Roosevelt’s grandson says US president and King Abdul Aziz built legacy of friendship

Hall Delano Roosevelt continues his grandfather's legacy as chief executive of the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council. (AN_Photo)
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Updated 14 February 2020

Roosevelt’s grandson says US president and King Abdul Aziz built legacy of friendship

  • Hall Delano Roosevelt believes there are big opportunities under Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 diversification strategy
  • FDR's grandson discusses with ancestral authority the multi-faceted topic of US-Saudi partnership

DUBAI: Policy experts have debated for 75 years about the underlying motive for the historic meeting in 1945 between US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and Saudi King Abdul Aziz on board the USS Quincy. Was it about oil? Was it about Palestine? Was it about sales of defense equipment? 

But Hall Delano Roosevelt speaks with an ancestral authority on the subject, at least from the American side. “It was about creating a relationship and a friendship with this new King, who had just spent quite some time, and resources, and blood, and effort to unite the Arabian Peninsula for the purpose of being a productive part of the world,” he told Arab News.

As FDR’s grandson, he should know. “Del,” as he is called in Washington DC, has devoted a significant part of his career to promoting US-Saudi partnerships, in business, commerce and finance, and spent many years in the Kingdom and the Arabian Gulf with his wife Jan.

Since last year he has been chief executive of the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council, the not-for-profit organization which aims to promote commercial ties between the two countries.

Roosevelt family folklore has an interesting tale about how the Quincy meeting came about. “We were told that His Majesty had met several Americans, but was still curious about their leader. Does he want to colonize us? Does he believe in God? So he wanted to meet with my grandfather for himself, before he met with Winston Churchill, and FDR jumped at that opportunity,” Roosevelt said.

The rendezvous left an abiding impression. “In my humble opinion, what endures now between the US and Saudi Arabia was really just a natural growth from the conversation that took place that day. Sure they spoke about oil, but they also talked abut agriculture, and about industry and manufacturing,” he said.




Saudi Arabia's first airliner was a Douglas DC-3 that was given to Saudi King Abdul Aziz as a gift by then US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. (Getty Images)

Another tangible legacy of the meeting was the Saudi aviation industry, Roosevelt pointed out, after FDR gifted a DC-3 aircraft to the King — the first plane of the fleet that later became Saudia. “FDR was always trying to expedite processes and to keep government out of the way, so he had the aircraft boxed up in huge crates marked ‘agricultural machinery.’

“What endures today is the legacy of a bridge built between the two men, based on friendship, that resulted in business. FDR realized that here was a culture based on relationships, not strictly on numbers and commerce. If you build it on trust, commerce will follow,” he said.

The commercial imperative is still in place today, he believes, keeping things stable while governments try to deal with the political differences that may occasionally arise. “I’m a firm believer in peace through commerce. It’s the initial trust that allows for the friendship to grow. Even when one of them behaves poorly, the other one understands it and they work through it, just like you would in a marriage,” Roosevelt said.

Some analysts believe that the changing dynamics of the oil industry have fundamentally altered the US-Saudi relationship. In 1945, the US was the pre-eminent oil producer in the world, while the Kingdom had not yet fully tapped its vast reserves.

That situation reversed towards the end of the last century, when Riyadh became the leading exporter, only to flip back again in the past decade as the US shale revolution made America effectively self-sufficient in oil once more.

Roosevelt takes a long-term, market-oriented view. The new situation allows Saudi Arabia to sell its product to other markets, he said, and in any case it could all change again very quickly. “We’re feeling 10-feet tall now, but every four years we have a presidential election, and everything can change with a simple pen stroke. I just hope the people in the Beltway (Washington DC) get it right in 2020,” he said.

Roosevelt also hopes that another business proposition — the possible listing of shares in Saudi Aramco on a US stock exchange — does not fall prey to political chicanery. “This is an incredibly volatile year, tensions are running high, and things like this (a US listing for Aramco) can get caught up in the maelstrom of US politics,” he said.

But in any case, he insisted, the US-Saudi Business Council is not a political organization, and he has no idea how the presidential election will go. “For the first time in my life, and despite all the political DNA in my body, I have no clue,” he said.

The council exists to promote business ties, but surely there have been times when the complex geopolitics of the Middle East have deterred American businessmen from potential deals in the region?

“I’ve never had difficulty explaining to people here the case for expanding in the region. They all get the fact that there is a tremendous business opportunity.

“But in those conversations, usually after 10 or 15 minutes, they ask: ‘You’ve been there Del, you’ve lived there with Jan and your children have visited — is it safe?’ I know that question is coming,” he said.

“And I tell them truthfully that in all the years I’ve been in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other places, I have never experienced one moment of ‘attitude.’ I feel safer walking around there than in any major city in the West. There are no gangs, no drive-bys, no home invasions. You’re more likely to be assaulted by curiosity — are you from America or the UK? — and generosity,” he said.

He worked for years as the director of new business for the Alireza Group, one of the Kingdom’s oldest and biggest conglomerates, which taught him some big lessons in how to do business in the Kingdom and the region. “Work backwards. Don’t waste time bringing US companies to the Kingdom to see what gaps they might fill. First find the gaps, and then go to the US to fill that gap,” he said.

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“So many business conversations end in a handshake, and then there is no follow-up. That is how I see the council’s job — to be with you all the time until you make the sell. It’s no use doing business long distance either — you’ve got to put boots on the ground and make a commitment. So many US groups thinks it’s about planting the flag and walking away with a bucket of cash. Well, that does not happen,” he added.

Nonetheless, there are big opportunities, Roosevelt believes, under the Vision 2030 diversification strategy. He highlighted the tourism and leisure sectors as areas where American firms can bring expertise and commitment to Saudi Arabia, like the Qiddiya resort that’s being built outside Riyadh. “It’s twice the size of Disney World — amazing,” he said.

And, much like his grandfather 75 years ago, he gives a vote of confidence in the current generation of Saudi leadership to see through the strategy.

“I believe that they will achieve the Vision 2030, because they have a king who understands traditional society and a young crown prince who is the driving force with the new generation. Alhamdullilah,” he said.


Alexandra Najjar: The face of Beirut’s man-made tragedy 

Updated 39 min 42 sec ago

Alexandra Najjar: The face of Beirut’s man-made tragedy 

  • Death of three-year-old from injuries caused by August 4 explosions has brought grieving nation together
  • Outpouring of online tributes to Alexandra testified to the despair and anguish of Lebanese across the world

LONDON: In an ideal world, Alexandra Najjar should have been able to enjoy the rest of a pleasant Mediterranean summer with her family. Once the coronavirus outbreak in Lebanon had been tamed, she should have been able to experience her first day of school.

She would have made many new friends and begun to absorb all the knowledge that a three-year-old is capable of when they first enter kindergarten.

And as the days turned into weeks, which turned into months, which turned into years, Alexandra’s parents would have watched her grow into a young girl, enjoy life, dream big and perhaps achieve greatness in some field.

Alas, in the harsh real world of a crisis-wracked Lebanon, the dreams of Alexandra’s parents will remain just that.

Some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate haphazardly stored in a warehouse at the Port of Beirut exploded as Alexandra was playing with a friend on the evening of August 4, leaving her severely injured.

Photos and videos of Alexandra were shared widely on social media and tributes poured in online. (Reuters )

Shockwaves from that blast devastated Beirut, its streets blanketed in rubble and shards of glass with many of its residents caked in grey dust and crimson-red blood.

Three days later, after being in a critical condition in a hospital and suffering internal bleeding in her brain, Alexandra succumbed to her wounds.

“You killed us in our own home, in a place where I thought I could leave my family, protect my family . . . where if crimes are happening and we don’t have anything in this country, then at least we have our home where we can be safe,” said Paul Najjar, Alexandra’s grief-stricken father, in a TV interview on Saturday evening, assailing Lebanon’s leaders.

“What you did is a crime at the cost of our family that is so very united and this for me, at the most, is a crime at the cost of love because if there’s anything I should believe in, it’s this  — which was the foundation of our family, it still is and will continue to be so.”

 

As the pain of the Najjar family’s loss sank in, photos and videos of Alexandra — or “Alixou,” the name by which parents called her — began to be shared widely via social media platforms and WhatsApp groups, both in Lebanon and outside it.

 

Tributes poured in online, testifying to the despair and anguish Lebanese across the world felt in the aftermath of the explosions. Alexandra’s untimely death had put a human face on Beirut’s horrible tragedy.

In one of the pictures, Alexandra is seen sitting atop her father’s shoulders as he took part in a march during last year’s October 17 “revolution,” demanding an end to Lebanon’s twin bane of corruption and sectarianism.

The protesters were calling for a better world for all Lebanese — and a brighter future for Alexandra.

The captions accompanying the photos point to the impact of the Najjar family’s tragedy on the Lebanese people and diaspora.

Photos and videos of Alexandra were shared widely on social media and tributes poured in online. (Reuters)

“This is a photo of Alexandra protesting for a better Lebanon to remove the corrupt government and no one listened and now she’s in heaven,” former Miss USA Rima Fakih wrote below a post on Instagram.

Another caption says: “Alexandra, you are in each of our hearts and prayers today and always. Your death will not be in vain . . . we will make sure of it!”

Alexandra was one of the youngest victims of the Beirut explosions, whose human cost so far includes 150 deaths, nearly 6,000 injured and another 300,000 homeless.

After citizens and residents independently organized and cleaned up the streets and homes of the areas most affected by the blast’s impact, shock turned to anger.

“My message to the Lebanese is a message of unity,” Paul Najjar said in the interview. “They killed us — they didn’t kill Christians or Muslims or politically-affiliated or not politically-affiliated. There is none of this anymore — a message to all the people who are still following these people.

“Please, enough. We need to stand together. We need to stand united so that we can make the change, so we can revolt for the sake of Alexandra and every child and every family that wants to live in this country like we had hope for.”

Photos and videos of Alexandra were shared widely on social media and tributes poured in online. (Reuters)

Paul Najjar said he and his wife returned to Lebanon and set up a company in an effort to help the country.

“We had hope that we would help the country. We also hoped that Alixou would grow up in Lebanon,” he said.

On Saturday, thousands of Lebanese made their way to Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square demanding accountability for the explosions, and the resignation of all government officials. Many of them carried nooses, which they used for symbolic hangings of Lebanon’s principal political actors, including Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

The government responded by deploying riot police and the army, who used rubber bullets and tear gas to subdue similar protests in front of the parliament in Riad Al-Solh Square and the nearby Beirut Souks.

Lebanese Red Cross and the Islamic Emergency and Relief Corps figures showed that the clashes left 728 more Lebanese injured, of whom 153 were taken to hospital and 575 treated on site.

“For your information, rubber bullets could kill and cause permanent damage. If necessary, it should be aimed at legs only. Yesterday, and in one hospital, there were seven open surgical eyes and a ruptured abdominal spleen,” Mohammad Jawad Khalifeh, a former Minister of Health, said on Twitter.

Meanwhile, little light has been shed by the government on why such a huge quantity of a highly combustible chemical was stored next to the Beirut Port Silos building after being confiscated from a Russian-leased ship six years ago.

“The incident might be a result of negligence or external intervention through a missile or a bomb,” President Michel Aoun said on Friday.

Whatever the truth, UNICEF has warned that almost 80,000 of those displaced by the “incident” are children whose families are in desperate need of support. 

One children’s hospital in the Karantina area, which had a specialized unit treating critical newborns, was destroyed.

Across Beirut, at least 12 primary health care facilities, maternal, immunization and newborn centers have been damaged, disrupting services for nearly 120,000 people.

Against this grim backdrop, Paul Najjar and his wife are hoping that Alexandra’s death will not be in vain but will have a positive impact when the nation rebuilds itself.

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Twitter: @Tarek_AliAhmad