Saudis remember FDR's broken promise

September 01, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

PRESIDENT BUSH and his closest advisers would hardly be surprised at the strain that's developed between the United States and Saudi Arabia if they were students of the relationship between the two countries.

The fact that prominent individuals in that entourage, including the president, are oilmen makes it even more surprising that they are surprised.

Oil is about the only thing that Saudi Arabia and America have in common. America consumes a lot of it, and Saudi Arabia produces a lot of it. Culturally, socially, politically and religiously, America and Saudi Arabia are poles apart, no matter how many people in America are Muslims and no matter how many Saudis come to America to be educated.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the first president of the United States to meet a king of Saudi Arabia, certainly noticed this. But he made a promise to the Saudi that would be broken within a couple of years by his successor. And the king of Saudi Arabia and his successors never fully recovered.

Roosevelt spelled out this promise in a letter to King Abdel Aziz Ibn Saud on April 5, 1945:

"Your Majesty will recall that on previous occasions I communicated to you the attitude of the American Government toward Palestine and made clear our desire that no decision be taken with respect to the basic situation in that country without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews. ... [D]uring our recent conversation I assured you that 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."

That promise was soon to be broken.

The earlier meeting Roosevelt referred to may have been one of the most bizarre of his presidency. Oil was the concern, Saudi Arabia's untapped potential was the attraction. The Roosevelt administration and the American oil interests working to establish American primacy in Saudi Arabia over the British had been heaping money on Ibn Saud.

The meeting took place in February 1945 aboard the USS Quincy, a destroyer, in the Great Bitter Lake of the Suez Canal, where Roosevelt stopped on his way home from the Yalta Conference with Churchill and Stalin.

Ibn Saud was brought to the rendezvous aboard the USS Murphy, a cruiser, along with an extraordinary cargo, though not nearly as strange as it might have been if the king had had his way. Ibn Saud had arrived at the dock with an entourage of about 200 men, plus quite a few women from his harem.

The captain of the Murphy was appalled. He warned the king's entourage of problems that might arise with women aboard a naval vessel manned by a crew that had been at sea and at war for a long time. The women were left behind. The king brought a retinue of 48, including coffee servers, cooks and six huge Nubians with swords.

Why the cooks? Muslim tradition calls for all meat to be fresh. The Saudis would not eat Navy food, so they brought their own sheep to slaughter on board. King Ibn Saud was 6 feet 6 inches tall. He would not sleep in a ship's cabin, so he and his entourage slept on deck, on carpets.

The Roosevelt administration, before and during World War II, had been doing everything it could - usually in secret and sometimes close to illegally - to help advance American interests in the Saudi Arabian oil development.

Saudi Arabia was not central to America's war effort, but in 1943, Roosevelt was persuaded that paying Ibn Saud was essential, even if a lot of the money was going to pay for his wives, slaves and concubines. So he ordered Lend-Lease money diverted to Saudi Arabia, asserting that, "I find the defense of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defense of the United States."

Oil - or its potential - was the only thing Saudi Arabia had to offer, and it was not in danger of being occupied by the Axis powers. Had Roosevelt been interested, he might have learned that the regime in Saudi Arabia - "vital to the defense of the United States" - was not much different than the Taliban regime knocked off recently by the United States in Afghanistan.

Ibn Saud had conquered most of the Arabian peninsula and consolidated it into one kingdom with the help of the fanatically religious Wahhabi Bedouins, who believed, among other things, that dying in battle was a ticket to paradise, that all images, from pictures to statues, had to be destroyed, that drinking and smoking and singing and dancing were sins punishable by whipping, and so forth.

Sound familiar? Many of the rules are still in effect in Saudi Arabia. Some speculate that Osama bin Laden is a Wahhabist.

Ibn Saud had been a great and fierce warrior. He loved to sit around talking of great battles he had won and how he had personally killed his enemies. Possibly most important to him after his devotion to God was his honor and his belief that a man's word was his honor.

So when Roosevelt made this promise about Palestine, it never occurred to Ibn Saud that another president could come along and break that promise.

But Roosevelt died a week after sending the letter to Ibn Saud.

Harry S. Truman, Roosevelt's successor, came to office suddenly and unexpectedly.

Truman placed the United States forcefully and decisively in support of the partition of Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state in 1948. The sentiments of the king of Saudi Arabia were not considered important.

"I'm sorry, gentlemen," Truman explained to worried Arabists. "But I have to answer to hundreds of thousands of people who are anxious for the success of Zionism. I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents."

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