How fledgling Saudi-US ties were buoyed in Egypt
This month will see the 74th anniversary of the first meeting between a Saudi king and an American president, which is often considered the start of the relationship between the two countries. However, the true relationship began 12 years earlier.
Roosevelt was returning from the Yalta Conference toward the end of the Second World War when he stopped in Egypt to meet with Egyptian King Farouk, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, and Abdul Aziz. In Jeddah, Abdul Aziz and his retinue boarded an American ship, the USS Murphy, which would shuttle them to Egypt. The Americans believed that this was the first time Abdul Aziz had left his Kingdom since he began unifying it more than 40 years earlier. The king’s entourage included Prince Mohammed, Finance Minister Abdullah Suleiman, and Foreign Minister Yusuf Yassin.
When the Murphy met the president’s cruiser, the USS Quincy, on Feb. 14, 1945, the two leaders spoke for five hours. By all accounts, the meeting was cordial but frank. Both leaders left proclaiming a friendship had been made, and there were gifts and hospitality from both sides, but there is little evidence that anything substantive was accomplished.
What we know of the actual meeting between the king and the president is pulled together from a variety of sources. Col. William Eddy, the only person present who spoke both English and Arabic, wrote a booklet about the event in 1954, but he is an unreliable narrator. Eddy was born to Christian American missionaries in Lebanon, where he learned Arabic. He was an academic, a Marine, an intelligence officer and a diplomat, but the meeting between his president and the king was the biggest event of his life. He regularly promoted it as supremely consequential, though he never provided evidence that this was true. Moreover, Eddy was opinionated and biased in his writings. Yet even Eddy indicated that the meeting’s only importance to Roosevelt was to hear the Saudi perspective on America’s plan to facilitate the immigration of European Jews to British Mandate Palestine. According to Eddy, Roosevelt had no other issue to broach.
Harry Hopkins, a top aide to Roosevelt, wrote about the Yalta trip in a memo that was quoted in the book, “Roosevelt and Hopkins.” Hopkins thought the meeting with the king only rehashed old sentiments. Abdul Aziz apparently informed the president that the already-instituted plans for Jewish immigration to Palestine were acceptable, but he would oppose more. Referring to an ad-lib remark by Roosevelt shortly after the meeting, Hopkins wrote: “I never could reconcile the president's statement… that he had learned more from Ibn Saud about Palestine in five minutes than he had learned in a lifetime.”
The only outcome may have been the Saudi declaration of war against Germany and Japan two weeks after the meeting, though no witnesses recounted this as an issue discussed in Egypt. The declaration did not contribute to the war effort since the war was almost won and Saudi Arabia was never expected to commit to combat, but it did serve to position the Kingdom for a role in post-war geopolitical discussions.
When the Murphy met the president’s cruiser, the USS Quincy, on Feb. 14, 1945, the two leaders spoke for five hours.
Ellen R. Wald
The White House described the meeting without mention of specific discussions, writing only that it was, “in line with the president’s desire that heads of governments throughout the world should get together whenever possible.” Mostly, the White House, like all other American witnesses, focused on the sight of the Saudi contingent aboard the Murphy.
The American witnesses and media were most impressed by what they saw, not what was said. The Saudi delegation brought rugs, tents, Nubian slaves, daggers and live goats for slaughter aboard the ship. The king slept on deck instead of the cabin he was offered. It was said that he held his Majlis as he would in Riyadh. At night, the king was shown documentaries, but Prince Mohammed insisted that he and some other Saudis be permitted to watch comedy movies below deck with the sailors. By all accounts, the Saudis and Americans got along perfectly, which could not be said of the Saudis and the British during the return trip aboard a British vessel.
This meeting took place less than three months before Hitler’s Germany was defeated and six months before Japan surrendered. The fighting was ongoing, but Roosevelt and his administration were also beginning to prepare for the post-war era and the coming Cold War. Moreover, the meeting happened just eight weeks before Roosevelt died suddenly.
The meeting later gained relevance as marketing. At first, it was promoted and emphasized often by the American owners of Aramco. It became a symbol, more than an accomplishment.
The US-Saudi relationship actually began in 1933, only one year after the formal founding of modern Saudi Arabia. That is when American geologists signed an agreement with Suleiman. In time, royal delegations would visit the US and American ambassadors would establish permanent embassies in the Kingdom. It was the pursuit of common business interests that was the foundation of the relationship. The same might be said today in light of Vision 2030 and the economic opportunities available for both sides.
- Ellen R. Wald, Ph.D. is a historian and author of “Saudi, Inc.” She is the president of Transversal Consulting and also teaches Middle East history and policy at Jacksonville University. Twitter: @EnergzdEconomy