold War made Saudi Arabia a reliable ally for the US, with Washington sure that the Saudi monarchy was unlikely to harbour any sympathies for the Soviet Union. Here again, the geopolitical factor counted for as much as the question of oil.
In 1950, Riyadh obtained Truman’s word that the US was interested in preserving the independence and territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia. No threat to the kingdom could emerge without also being of concern to Washington.
In clearer terms, it was this statement guaranteeing US security that would be put to the test during the war in Yemen in the 1960s and then in 1990.
A contract up for renewal
The discussion on the Quincy became the symbol of US-Saudi relations and is wheeled out on any occasion at which the two countries meet.
The meeting between George W Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah on 25 April 2005 in Crawford, Texas, is likely to be behind the revitalisation of this urban legend.
The joint statement began by revisiting the meeting on the Quincy 60 years earlier: “In six hours, the predecessor of President Bush and the father of the Crown Prince had established a strong personal link which set the tone for decades of strong relations between the two nations.”
This was probably at the origin of the idea for a kind of contract that could be renewed every 60 years.
The Quincy Pact is an urban legend, which in a one-off vignette sums up many decades of Arab-Saudi relations that are much more complex than they appear from the outside.
While it may set out the foundation of relations with the US with the Arabian peninsula, it omits the context of February 1945, with the end of the war in Europe, the continuation of the war in the Pacific and the Anglo-American squabbling – all at a time when the Cold War was not yet an issue.
The Quincy Pact only protects the King of Arabia, not his heir
The Panamanians who remember Washington’s arrest of its employee, General Noriega, will not be surprised by the fate reserved for the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. The Jamal Khashoggi affair is one of MBS’s most insignificant crimes, but will probably be his last. The Saoud family is not protected by the Quincy Pact, which only applies to the King. The United States should recuperate several billion dollars.
The Khashoggi affair is one of the multiple examples of Western variable geometry ethics.
THE ARABIA OF THE SAOUD FAMILY
For seventy years, we have been ignoring the facts, shouting : « Saudi Arabia is not a State like the others. It’s the private property of the King, and all the people that live there are no more than serfs. That is why it is described as the residence of it’s owners, the Saoud family, in other words, « Saudi » Arabia ».
In the 18th century, a tribe of Bedouins, the Saouds, allied themselves with a Wahhabite sect and rebelled against the Ottoman Empire. They managed to create a kingdom in Hedjaz, the region of the Arabian peninsula which includes the holy cities of Islam, Medina and Mecca. They were quickly put down by the Ottomans.
At the beginning of the 19th century, a survivor of the Saoud tribe raised a new rebellion. However, his family began fighting amongst themselves and lost again.
Finally, in the 20th century, the British allied with the Saoud family in order to overthrow the Ottoman Empire and exploit the hydrocarbon resources in the Arabian peninsula. With the help of Lawrence of Arabia, they founded the present kingdom, the tribe’s third.
The Foreign Office’s idea was that the Saouds and the Wahhabites should be hated by their serfs and incapable of maintaining good relations with their neighbours. Because of the disproportion of the military forces – between the Saoud’s sabres and the modern weaponry of the British – this family would never be able to turn on their Western masters. However, at the end of the Second World War, the United States seized the opportunity presented by the weakened British forces, and took their place. President Franklin Roosevelt concluded the Quincy Pact with the founder of kingdom. The United States pledged to protect the Saoud family in exchange for their hydrocarbons. Apart from that, the Saoud family would not oppose the creation of a Jewish State in Palestine. This document was renewed by President George W. Bush.
The founder of Wahhabism, Mohammed ben Abdelwahhab, considered that all those who did not join his sect should be exterminated. Many authors have pointed out the proximity of the Wahhabite way of life and that of certain Orthodox Jewish sects, as well as the resemblances between the reasoning of the Wahhabite theologians and that of certain Puritan Christian pastors. However, in order to maintain their influence over the Middle East, the British decided to fight the Arab nationalists and to support the Muslim Brotherhood and the Nashqbandis. That is why, in 1962, they asked the Saouds to create the Muslim World League, and in 1969, what we now call the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Wahhabism admitted Sunni Islam, which, until then, it had always contested. The Wahhabites then presented themselves as the protectors of Sunnism, but continued to oppose all other forms of Islam.
Anxious to avoid the fratricides which had marked the history of his family in the 19th century, Ibn Saoud instituted a system of succession between brothers. The founder of the kingdom had 32 wives who gave him 53 sons and 36 daughters. The oldest of the survivors, King Salman, is now 82. In order to save his kingdom, the Family Council decided in 2015 to put an end to this adelphic rule and designate the children of Prince Nayef and the new King Salman as future heirs to the throne. Finally, Mohammed Ben Salman ousted Nayef’s son and became the only Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.
THE MORALS OF THE SAOUD FAMILY
In Antiquity, the word « Arab » defined the Aramean people who lived on the Syrian side of the Euphrates. In this sense, the Saouds are not Arabs. However, since the Coran was collated by the Caliph in Damascus, the word « Arab » today describes the people who speak the language of the Coran, in other words, the people of Hejaz. This generic term masks the very different civilisations of the desert Bedouins and the people of towns in a geographical area stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf.
Having evolved abruptly from the use of camels to the private jet, the Saoud family of the 21st century has conserved the archaic culture of the desert. For example, its hatred of History. It destroys any historical vestige in its country. It is with this mentality that we saw it working with the jihadists in Iraq and Syria. There is no other reason for the destruction of the house of Mahomet by the Saouds, or that of the Sumerian administrative tablets by Daesh.
Just as the Western powers used the Saouds to force the Ottomans to retreat – which no-one contests today – they used the jihadists, financed by the Saouds and supervised by the Wahhabites, to destroy Iraq and Syria.
This has been forgotten, but at the beginning of the aggression against Syria, when the Western Press was inventing the « Arab Spring », Saudi Arabia asked only for the departure of President Bachar el-Assad. Riyadh accepted that Syria keep its counsellors, its government, its army and its secret services, with which it had no quarrel at all. It only wanted Assad’s head because he is not a Sunni.
When Prince Mohamed Ben Salmane (alias d« MBS ») became the youngest Minister of Defence in the world, he demanded to exploit the oil fields of the « Empty Quarter », a zone which straddles his country and Yemen. Faced with Yemen’s refusal, he launched a war to cover himself in glory, like his grand-father. In reality, no-one has ever been able to successfully occupy Yemen, no more than Afghanistan. But whatever… the Crown Prince displayed his power by depriving 7 million people of food. And although all the members of the Security Council expressed their concern about the humanitarian crisis, none of them dared say anything about the valourous Prince MBS.
Advising his father, King Salman, MBS proposed to eliminate the head of the interior opposition, Cheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr . The man was a peace-lover, it’s true, but from the Wahhabite point of view, he was an infidel, a Chiite. He was decapitated without causing an uproar in the West. Then MBS ordered the destruction of Moussawara and Chouweikat in the Qatif region. All Chiites ! Here too, the West failed to see the cities destroyed by tanks and the massacred serfs.
Since he stands for no contradiction, in June 2017, MBS pushed his father to break with Qatar, which had dared to take the side of Iran against Saudi Arabia. He called for all the Arab states to follow his lead and managed to force the Emirate to back off – temporarily.
When he entered the White House, President Trump made some allowances. He would leave the Yemenites to their agony on the condition that Riyadh stop supporting the jihadists.
That’s when President Trump’s advisor, Jared Kushner, had the idea of recuperating the oil money to replenish the US economy. The immense fortune of the Saoud family is nothing other than the money that the Western powers, in particular the United States, had automatically been paying them for their hydrocarbons. It is not the fruit of their work, but only a rent on their property. The young man therefore organised the Palace coup of November 2017 . 1,300 members of the royal family were placed under house arrest, including the bastard son of the Fadh clan, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Some of them were hung by their feet and tortured. All of them were obliged to « offer » the Crown Prince half of their fortune. So « MBS », in his own name, raked in at least 800 billion in dollars and actions . A fatal error !
The fortune of the Saouds, which until then had been shared between them all, was now concentrated in the hands of a man who was not the King, and therefore was not representative of the state. All that needed to be done was to twist the Prince’s arm in order to grab the loot.
MBS also threatened Kuwait with the same destiny as that of Yemen if it refused to offer him its frontier oil reserves. But time flies…
We only had to wait. On 2 October 2018, in violation of article 55 of the Vienna Convention concerning consular relations, MBS ordered the assassination of one of Prince al-Waleed Ben Talal’s henchmen at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi .
Jamal Khashoggi was the grandson of the personal doctor of King Abdul Aziz. He was nephew of the arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, who equipped the Saudi Air Force, and then, on behalf of the Pentagon, supplied Chiite Iran against Sunni Iraq. His aunt Samira Khashoggi is the mother of arms dealer Dodi Al-Fayed (eliminated with his companion, British Princess Lady Diana ).
Jamal had been associated with the Palace coup that old Prince al-Waleed was preparing against MBS. Mercenaries cut off his fingers and dismembered him before presenting his head to MBS, their master. The operation was carefully recorded by the Turkish and US secret services.
In Washington, the US Press and parliamentarians demanded that President Trump raise sanctions against Riyadh .
One of MBS’s advisors, Turki Al-Dakhil, replied that if the US were to sanction the kingdom, Saudi Arabia would be ready to destabilise the world order . In the tradition of the desert Bedouins, all insults must be avenged whatever the cost.
According to Al-Dakhil, the kingdom was preparing some thirty measures, the most significant being to :
Reduce the production of oil to 7.5 million barrels per day, provoking a raise in prices of about 200 dollars per barrel. The kingdom would demand to be paid in other currencies than the dollar, which would bring about the end of US hegemony ;
Move away from Washington and move closer to Teheran ;
Buy arms from Russia and China. The kingdom would offer Russia a military base in Tabuk, in the North-East of the country, in other words, close to Syria, Israël, Lebanon and Iraq ;
Immediately begin supporting Hamas and Hezbollah.
Aware of the damage that this wild cannon could cause, the White House sounded the attack. Remembering a little late their uplifting speech about « Human Rights », the Western powers declared en chœur that they would no longer stand for this medieval tyrant . One by one, all of their economic leaders obeyed the instructions from Washington and cancelled their participation in the Riyadh Forum. In order to calm their anger, and remembering that Khashoggi was a « US resident », President Trump and his advisor, Kushner, mentioned the confiscation of his properties for the benefit of the United States.
In Tel-Aviv, panic reigned. MBS was Benjamin Netanyahu’s best partner , and had asked him to create a joint staff in Somaliland in order to crush the Yemenites. He also made a secret visit to Israël at the end of 2017. The US ex-ambassador in Tel-Aviv, Daniel B. Shapiro, warned his Israëli coreligionists that with an ally like that, Netanyahu is putting the country in danger .
The Quincy Pact only protects the King, not the pretenders to his throne.
The U.S. and Saudi Arabia Since the 1930s
There have been two constants in U.S.-Saudi relations for decades: oil and Gulf security, particularly the security of the Saudi royal family. Our two societies have had little in common, and yet despite deep differences, we have had a “special relationship” with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for over sixty years, really since the early 1930s, though it was not described as a special relationship until after WWII. The two countries have had a compact based on Saudi oil in return for a U.S. security umbrella over the kingdom to protect it from all foreign foes. This is a relationship very definitely anchored in state interests, not common ideologies or political or social systems, which remain at extreme odds with each other.
There is practically no civil society in Saudi Arabia. The country is run by the al-Saud royal family in partnership with a highly conservative religious establishment espousing a fundamentalist theology known as Wahhabism. The alliance goes back to the mid-eighteenth century.
Both the House of al-Saud and the Wahhabi religious leadership are against freedom of religion, democracy, a free press, and the public mixing of unmarried men and women. Wahhabi clerics are also against movie houses; public dancing; drinking, women’s sports centers; girls exercising in schools, and women driving. We could not have a conference like this in Saudi Arabia. The women would be in another room listening on a TV monitor or, if it was an international meeting, there might be a barrier down the center.
Neither the royal family nor the Wahhabi religious establishment are interested in elections. Only the chambers of commerce are allowed to have elections—businessmen who are absolutely no threat to the establishment.
The kingdom was founded in 1932 by King Abdulaziz, after he crushed his opponents throughout the area. Within less than one year, he signed a concession with Standard Oil of California, which is today Chevron, to go look for oil in the eastern part of the country. This was an extraordinary thing to do, considering that the U.S. had had hardly any involvement in that country. It was Christian missionaries based in Bahrain, an island just off the coast of Saudi Arabia, members of the Reform Church, who helped convince King Abdulaziz that he could work with Americans. They went inside Saudi Arabia to provide medical treatment to some of the king’s soldiers and made no attempt to convert anyone. It was purely a medical mission. They at one point reportedly even treated the king. The only foreigners Saudis had dealt with up until that time were the British, and so they saw Americans as entirely different.
The explanation left to us by King Abdulaziz for why he decided to work with the Americans came as a result of a memorandum by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State George McGhee, who had a meeting with the king in 1950. We only learned about the meeting in the late 1970s, when the document was declassified. It is remarkable. Abdulaziz unburdened himself of his most intimate fears for the safety of the House of Saud. His primary concern was not the one haunting Washington at the time—namely, communist expansionism. Rather, he feared an imminent attack by the forces of the Hashemite royal families ruling in Jordan and, at the time, also in Iraq. They had a grudge to settle after being driven out of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina by the al-Sauds in the 1920s. To deal with the Hashemite threat, the king wanted to enter a formal military alliance with the U.S. and obtain arms urgently on a grant basis. The British had offered such an alliance, but he didn’t trust them because they were the main backers of his Hashemite enemies. That was why, he told McGee, he had given an exclusive oil concession in the kingdom to the American companies and not allowed their British counterparts to share in the prize. He allowed the U.S. to build and use the airbase at Dammam “to show that Saudi Arabia’s security should be of vital concern to both countries.”
As World War II approached, there was little oil production or shipping after the first significant oil discovery was made in 1938 at Dammam. But in 1943, Roosevelt and his administration began to realize that oil was going to be very important in the future. A relationship started to develop. In order to provide military and economic aid to Saudi Arabia, Roosevelt declared that “the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States,” which must have surprised the many Americans who had never even heard of Saudi Arabia.
Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Navy, William Knox, told Congress in March 1944 that the war had made the U.S. government extremely anxious about oil. He pronounced what was to become America’s postwar oil policy, namely “to provide for acquisition of oil resources outside the limits of the United States for the safety and security of the country.” That was the rationale for our becoming more and more involved with Saudi Arabia.
In 1944, the California Arabian Standard Oil Company that Chevron had set up became Arabian American Oil Company, or Aramco. Chevron brought in three other partners, the big majors of the United States: Mobil, Exxon, and Texaco. Aramco was not just an oil company. In the early years, the king kept turning to it for loans, because they weren’t earning any money from oil until much later. Aramco became something like a proxy for the U.S. government in Saudi Arabia. It was Aramco that introduced modernization to Saudi Arabia.
In February 1945, Roosevelt met Abdulaziz in person aboard the USS Quincy in Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake. The two countries date their “special relationship” to this meeting. As far as anybody knows, they did not talk about oil, but about Palestine. The king was concerned about what the U.S. was going to do regarding the establishment of a Jewish state and whether the Palestinians would have a state. This issue goes right back to the beginning of our relationship, and it continues right up until today.
In 1948, a pot of gold was discovered. Aramco discovered the Ghawar oil field, the mother lode of the world’s fields. Ghawar, which went onstream in 1951, is 170 miles long and 20 miles wide. At one point it held 170 billion barrels of proven reserves of oil. They’ve been pumping from that field half or more of their production for fifty years. Most of Saudi exports come from this field—about 5 million barrels a day. Ghawar today still has 70 bb compared to the total current U.S. proven reserves of 20 bb. That means it still holds more than three times as much as all the oil reserves in the U.S.
In 1950, to try and solve the problem of how to get the Saudi oil to American and Western markets, the U.S. company Bechtel, based in California, built a 1,000-mile pipeline directly from the Saudi oil fields across Jordan and the Golan Heights to Sidon in Lebanon in order to take the oil directly to the Mediterranean by pipeline. That went onstream the following year and continued to function up until the early 1970s. The last year of U.S. self-sufficiency in oil production was 1970—Saudi oil didn’t become important to the U.S. until the 1980s.
In 1971, the British withdrew from the Persian Gulf, creating a vacuum that was of great concern to Washington, which became responsible for protecting the Arab gulf states and our oil lanes to the U.S.
In 1973, Saudi government led the Arab boycott of oil supplies to the U.S. (Netherlands was also singled out). This led to a quadrupling of the oil price, from about $3 to $12 per barrel. Saudi Arabia was suddenly very much on Washington’s radar screen, and very rich. Saudi oil earnings went from $8.5 billion in 1973 to $35 billion in 1974. With that money, they began building and buying from the U.S. tanks, airplanes, and infrastructure. The U.S.-Saudi military relationship took off. American companies basically built the whole military infrastructure of Saudi Arabia as it is today. Over the next twenty years, the Saudis spent some $85-86 billion on American arms. When you buy an airplane, you have to have a structure to maintain them and to train people. It’s a huge undertaking. We were their key ally.
In 1973, however, because of the war between Israel and the Arab states, the Saudis began to take over Aramco. They insisted on taking a 25 percent interest in it, paid for in oil—they didn’t try to nationalize without compensation. By 1980 they owned 100 percent of Aramco. But they treated their American partners well. They gave the U.S. partners—Chevron, Mobil Exxon, and Texaco—priority in selling them oil, and they offered special discount rates, to please both Washington and the companies. So the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the oil companies continued to be strong and close.
Since 1973, one can identify four periods in U.S.-Saudi relations.
Common Interests – 1973–92
These years were the period of greatest bonding between the two countries. After Saudi Arabia got on Washington’s radar screen in 1973, the U.S. sale of arms ballooned, as did U.S. construction of Saudi military facilities. Saudi Arabia became the number-one provider of foreign oil over these years. During the Carter administration, the king actually broke with all his other Arab oil producers. To help Carter in his reelection campaign (unfortunately it didn’t work), they lowered oil prices for the U.S. to $6-7 less than the other producers’ prices. This was partly to thank him for his efforts at the Camp David accords, which Carter had engineered. So the relations with him were quite good.
The Saudis joined Reagan’s crusade on behalf of anticommunist freedom fighters, providing money to the mujahideen who were fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, helping Reagan when Congress cut money to the Contras in Nicaragua, they provided money to UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola).
The George H.W. Bush administration and Gulf War I in 1990-91 marked the apex in the relationship. The Saudis allowed President Bush to send 500,000 soldiers into the kingdom in order to protect it and liberate Kuwait, because there were doubts whether Saddam was going to stop at Kuwait, which of course a U.S.-led coalition liberated in 1991.
Slow Deterioration – 1992–2001
The U.S.-Saudi relationship went less well during the Clinton administration. Clinton was not interested in Saudi Arabia. He got off to a very bad start with the Saudis, and relations went on “autopilot,” as Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Prine Bandar bin Sultan told me. The Saudis got so worried that in fall of 1998, then-Crown Prince Abdullah (now the king) came to Washington to attempt to revive the relationship. He met with all the old U.S. oil companies that had been in Saudi Arabia and essentially said, “We’re open for business.” He invited them to submit proposals for coming back into the kingdom to look for gas and perhaps later oil. This was an enormous turnaround, signaling that the Saudis were really worried about what was happening. They wanted to rebuild the economic side of it, hoping that that would bring new life into the political relationship. Unfortunately, those negotiations, which began in 2000 and went on through 2003, failed, for reasons to be discussed below. But in the process, three international consortia were formed, two led by Exxon-Mobil.
Bush Administration – 2001–08
The George W. Bush administration also got off to a bad start with Saudi Arabia in 2001. The Saudis had great hopes for him because they’d had such a good relationship with GHWB. But George W. Bush had no interest in foreign policy. He neglected the Middle East, and King Abdullah became more and more irritated. Just before 9/11, there was a real blow-up. The king said, if you don’t do something about getting peace talks going in the Middle East, we are going to freeze our military relationship with you. There were even hints they might do something with oil.
Then came 9/11, and the oil for security pact became unglued in stages. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudis; Osama bin Laden was a Saudi, even if he’d been stripped of his citizenship. Everybody’s attitude toward Saudi Arabia changed dramatically. Wahhabism became an issue for the first time in our relationship. Saudi Arabia was viewed as a spiritual source of terrorism and a funder of terrorists. There were debates in Congress and the media over whether Saudi Arabia was a friend or foe. Why were so many Saudis involved in this? What was going on there? It became so serious that the Treasury Department and the FBI seized all the financial documents of Prince Bandar in the embassy in an attempt to track down where Saudi money had been going inside the U.S. This is an extraordinary thing to have happened. They were concerned that the Saudis were financing terrorists or fundamentalists inside the U.S., tracking down what the charities were doing.
In 2003, a number of things happened that made our relationship even more complicated. The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a major trauma for Saudi Arabia. The U.S. suddenly became a major source of insecurity for Saudi Arabia after we wound up installing a pro-Iranian, Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. From the Saudi point of view, this was the worst nightmare they could imagine happening in the Gulf because of tensions between Iran, a Shiite power, and Saudi Arabia, which is the homeland of the two holiest Muslim religious sites, Mecca and Medina; the one feeling itself to be the leader of the Sunni world, the other feeling itself the leader of the Shiite world. While the Saudis were worried about the balance of power in the Gulf, the U.S., their ally, came in and installed a pro-Iranian Shiite government in Iraq! From the Saudi point of view, they couldn’t understand what Bush was thinking and why the U.S. had done this to them.
Immediately after Saddam’s ouster, the Saudis sent the U.S. Air Force packing and stopped the negotiations with American oil companies. They turned instead to Chinese, Russian, and European oil companies to come in and look for gas and oil. They decided not to buy any more U.S. aircraft, the main symbol of the military relationship. Instead, they bought European Typhon jets from Britain.
On the other hand, in spring of 2004, the Saudis tried to do something to control the price of oil. In May 2004 the price of oil went from $26-28 to $40/barrel, which was then the equivalent of its going to $174 a barrel this time last year. At America’s behest, the Saudis said they were ready to pump 2 million more barrels of oil a day to bring the price down. The problem is, the Saudis had lost control of the market. Even though they pumped close to 2 million more barrels of oil a day, it had no effect on the price of oil. By election time in the U.S. 2004, it was up to $50 per barrel. So basically the Saudis had lost control of the market to traders, speculators, forces over which they had no control.
So this pact that had held together the U.S. and Saudi Arabia for so many decades—the Saudis providing us with oil at reasonable prices, while we provided them with their security—no longer worked. We were the cause of their insecurity in the Gulf, and they were unable to provide us with oil at a reasonable price. The underpinnings of the relationship had been seriously shaken.
Bush tried to put the relationship back together starting in April 2005, when King Abdullah came to Crawford, Texas to meet with him. At the very end of his administration, Bush tried to relaunch the peace process, but without getting much involved himself. The Saudis were not impressed. And they had never liked Washington’s democracy agenda, rejecting U.S. urging that they lead regional democratic reforms.
The Obama Era
By contrast, President Obama has gotten off to a good start with the Saudis in the sense that he’s saying the things they’ve long wanted to hear. This is an American president who says we’ve got to get peace talks going at the beginning of his administration, not waiting until the end of his administration. He’s putting pressure on the Israelis to stop settlements before the West Bank can no longer be a viable state for the Palestinians. His first interview with any international publication was with al-Arabiya, a Saudi-run television station. He went to Saudi Arabia before he went to Cairo on June 23 and made his speech to the Muslim world. So he’s off to a good start, but when he went to Saudi Arabia before Cairo, he was trying to push the king to take steps toward initial recognition by Saudi Arabia of Israel. Things like allowing their diplomats or people with Israeli passports into the kingdom, possibly allowing Israeli planes to overfly Saudi Arabia. From the Saudi point of view, these are things you do at the end of the process, not at the beginning, because they’re bargaining chips in the negotiating process between the Palestinians and Israel. So to date we have not found a basis to cooperate with the Saudis.
And this is not even to mention Iraq. While we’re supporting the government of President Nouri al-Maliki, the Saudis have refused to open an embassy in Iraq. They will not invite Maliki to Saudi Arabia, regarding him as an agent of Iran.
So we’re struggling to identify areas where we can cooperate. Most recently the issue has been the price of oil, where the Saudis now want to get the price up to $75-80 per barrel and Americans want to keep it lower because of the economic situation. Whether the two governments can establish (or reestablish) a sound economic and security relationship remains a work in progress.
U.S.-Saudi ties were especially close under Trump. Under Biden, that looks likely to change
Trump spent four years cozying up to the Saudis. Biden may usher in an era of frostier cordiality.
When President Donald Trump visited Saudi Arabia on his first official foreign visit in 2017, he was showered with pageantry and flanked by a herd of horsemen carrying Saudi and American flags.
The relationship between the two countries has remained cozy throughout his administration.
But as Joe Biden prepares to become the 46th president, it is improbable that he will make Riyadh a repeat port of call.
Biden has pledged to “reassess” the U.S. relationship with the oil-rich, deeply conservative kingdom, and Saudi Arabia is likely to have a less privileged and personal relationship with the Biden administration than it has had with the Trump team, some analysts say.
Saudi Arabia was notably slow to publicly congratulate Biden on his projected presidential victory. A cable was sent from King Salman over 24 hours after American media called Biden’s win.
The delay was not unexpected. Amity between the two countries had grown especially warm under Trump and Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. From the start of his presidency, Trump cultivated Saudi Arabia and placed the kingdom at the heart of his Middle East policy, backing its stance against Iran and encouraging its purchase of U.S.-made weapons.
The president praised a Saudi crackdown on hundreds of top businessmen, officials and members of the royal family at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh in November 2017. He stood by Saudi Arabia, even as the CIA concluded that the powerful crown prince ordered the brutal killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, in Istanbul in October 2018.
Biden, on the other hand, has described Saudi Arabia as a “pariah” and said he believes Khashoggi was murdered on the orders of the crown prince.
On the campaign trail, Biden vowed to end U.S. support for the Saudi war in Yemen. The five-year civil war in Yemen, in which a Saudi-led coalition allied with the government is fighting Houthi rebels, has killed more than 112,000 people and spawned the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, leaving millions suffering from food and medical shortages.
Biden suggested that he would stop selling weapons to Riyadh and pledged to defend the rights of political dissidents around the world, a nod to those imprisoned in the kingdom. He has also expressed a willingness to re-enter the Obama-era nuclear deal with Iran.
Personal relations between the top leadership in Washington and Riyadh are likely to be less close under Biden, some experts say, reverting instead to a more institutional, state-to-state relationship.
“What they are going to lose is the complete immunity that Trump has given them and the personal access,” said Yasmine Farouk, a visiting fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, referring to political immunity. Like the other analysts quoted in this article, Farouk spoke before the election.
Since he assumed his position, Crown Prince Mohammed has instituted a series of social reforms, including allowing women to drive and curbing the powers of religious police. But he has also presided over sweeping crackdowns on dissent, arresting intellectuals, clerics, women’s rights activists and even members of the royal family.
He has also exercised a more muscular and controversial foreign policy, including a blockade of Qatar and the costly war in Yemen.
The Saudis had “a green light from the Trump administration,” said Robert Jordan, who was the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2001 to 2003 in the administration of President George W. Bush.
“I think that green light will now at least turn to amber and the Americans will be less supportive of reckless adventurism on the part of the crown prince,” Jordan said.
On the Hill
During Trump’s term, anger has grown on Capitol Hill over his close ties to the Saudis, fueled by the large number of civilian casualties in the war in Yemen, as well as the murder of Khashoggi.
Last year, Trump vetoed a congressional resolution to end U.S. military assistance in the Saudi war in Yemen, as well as three other measures aimed at blocking more than $8 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Farouk said she thought Biden would be more selective about when he intervenes with Congress on behalf of the kingdom and would speak out against human rights violations and repression.
Critics say Trump has failed to speak out against Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Previous administrations occasionally pressed for universal values of human rights and freedom in the kingdom when doing so did not run up against other strategic interests in the region.
During the Bush administration, for example, the State Department listed the kingdom as a “country of particular concern” in its annual report on international religious freedom.
The alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy, however, has always been built on a pragmatic bargain: The Saudis ensure a stable supply for oil for the global economy in return for U.S. security guarantees.
But with the steady rise in U.S. oil production, the value of the Saudi alliance has come under increasing scrutiny, and members of Congress from both parties have called for an end to special treatment for the kingdom.
Representatives for the Biden team did not respond to requests for comment about what the Biden administration’s policy would be toward Saudi Arabia.
All of the analysts who were interviewed, however, stressed that the strategic importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship would endure and that Biden’s presidency would by no means mark the end of those ties.
“There will be a clear-eyed recognition of the importance of the relationship from a security standpoint, from an economic standpoint and from relationships with the Muslim world,” said Jordan, the former ambassador.
The U.S. traces its close relations with Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy to the kingdom’s founding in 1932. The relationship has withstood enormous challenges, from the 1973 oil embargo, which sought to punish the U.S. for supporting Israel militarily, to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — in which 15 of the 19 attackers were Saudi citizens.
Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, cautioned against taking Biden’s campaign pledges at face value, noting that Trump was himself critical of Saudi Arabia ahead of the 2016 election.
During that race, Trump criticized his Democratic adversary, Hillary Clinton, for taking money from the kingdom and other countries that “want women as slaves and to kill gays.”
“It won’t be, I think, that the Biden administration is just going to turn on the Saudis tomorrow and start telling them that they’re bad and they need to shape up,” Stephens said, adding that for one thing, he expected the Middle East to be fairly far down the Biden administration’s list of priorities.
And Najah Al-Otaibi, a Saudi political analyst based in London, said she did not think the U.S.-Saudi relationship would weaken under Biden, noting its historic roots.
“Saudi Arabia through history worked with every single president, whether Republican or Democrat,” she said, “because what shaped Saudi-U.S. relations is the strategic interests between the two countries.”
Under Joe Biden, US cools relations with Saudi crown prince
US President Joe Biden’s decision to deliver on his promise to release a CIA report on the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi comes as no surprise to foreign policy experts. What has raised eyebrows, however, is his administration’s pointed sidelining of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, marking an end to the Saudi heir’s privileged position under the Trump administration and one of Washington’s cozier relationships in the region.ADVERTISING
In November 2016, the month Donald Trump was elected US president, a Saudi delegation of top aides to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited New York, where they met members of the Trump transition team.
Upon their return home, the delegation delivered a slide presentation of their conclusions, which was obtained by Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar and then shared with the New York Times.
The Saudi team identified Trump’s son-in-law as the focal point of their new US diplomatic strategy. Jared Kushner – with his business dealings, lack of Middle East experience and singular focus on securing Trump a “deal of the century” Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement – was particularly vulnerable to Riyadh’s advances. Trump’s “inner circle is predominantly dealmakers who lack familiarity with political customs and deep institutions, and they support Jared Kushner”, the Times quoted the original Arabic report as saying.
The strategy worked marvelously for the Saudis and particularly for the crown prince, widely known as MBS.
Two years later, when Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, it wasn’t long before US media reports, quoting CIA findings, revealed that MBS had ordered the assassination.
After initially denying Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, Riyadh eventually said the murder was a rogue operation that was not linked to MBS, the kingdom’s 35-year-old de facto ruler.
Despite the clamour for answers, Trump stood by the Saudi crown prince, declining to release the CIA report and rejecting demands by lawmakers to release a declassified version.
In many ways, the House of Trump and the House of Saud had similar ways of doing business, whether they were affairs of state or real estate deals. Trump’s emphasis on personal relations while rejecting entrenched government institutions found a perfect fit with the House of Saud’s system of patronage and clientelism in the absence of robust state institutions.
But the window for deal-making between Washington and Riyadh now appears to have closed.
On the presidential campaign trail, Joe Biden repeatedly promised to demand accountability for Khashoggi’s murder. His director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, committed at her confirmation hearing to complying with a provision in a 2019 defense bill that required the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to release a declassified version of the report.
The Biden administration’s decision to make good on its promise has come as no surprise to US foreign policy experts. What did raise eyebrows, however, was the new administration’s decision to rebuff the Saudis’ chummy way of conducting diplomatic business in Washington, DC, and its blunt distancing from MBS.
At a briefing on Wednesday, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters that Biden would only communicate with Saudi Arabia’s 85-year-old monarch, King Salman, and not his son and heir.
“We’ve made clear from the beginning that we’re going to recalibrate our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” said Psaki. And “part of that is going back to engagement counterpart to counterpart”.
“The president’s counterpart is King Salman,” she added.
“It’s undeniable that we are witnessing a break with American diplomacy in the Trump era vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia,” explained Karim Sader, a Gulf expert, in an interview with FRANCE 24. However, it is “above all a change in attitude towards a person, namely the crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman”.
“The decision could not have been made more clear to choose King Salman as the interlocutor and no longer his son, who had intimate access to the Oval Office through Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner,” said Sader.
Ending support for Yemen operations
Biden’s promised recalibration of US policy on the Middle East has been swift and, in some cases, decisive.
Two weeks after his inauguration, Biden announced an end to US support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive operations in Yemen’s longstanding war, which the US president said had created a “humanitarian and strategic catastrophe”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also decided to remove the Iran-backed Houthi rebels – Saudi Arabia’s foes in the conflict – from the US list of terrorist organisations. The last-minute blacklist designation by the Trump administration just days before leaving office was slammed by humanitarian groups, who said it would hinder desperately needed aid shipments to Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen.
The Saudi intervention in Yemen’s civil war began in 2015. As the world’s youngest defence minister, MBS sold the war as a quick and decisive military intervention that would annihilate the Houthis, a promise that has failed to materialise and has plunged the poorest Arab nation into a humanitarian disaster.
Biden has “multiplied the decisions that are unfavourable to the prince and his policies”, noted Sader, calling the decision to remove the Houthis from the US anti-terrorist list “the last diplomatic gift Donald Trump offered just before leaving power”.
‘The sugar high of the Trump years is over’
The Saudi crown prince is not the only player in the region feeling a chill from the outcome of the November presidential election.
“Elections have consequences. And nowhere are the consequences of Joe Biden’s election more worrisome than in Jerusalem and Riyadh,” noted former State Department analyst Aaron David Miller in a Politico column. “In the past week, the president has signaled to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the region’s two biggest egos – that the sugar high of the Trump years is over.”
Barely a week after Biden’s inauguration, Richard Mills, then acting US ambassador to the UN, announced the new administration’s plan to restore diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority, more than two years after Trump effectively ended them.
“President Biden has been clear in his intent to restore US assistance programs that support economic development and humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people,” Mills told the UN Security Council, adding: “US assistance benefits millions of ordinary Palestinians and helps to preserve a stable environment that benefits both Palestinians and Israelis.”
Some of Trump’s policies on Israel are likely to remain unchanged under the Biden administration, such as the US embassy remaining in Jerusalem and the Abraham Accords with Israel and the United Arab Emirates, which have been hailed as a positive for economic development and security in the region by Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.
But Biden’s renewed emphasis on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis returns to the longstanding US position of calling for a two-state solution and calls for Israel to refrain from expanding settlements or annexing territory. Above all, with the pandemic and economic recovery grabbing much of Biden’s attention, a reversal to the old position of putting the Israeli-Palestinian crisis on the back burner is most likely.
The end of the bromance
In many ways, Biden’s promised “recalibration” of US-Saudi relations is likely to be more of a return to Obama-era policies that saw a shift in Washington’s oil dependence on the Gulf kingdom.
“Saudi Arabia remains a leading ally of the US, and it is in the interest of neither country to put an end to this alliance,” explained Sader.
However, the oil-rich kingdom no longer has the same strategic importance for the US as it had decades ago. “The United States, which has embarked on the development of unconventional energies, including shale gas, has reached a stage of production that allows it to free itself from dependence on Saudi oil – a dependence that was the basis of their alliance,” said Sader.
For MBS, the writing has been on the wall since the election. And Sader said he has already made certain concessions, including the release of a prominent Saudi feminist activist.
“The Crown Prince feels the pressure of the new administration. He has ceded ground on a number of issues, particularly the reconciliation with Qatar and the release of the Saudi human rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul,” he said.
While US-Saudi relations are not expected to change dramatically, the end of the Kushner-MBS bromance could get politically uncomfortable for the Saudi crown prince.
In 2014, Saudi security forces rounded up dozens of the kingdom’s political and business elite – including around a dozen princes – in an MBS-led purge that saw them virtually held prisoner in the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh as the country’s new de-facto ruler sought to consolidate his influence. Many of those targeted were rival members of the prince’s own family.
“If he loses his American ally, Mohammed bin Salman will lose a lot of credit internally,” said Sader, noting that the Saudi heir has “many enemies” in the kingdom, notably what he called “the conservative fringe” and “all the princes he has publicly humiliated”.
“We’re not going to be able to dictate to the Saudis what to do. You don’t beat anyone over the head in public [or] you force them to dig in deeper. It needs a high-level conversation in private.”
And so, to return to the original question: can a Biden administration improve Saudi human rights? Yes it can. Just how far though, will depend on how the White House pushes this agenda and what both countries ultimately see as being in their best interests.
Russia and China, meanwhile, would love to do more business with Riyadh and they don’t raise “awkward” questions about human rights.
But for now, the US remains Saudi Arabia’s primary strategic partner and according to one Royal Court insider, “the Biden administration will shine a much more powerful light on human rights than previously. It’s on the agenda now and it will require actions, not words.”
brookings.edu, “75 years after a historic meeting on the USS Quincy, US-Saudi relations are in need of a true re-think.” By Bruce Riedel; english.alaraby.co.uk, “Washington, Riyadh and the legend of the Quincy Pact.” By Henry Laurens; voltairenet.org, “The Quincy Pact only protects the King of Arabia, not his heir.” by Thierry Meyssan; washingtonpost.com, “The first time a U.S. president met a Saudi King.” By Adam Taylor; history.com, “How FDR Charmed a Saudi King and Won U.S. Access to Oil: After this first meeting between a U.S. president and a Saudi king, FDR would leave behind a unique gift.” By LESLEY KENNEDY; fpri.org, “The U.S. and Saudi Arabia Since the 1930s.” By David Ottaway; nbcnews.com, “U.S.-Saudi ties were especially close under Trump. Under Biden, that looks likely to change: Trump spent four years cozying up to the Saudis. Biden may usher in an era of frostier cordiality.” By Saphora Smith and Dan De Luce; france24.com, “Under Joe Biden, US cools relations with Saudi crown prince.” By Leela Jacinto;
The first time a U.S. president met a Saudi King
One Tuesday on January 27, 2015 , President Obama traveled to Riyadh to pay his respects to the late King Abdullah and meet the new Saudi king, Salman bin Abdul Aziz. Obama’s decision to cut short his trip to India is a good signal of how important the trip is: Thanks to geopolitics and oil, the United States and Saudi Arabia have had an important, if sometimes strained, alliance for decades.
By coincidence, next month also marks the 70th anniversary of the beginnings of that relationship. It began when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was returning from the Yalta Conference in 1945, where world leaders had met to discuss the future of a postwar Europe. On his way home, Roosevelt decided to meet with some of the Middle East and Africa’s most important leaders: King Farouk of Egypt, Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and the first Saudi king, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud (the father of both King Abdullah and Salman, plus every other Saudi king).
Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz met on board the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal on Feb. 14 and talked for several days. It was the first time that Abdul Aziz, a charismatic yet isolationist military leader who had united Saudi Arabia, had left the country: He is said to have brought eight sheep with him on board to be slaughtered for dinners.
William A. Eddy, an American expert on Arab culture who had been acting as the U.S. minister to Saudi Arabia, was present at the meeting. He later published an account, titled “F.D.R. meets Ibn Saud,” that gave a rare first-person glimpse of the meetings. It showed the two world leaders building up a remarkable rapport:The King and the President got along famously together. Among many passages of pleasant conversation I shall choose the King’s statement to the President that the two of them really were twins: (1) they were both of the same age (which was not quite correct); (2) they were both heads of states with grave responsibilities to defend, protect and feed their people; (3) they were both at heart farmers, the President having made quite a hit with the King by emphasizing his rural responsibilities as the squire of Hyde Park and his interest in agriculture; (4) they both bore in their bodies grave physical infirmities–the President obliged to move in a chair and the King walking with difficulty and unable to climb stairs because of wounds in his legs.
According to Eddy, the last point was especially important: Roosevelt ordered one of his two wheelchairs to be given as a gift to Abdul Aziz, who later kept it on display.
The two men went on to talk about a variety of political issues, in particular the plan to find European Jews a new home in Palestine (Abdul Aziz was vehemently opposed). They eventually came to an agreement that centered around U.S. support and military training for Saudi Arabia, then a fledgling country surrounded by stronger nations, in return for oil and political support in the region. “I would take no action, in my capacity as Chief of the Executive Branch of this Government, which might prove hostile to the Arab people,” Roosevelt later wrote to the Saudi king in a follow up letter.
Unfortunately, the great friendship between Roosevelt and Abdul Aziz didn’t last – the U.S. president died less than two months later. His successor, Harry Truman, didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Abdul Aziz (in particular, his views on Israel were far less conciliatory), who himself died in 1953. However, the core themes of the Saudi-U.S. relationship established at that meeting – security and oil – have endured through five Saudi kings and 12 U.S. presidents.
The endurance of that partnership is truly remarkable when you consider all that has happened in that time: The collapse of the Soviet Union (a mutual enemy that was a key driver in the creation of the relationship), Saudi Arabia’s growth as an oil superstar, the conflicts between Israel and Arab states, the rise of Islamist extremism, and Saudi Arabia’s restrictive domestic policies are just a few issues that might have blown up weaker relationships. How much longer will it last?
How FDR Charmed a Saudi King and Won U.S. Access to Oil
After this first meeting between a U.S. president and a Saudi king, FDR would leave behind a unique gift.
A secret war-time meeting. Fear of an oil shortage. An exchange of gifts (including a wheelchair) and a budding friendship. When Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Abdul Aziz ibn Saud on February 14, 1945 aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Suez Canal, it was the first time a U.S. president had ever met with a Saudi Arabian king, and the encounter laid a foundation for U.S.-Saudi relations that would continue for generations—and ensure U.S. access to Saudi oil reserves.
The principal reason for the meeting, which lasted several hours, according to Scott Montgomery, author and affiliate faculty member in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, had to do with the prospect of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, with Roosevelt trying to persuade the king to accept 10,000 Jews in Palestine.
Montgomery says Abdul Aziz was internationally considered a key Arab leader, heroic warrior and legendary figure. Their meeting was secret, he says, because the war was still going on and FDR had pledged to England’s Winston Churchill that the United States would not intervene in territory controlled by the British. Just a few weeks before, Stalin’s armies had liberated Auschwitz, exposing its horrors to the world
“FDR seems to have taken the plight of the Jews as a personal mission, as the leader of the new free world,” Montgomery says. “Roosevelt was famous for his charm and conversational wit and warmth and had confidence in his own powers of persuasion. He strongly believed in the value of personal diplomacy—frank and intimate meetings between powerful leaders—to solve weighty and pressing issues.”
Another key reason for the meeting: oil.
“In the late 1930s, two U.S. oil companies in partnership, Chevron and Texaco, had discovered enormous volumes of oil in the eastern part of the kingdom,” Montgomery says. “Subsequent geologic analyses showed that the entire center of gravity in world oil production and supply would soon shift to the Persian Gulf, to Saudi Arabia in particular.”
Moreover, he adds, the Roosevelt administration and oil industry leaders had deep concerns that a major oil shortage was imminent.
“Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, saw Saudi oil and the national security/welfare of the U.S. as umbilically linked and even proposed that the federal government establish direct control over all oil resources owned by American companies in Saudi Arabia,” Montgomery says.
There were also signs that the British were trying to take control over Chevron-Texaco, so part of Roosevelt’s goal in meeting the Saudi king was strategic. As Montgomery says, FDR knew it “would serve U.S. national interests in oil security long-term.”
It turns out, the two leaders hit it off so well that Roosevelt, who would die just eight weeks after the meeting, gifted the king with one of his wheelchairs (as well as a DC-3 passenger plane). The king, in turn, gave the president gifts, including a diamond-encrusted dagger, perfumes, pearl jewelry, belts of woven gold thread and embroidered harem costumes, Montgomery says.
“Roosevelt seems to have been in top form and the king was warm in return,” he adds. “He famously said that he and FDR were ‘twins’ of a sort—roughly the same age, both heads of state with grave responsibilities, both farmers at heart and both stricken with physical infirmities, as FDR was in a wheelchair and the king walked with much pain and difficulty due to wounds in his legs from many battles when he was younger.”
William Eddy, Roosevelt’s translator who was present at the meeting, would later report that whenever Abdul Aziz took friends through his palace, he would say, “This chair is my most precious possession. It is the gift of my great and good friend, President Roosevelt, on whom Allah has had mercy.”
Despite the personal good will, however, Roosevelt failed in persuading Abdul Aziz that Palestine should be a Jewish homeland, according to Montgomery.
“Based on accounts by Roosevelt and his translator, FDR was persistent in returning to this subject, but to no avail,” he says. “The king’s position was firm: The Germans should be made to give up territory for this purpose. They were the aggressors and had committed the crimes and oppressions against the Jews.”
As for the topic of oil, Montgomery says a major victory for the United States was that the relationship formed between the two leaders helped ensure Great Britain would not gain control over Saudi Arabia and its oil, “and that the country would remain within America’s sphere of influence instead.”
By 1949, according to Montgomery, Abdul Aziz had authorized a pipeline to the Mediterranean, allowing the flow of Saudi oil to U.S. allies, a U.S. Air Force-operated base near the oil fields and a military training program. “None of this, nor the concession given the American oil companies (later, in combination with Saudi Arabia’s own Arab Oil Co., named Aramco) was undone by the 1948 war in Palestine,” he adds.
And although the “arms and security for oil” relationship between the two countries is often mentioned as a result of the meeting, Montgomery says it doesn’t seem likely such an arrangement was specifically agreed to at the meeting itself.
“More important, in a sense, for the long-term was the U.S. belief that oil scarcity was always on the horizon,” he says, “and could really only be mediated by the gigantic and cheaply extracted reserves under the Saudi desert.”
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