quotes Clarifying relations with the West

29 February 2024
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Updated 29 February 2024

Clarifying relations with the West

Interactions between the Arab world and the West go back to the days before Islam and Christianity.

The West owes its discovery of Greek philosophers and scientists to the Arab world, which thankfully translated and conserved their texts for posterity.

The time of the Crusades represented a period of great contention, of clashes, but also of signals of respect between the Arab world and the West. But it was the 20th century that proved the most decisive period for relations.

After almost 500 years of Ottoman rule, the Arab world was ready to drive out the occupying forces of the “sick man of Europe.”

Arabs chose to align themselves with the Entente Powers of Great Britain and France in World War I, in opposition to the central powers of Germany and the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottomans warned the Arabs at the time not to trust too much in Western powers, but they took their chances, fighting valiantly alongside the British and the French to push the Ottomans out of Arabia and the Levant.

The promise that had been made by the European powers was that Arabs would retrieve full independence after the war. But they were betrayed by the French and the British, who ultimately divided the region between themselves as though it were a joint bank account.

The US, which entered World War I somewhat late, was critical in tilting victory toward the Entente Powers, yet they were relatively new in their role on the world stage.

The old European colonialist powers — Great Britain and France — still dominated the globe and they had already decided between themselves that they would have their way.

US President Woodrow Wilson sent the King-Crane Commission to the Middle East before the Versailles Peace Conference on a 42-day fact-finding mission which also sought to sound out Arab public opinion.

The commission’s conclusions were mainly that there should be a transition to self-determination across the Arab world and that, contrary to the Balfour Declaration, “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights existing in non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

They found that almost 90 percent of the Palestinian population opposed the Zionist program.

With Britain and France having decided the fate of the Arab world in advance of the Versailles Peace Conference, the US mostly withdrew from playing any significant role in the Arab world in the ensuing decades, while Arabs resisted European colonialism, from Mauritania to Iraq.

For Saudi Arabia, the struggle was more local, as the warrior King Abdulaziz fought to unite the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula.

When faced even with great adversaries, such as the tribe of Al-Rashid, he sought after a fierce battle to make peace and integrate them fully through marriage and the offer of important positions.

Islam is one of the few religions that emphasizes submission and peace even in its name, and King Abdulaziz followed the commands of his Creator all the way.

When it was time for the monarch to encounter the West, he formed close and honest relationships with the smartest people there.

Perhaps the key moment in Arab-American relations was the meeting, on Feb. 14, 1945 of King Abdulaziz and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Aboard the USS Quincy in Great Bitter Lake, the two men spent five hours of enthusiastic discussion, laughter, and congeniality together. According to Marine Col. William Eddy, the head of the US Mission in Saudi Arabia at the time, Roosevelt and the king “got along famously together.”

Roosevelt broached the subject of the Jewish survivors of Nazi persecution, telling the king that he felt a personal responsibility toward them. In response to Roosevelt’s entreaty to establish a Jewish state for them in Palestine, the king said: “Give them and their descendants the choicest lands and homes of the Germans who had oppressed them.”

He added: “Make the enemy and the oppressor pay; that is how we Arabs wage war. Amends should be made by the criminal, not by the innocent bystander. What injury have Arabs done to the Jews of Europe? It is the Christian Germans who stole their homes and lives. Let the Germans pay.”

Roosevelt respectfully heard the king’s position and gave him his reassurances, which he repeated in a letter to him just one week before his own death, stating that as president he “would take no action … which might prove hostile to the Arab people” and that the US government would not change its policy in Palestine “without full and prior consultation with both Jews and Arabs.”

In his own words to Congress, Roosevelt “learned more (about Palestine and the Near East) by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes” than he could ever have learned in Washington.

Sadly, their hopeful and promising meeting was never to bear fruit, as Harry Truman became US president in the wake of Roosevelt’s death, sweeping aside the profound understanding and crucial assurances made.

Not only did the Truman administration threaten to halt Marshall Plan funds to certain countries were they not to vote for the UN’s Partition Plan for Palestine, they were also the first to recognize the State of Israel, within just 11 minutes of its establishment.

When American diplomats in post in the Arab world had gone to urge Truman not to cave in to Zionist pressures, he had told them: “I’m sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism: I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.” At least he was honest.

It was a very costly betrayal, whose consequences the world — and Palestinians in particular — continues to suffer from today.

To be sure, the Zionist Jews who came to claim lands and populate Palestine had no direct links to the region, even going back millennia.

There were however a significant number of Jews living throughout the Arab world and, contrary to their counterparts in Europe and the West, they were a thriving and integral component of society, occupying important posts and living in peace and mutual respect with Muslims and Christians alike.

That is why the unheeded warnings made by the King-Crane Commission, by King Abdulaziz, and by US diplomats in the Middle East resound so tragically today, having torn apart the fabric of a diverse and respectful society, where different communities had been living together for centuries.

Ultimately, the Zionist plan was yet another form of Western occupation and betrayal, and perhaps the most painful of all, leading to almost a century of turmoil and the continued suffering of the Palestinian people until this day.

With blind support for Israel and continued colonialist intervention throughout the Arab world, the West has continued to divide the Arab world, never allowing it to prosper and establish truly healthy relations with its counterparts in the West.

The feeling is that Arabs have always been honest with their Western counterparts, seeking to trust them, while the West turned out in almost every case to be deceptive.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia believed in an honest friendship and partnership with the US. Not once did Saudi Arabia come to recognize a communist country or establish diplomatic relations with one.

America’s wars to roll back communism have eventually faltered, ending in withdrawal, as in Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan.

By contrast, Saudi Arabia, once engaged, committed wholeheartedly to defeating the nihilistic concept of communism.

Arab and Muslim men were sent to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, and they died in the tens of thousands, without the aid of one American, European, or Israeli soldier. They succeeded in pushing the Soviets back out of Afghanistan, ultimately bringing down the crumbling facade of its entire communist edifice. This is how Saudi Arabia approached its friendship and shared objectives with the US.

It should be noted that the US did have several presidents who empathized with the plight of Arabs and who correctly understood the dynamics of the Middle East.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, chose to oppose his close British, French, and Israeli allies when they decided to invade Suez, despite it being a crucial election year for him.

There are ample examples of American presidents who applied the defining values deemed as American, without being swayed by special interests.

Presidents Wilson, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and Jimmy Carter all sought to understand Arabs and to deal with them as equals in honest and respectful relations. There have been recent presidents also who expended great efforts to seek a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but who sadly shied away before they could arrive at the finishing line.

Today we are at a crossroads, a devastating war raging in Gaza and no end in sight.

The Western betrayals that Arabs have experienced in the past have not quite healed, and it should be no surprise that such feelings have been re-awakened today, as tens of thousands of innocent Gazans are senselessly killed, with the US and some Western nations refusing even to apply any pressure on Israel to implement an immediate ceasefire.

Were this happening anywhere else in the world, the positions espoused by Western governments would be untenable.

For Arabs, it is endlessly perplexing that the West could show such indifference and double standards again and again. They cannot even hope anymore for having an equal partner who listens and values the well-being of Arabs as much as they value that of their own populations.

Mercifully, the Western public has not simply toed the lines of their governments. They have increasingly taken to the streets and to the internet to express their consternation.

Arabs have long been friends of the West, their children have studied in the universities of the West, they have intermarried, and have developed great respect for the culture and values of the West.

  • Hassan bin Youssef Yassin worked closely with Saudi Arabia’s petroleum ministers, Abdullah Tariki and Ahmed Zaki Yamani, from 1959 to 1967. He led the Saudi Information Office in Washington from 1972 to 1981 and served with the Arab League’s observer delegation to the UN from 1981 to 1983.