Roosevelt and Ibn Saud built groundwork for current world order, on a boat

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On Friday, Joe Biden will pay his first visit to Saudi Arabia as President of the US. The Biden trip is the latest twist in the saga of one of the most unlikely alliances in modern history.

The US-Saudi love affair could not have started on a more symbolic date: 14 February 1945, Valentine's Day, in the year that WW2 ended.

The setting was the American warship USS Quincy, in the Suez Canal.

The players were President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman Al Saud, the undisputed leader of Saudi Arabia. At stake was the oil needed to fuel the American war effort, and US post-war recovery.

The meeting was the foundation of what was to become the most enduring alliance between Washington and any Arab state.

The get-together had to take place in the utmost secrecy, as German bombs were still falling on Cairo. Roosevelt was returning from the Yalta conference, where he had met Soviet strongman Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, to lay out the parameters for the post WW-2 world.

The allied victory was all but certain, and Roosevelt now wanted to secure a possible source of energy that had not already been claimed by the English, whose British Petroleum had grabbed large concessions in Persia (today's Iran) and Kuwait.

In 1938, the subsidiary of a US company, Standard Oil of California, had bought drilling concessions in the Arab peninsula, and prospects looked promising. The subsidiary was called California Arabian Standard Oil Company and would become the foundation of what is now the world's most valuable company: Saudi Aramco.

Probably the best of several eye-witness accounts of the meeting is a 47-page booklet called F.D.R. meets Ibn Saud written by William A. Eddy, a retired US Marine Corps colonel who was the first US ambassador to Saudi Arabia and who served as a translator and middleman for Roosevelt and Ibn Bin Saud, thanks to his fluency in Arabic.

Sheep

Details described in Eddy's account are colourful. The king arrived with a party of 42 servants and was loaded with presents. He had also taken provisions, including a herd of one hundred sheep, to be slaughtered on board, because he would not eat American frozen food, which was more than 24 hours old, an infringement of the Arab custom which demands fresh food.

Eddy managed to negotiate the number of sheep down to a mere seven. A special tent, made of canvas with oriental rugs on the floor, was set up for the monarch and his entourage on the deck of the ship as the cabins were deemed too small to host royalty.

The king was transported on the USS Murphy, which steamed north from Jeddah towards the Suez Canal where the US leader was waiting on another warship, the Quincy.

As half of the vessel could not be curtained off, the king decided not to take his harem on board. Eddy insisted that the ladders and corridors inside the ship were "too narrow" and "a sudden lurch of the ship might throw them off balance and unveil their faces." Eddy notes that the US and Arab crews, in spite of not speaking a common language, nonetheless "fraternised with friendliness".

The king tasted American apple pie and pancakes, and the Americans were given a taste of lamb-only Arab meals. War stories were exchanged, and the king "showed keen interest in the ship's armament" and enjoyed demonstrations of target shooting with the heavy weaponry.

'Chopped to pieces, bit by bit'

Movies were a sensitive issue, as Eddy discovered to his horror.

The ship's lower decks usually showed what was then regarded as "frivolous" movies for the sailors. When the king's aide, one of his sons, got wind of the sort of entertainment on offer, he went to Eddy and inquired whether he "would prefer to be destroyed all at once or to be chopped up in small pieces, bit by bit?"

When asked what the problem was, it emerged that the prince had found out about the movies and was angry that he had not been invited. Eddy, "abject with terror," assured the young man that Arab sailors would not wish to attend "these godless exhibitions of half-naked women" and asked him to forget the incident.

In the end, some 25 Arabs did see the movie, and "greeted it with whistles and applauding whoops." Apparently, the Prince was invited as well, since Eddy lived to tell the tale.

And so the twain met

Finally, after two days sailing, the Murphy docked with the Quincy, and the historic meeting between Roosevelt and Ibn Saud took place. The two leaders hit it off: the king noted that they were both ageing and walking badly, both liked farming and were heads of state with "grave responsabilities".

"You are luckier that I because you can still walk on your legs," Roosevelt told Ibn Saud, who replied, "No, my friend, you are the more fortunate. Your wheelchair will take you wherever you want to go and you know you will get there. My legs are less reliable every day and are getting weaker." At which Roosevelt presented the overjoyed king with a spare wheelchair, an identical copy of the one he was sitting in. That wheelchair is still in the possession of the Arab royal family today.

Jewish state?

The king was open to further US exploitation of Arab oil fields - a modest operation at the time, until further discoveries established that the country hosted the largest oil reserves in the wrold.

Roosevelt also tried to push Abdul Aziz to accept a possible presence of Jewish people who were suffering greatly under the Nazi regime. According to the official Memorandum of that conversation, recorded by Eddy, the Saudi King answered that the Axis-countries responsible for the suffering of the Jews should pay reparations and house them.

"The Arabs and the Jews could never cooperate, neither in Palestine nor in any other country," he said, pointing out that "the increasing threat to the existence of the Arabs and the crisis which has resulted from continued Jewish immigration and the purchase of land by the Jews."

However Charles E. Bohlen, a diplomat who was part of Roosevelt's delegation, wrote in his memoir Witness to History that Ibn Saud "denied that there had ever been any conflict between the two branches of the Semitic race in the Middle East," but stressed the fact that the immigrants from eastern Europe were "technically and culturally on a higher level than the Arabs" which would cause the Arabs "greater difficulty in surviving economically."

The bottom line was that Ibn Saud did not want to cooperate in any form of Jewish immigration to the region. Roosevelt complied, promising that the US would make "no move hostile to the Arab people." Harry Truman, who succeeded Roosevelt as US president finally reversed this in 1947, when he endorsed the partition of Palestine after the war, and then recognised the Jewish state there - leading to decades of friction between the Arab states and the US.

Yet the deal was done: The US were granted drilling rights at the Saudi peninsula, and Arab oil would be a prime motor of the US economy for decades to come.

Cracks

Cracks appeared. In 1973, the West supported Israel in the Yom Kippur war, leading to an Arab oil embargo which severely impacted Western industries. From then on, relations became increasingly difficult.

In 2020, an article by the prominent Brookings Institution concluded that, 75 years after the meeting between Roosevelt and Ibn Saud, the relationship had become "irrelevant:" the current crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) is considered "toxic" after the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi, his reputation "permanently stained," especially after a US intelligence report concluded that the Saudi Crown Prince himself ordered the killing.

US-Saudi relations had already nose-dived after it appeared that nineteen of the twenty September 11 hijackers were Saudis.

"The United States doesn’t need Saudi oil anymore, it is almost energy independent," Brookings writes, adding that the relationship needs a "rethink".

And this is exactly what Joe Biden seems to have done: after months of ignoring MBS, and calling Saudi Arabia a 'pariah state,' he appears to have changed his mind.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian gas and oil became toxic, sanctions were imposed resulting in exploding oil prices. Biden's solution is clearly to restore ties with Riyadh in the hope that the Saudis will agree to increase production and so take pressure off world markets.

The big question remains whether Biden's gamble aimed at saving the world economy will work, and at what cost to human rights concerns?

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