For someone in his seventies, Abdul Aziz was still muy hombre – very much a man – thought Laurence Grafftey-Smith, who, as British minister, had frequently to do business with the old king in the late 1940s. Tall and deep-chested, Abdul Aziz looked ‘impressively square-cut’, in the minister’s eyes. “He still had more than the mere remains of great physical strength, and the gentle hands and charming smile that made many love him.’

So Grafftey-Smith was surprised one day to find the old king weeping. Abdul Aziz had just learned, he told the British minister, that ‘there were as many as 5,000 Jews living in the city of New York.’

Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman

Grafftey-Smith had always suspected that Abdul Aziz was weak on figures over a thousand, and he had good reason to know the true proportions of New York’s ethnic mix, since Great Britain had just delayed a policy initiative in Palestine in deference to President Truman’s anxieties over the mayoral elections in that city.

But the minister guessed that adding more zeros to the old man’s statistic would only increase his sorrow, and Abdul Aziz had grasped the point in any case: the Americans he had originally welcomed to Arabia as businessmen who would confine themselves to making money and who, in the 1930s, had been happy to leave local politics to the Arabs, had turned out, in the 1940s, to be committed to a disruption of the Arab world more drastic and permanent than any of the meddlings of the election old imperial powers.

Great Bitter Lake

Great Bitter Lake

America’s support for the Jewish struggle to establish the State of Israel in the years after the Second World War did not chime with President Roosevelt’s Great Bitter Lake assurances to Abdul Aziz. But the dying president, under the spell that the Sa’udi king managed to weave around all who met him, had been too eager to please, since Roosevelt was as unaware of American political realities as his successor Truman turned out to be. Roosevelt knew well that when it came to election time any American president had ‘to answer to hundreds of thousands who were anxious for the success of the Zionism,’ and electioneering in 1944, he had publicly endorsed the Zionists’ Biltmore Program. Roosevelt shared America’s general sympathy for the holocaust’s survivors’ wish to plant themselves in the Middle East, and his hope for Palestine before his death seems to have been that he might somehow arrange a conference between the Jewish leadership and Arab figures like Ibn Sa’ud to hammer out a compromise.

It fell to Harry Truman to discover that compromise was impossible in the much to Promised Land. When Britain gave up on the whole peck of troubles and dumped Palestine into the lap of the United Nations in 1947, America supported the UN plan to partition the country into separate Jewish and Arab areas. But the Arab states rejected partition totally, holding out for an independent Arab Palestine in which the Jews would have to take their chances as a minority.

‘If you want to be generous, then be generous out of what you possess,’ declared Prince Faisal bin Abdul Aziz, head of the Sa’udi delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in 1947. Faisal expressed astonishment that members of the US Congress, who were at that moment resisting the entry of Jewish and other European refugees into their own country, should be urging, ‘uncontrolled and unconditional immigration into Palestine as if that country had no owners and as if her rightful inhabitants had no say in the matter.’

‘What would be the position of the United States Government and the American people at large, were the parliament of some foreign country to pass a law which urges opening the gates of immigration to Jewish and non-Jewish refugees … simply because the United States is vast and can absorb millions of people?

Gentlemen, try and put yourself in our place today…’

Arab arms and guerrillas poured into Palestine. The Jews fought to defend and to extend the area granted to them by the United Nations, and, as the last of Britain’s troops withdrew, the situation degenerated into total war.

‘The choice for our people, Mr. President, is between statehood and extermination,’ Dr. Weizmann told Harry Truman in April 1948, and by that stage of the conflict he was right.

The State of Israel came into existence at 6:00 p.m. on May 14, 1948, and at 6:11 p.m. President Truman announced its de facto recognition by the United States of America.

Faisal bin Abdul Aziz was outraged. He had been booed and spat upon in New York by Jewish demonstrators – an experience he never forgave or forgot – and on the strength of private State Department assurances he had worked hard to persuade fellow Arab delegates to the UN that American would not, in the last resort, endorse partition or a sovereign Jewish state – only to be left looking like an American stooge, and a discarded stooge at that. The fact that President Truman had overruled his pro-Arab State Department advisers for personal and political reasons did little to salve Faisal’s sense of betrayal, and he urged his father to break off links with America at once.

League of Arab States

League of Arab States

But Abdul Aziz ignored him. While mobs in other Arab countries stormed American legations in furied demonstrations, and their governments blustered of economic war against the USA, Sa’udi Arabia confined itself to expressions of ‘shock’, sent a token force to join the armies of the Arab League in Palestine, and declined to take up the unused portion of a $15 million loan from America’s Export-Import Bank.

It was a slap on the wrist after decades of big talk, and, in this first serious testing of the US-Sa’udi Arabia relationship, State Department officials discovered, with some relief, that, when it came to events outside Arabia’s frontiers, their Sa’udi partners had a very realistic ‘sense of what they can an cannot do.’

David Niles, and aide to President Truman and to Roosevelt before that, put it more brutally: ‘President Roosevelt said to some of us privately he could do anything that needed to be done with Ibn Saud with a few million dollars.’

If that sounded cynical, it almost paraphrased Abdul Aziz’s response when Iraq called on him to cut off his oil sales and declare economic war on America over Israel. “Give me $30 million,’ he said, ‘and I’ll join you.’ Abdul Aziz had become the hostage of his oil revenues.

Gaza Strip

Gaza Strip

Prince Faisal and his militant younger brothers felt humiliated. But Sa’udi Arabia scarcely proved itself more self-interested in the first Arab-Israeli war than Egypt – who secured for itself the Gaza Strip – or than Abdullah of Transjordan – who exploited the efforts of the allied Arab armies to pocket Arab Palestine for himself, enlarging his territories on to the west bank of the Jordan River by over 2000 square miles. The first combined Arab assault on Israel provided in 1948-9 a model for all the others to come in its mutual mistrust and individual self-seeking; and Abdul Aziz’s halfhearted commitment had much to do with his unwillingness to further the ambitions of his ancient Hashimite enemy.

The Sa’udi king, said Grafftey-Smith, was always susceptible to two sorts of gossip – rumors of new aphrodisiacs, and dirt about Abdullah of Transjordan – and Abdullah’s annexation of Arab Palestine and half of Jerusalem justified Abdul Aziz’s worst suspicions. When Abdullah sought international recognition in 1950 for his combined Palestinian and Transjordanian territories, to be known henceforward as the Hashimite Kingdom of Jordan, his Arab brothers in Riyadh were conspicuous in their silence, and the news of Abdullah’s assassination at the hands of an Arab nationalist in 1951 elicited little pretence at sorrow.

By that date the Al Sa’ud were engaged in some empire building of their own, for on October 14, 1949 Sa’udi Arabia had officially notified the British government of her claim to nearly 50,000 square miles of the deserts stretching eastwards from al Hasa – a vast extension of the Sa’udi frontier as hitherto recognized. The Kingdom claimed land which stretched out along the Trucial Coast (UAE) towards the Strait of Hormuz in a bulge clipping large chunks off the territories which the rulers of Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Muscat had long regarded as their own, and, since the only significant settlements in these suddenly coveted wastelands were the threadbare gardens, huts and palm groves that made up the oases around Buraymi, it was by the name of Buraymi that the Sa’udi demand, and the twenty-five year old dispute to which it led, came to be known.

The Sa’udi claim to Buraymi was couched in ancient and historic terms: Abdul Aziz’s Wahhabi ancestors had occupied the area for a time, some inhabitants of Buraymi had considered themselves Sa’udi subjects at certain periods in the last century and a half, and aged documents were dusted off to prove the venerable nature of ties alleged to link the oasis to the rulers of Riyadh.

But the dispute was not about history: it was about oil. Abdul Aziz’s American oil partners had come to suspect that substantial energy reserves lay below the drab sand and gravel plains of the Trucial Coast, and with that suspicion the poverty-stricken inhabitants of Buraymi suddenly discovered that their welfare was a matter of intense concern not only to the Al Sa’ud but even to powers like Britain and the mighty USA.

It was a measure of the success of America’s oilmen in Arabia that within the decade of their oil strike of March 1938 they were helping to shape the foreign policy of the Al Sa’ud. Before the strike, Standard Oil of California had sold a share in their Arabian concession to the Texas Oil Company in return for Texaco deals elsewhere, and after the Second World War the companies had decided to split more of the competitors in on their joint Arabian franchise. They needed extra capital and marketing outlets – and they also foresaw how much easier it would be to muster State Department leverage on the behalf if they represented a broader section of the American oil industry.

So Standard Oil of New Jersey (then Esso, now Exxon) and Socony-Vacuum (Mobil – later to become ExxonMobil) were allowed to buy in on the Sa’udi venture, and the whole partnership, known as the Arabian American Oil Company, Aramco, soon became the largest single American enterprise operating anywhere outside the US mainland. (Shares in Aramco were distributed to Socal, 30%; to Texaco, 30%; to Esso/Exxon, 30%; and to Mobil, 10%). It outstripped even Firestone Rubber in Liberia and the United Fruit Company in Latin America.

Aramco’s profits were phenomenal from the start. It was a poor year in which effective returns on capital invested fell below 200 per cent, since the company was able to supply its owners with crude oil significantly below the market price. Yet, for all its size and prosperity, the mighty conglomerate felt a certain vulnerability in its Arabian fiefdom, for it soon discovered that the Al Sa’ud could be remarkably exacting landlords – as landlords ten to be when they are running themselves into debt.

Never quite able to catch up on himself, Abdullah Suleiman was for ever securing larger and larger foreign loans against future oil revenues. But the interest on the loans, and the improvidence of his masters, outstripped the actual revenues when they finally came in, and, since, the Finance Minister found it impossible to be strict with Abdul Aziz, it was Aramco that he squeezed. Al Suleiman set up an aggressive inspection post at Dhahran to monitor Aramco’s expenses and production volume; the oil company was pressed to pay higher royalties, it was threatened with ‘income taxes’ if it refused, and in 1949 it was asked to surrender those areas of its concession that it had not explored so that they could be offered to other companies.

Almost anywhere else in the developing world, such arrogance on the part of a native regime would have received short shrift. But the size and mystery of Arabia, and the very real power that Al Sa’ud exercised inside its boundaries, prevented Aramco from treating the country like a banana republic. The oilmen felt constrained to behave in the Kingdom with a deference to local feelings uncharacteristic in their industry, and Aramco’s history was one of enlightened and political concession; all the water wells Ibn Sa’ud wanted; help with his Riyadh-Dhahran railway, which everyone but he wrongly considered a white elephant; generous education and social welfare facilities for local Sa’udi employees; the first 50:50 profit sharing agreement in the Middle East; and, in 1949, the claim on the Trucial Coast and its hinterland.



Enlisting Abdul Aziz’s help in the claim for Buraymi was a good way for Aramco to increase the king’s sense of partnership in their affairs, and it was also a necessary geographical exercise. In order to establish what territory it had been entitled to in the first place – and it rapidly discovered that no one knew precisely where Sa’udi Arabia’s eastern frontiers lay, least the Sa’udis themselves.

One answer was contained in the Anglo-Turkish Convention of 1913 which had fixed the boundary of ‘le sandjak Ottoman de Nedjd’ along a ‘blue line’ to the west of the Qatar peninsula; another possibility was the ‘red line’ which Abdul Aziz had himself proposed in 1935, while various ‘violet’, ‘brown’, ‘green’, and ‘yellow’ lines had also been discussed in the 1930s during some inconclusive negotiations with Britain – complicated, at one state, by a British minister who was color-blind. Yet all these boundaries, including Abdul Aziz’s own proposal of 1935, signally failed to include inside their limits the oasis of Buraymi where the oil was thought to lie, and so Aramco organized a team of Arabist scholars and researchers to see if they could come up with something better.

They did. Delving into two chronicles compiled by poets whom the Al Sa’ud patronized, Aramco scholars formulated a glowing version of early Sa’udi history – which, in the absence of any alternative sources and research, remains to this day the basis of our knowledge about Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab and the early conquest of the Al Sa’ud. Then the Americans compared these chronicles with the records of taxes that the Governor of al Hasa had levied from time to time in the Buraymi area – to produce, eventually, a bulky three volume compilation which claimed not just Buraymi for Sa’udi Arabia but also some 200 miles of ‘beaches, banks and islands’ along the Trucial Coast itself.

Aramco’s scholars seized avidly on the Bedouin tradition of ‘boundaries in men’s hearts’ to support their case, claiming the Trucial Coast, for example, on the grounds that certain clans of the Beni Yas tribe, who fished and dived for pearls there, had given their allegiance at times to the Al Sa’ud.

‘The deserts of Arabia are not the plains of Picardy,’ explained the Aramcons, excusing themselves, as sophisticate scholars, for haggling over frontiers in the style of the unlettered Ikhwan.

But at least the zealots who had wreaked such havoc along the borders of Kuwait, Iraq and Transjordan in the 1920s had been Bedouin on the ground, with a genuine stake in traditional grazing routes and rights of passage. Aramco were a Western corporation anxious to secure a fixed asset, and concerned with nomadic traditions only in so far as they could use them to prove their own case. They ignored the intrinsic nature of the allegiance that lies in men’s hearts – that is a mobile thing – for the course of 200 years the inhabitants of Buraymi had inevitably shifted their allegiance in several directions, following the local power balance as it swung between the sheikhs and sultans on either side of them.

Abu Dhabi and Muscat/Oman had perfectly respectable tribal precedents of their own for claiming the oasis – not much stronger, but certainly no weaker than the Sa’udi claim. Nor did Aramco care to make much of the reason why the Al Sa’ud had originally coveted Buraymi: to levy taxes on the revenues of the slave market there, while still flourished in 1949 and was still dispatching caravans of slaves for service in Riyadh.

Thirty-three months after the formal Sa’udi statement of claim, the oilmen acted. Steering his way by Aramco maps, riding in Aramco trucks and stocked with Aramco supplies, a Sa’udi functionary from al Hasa, Turki ibn Abdullah ibn Utaishan, bumped across the 500 miles of desert from Hofuf to Buraymi and there proclaimed himself emir of the oasis.

Ibn Utaishan was accompanied by a staff of thirty to forty bureaucrats and armed policemen, and, since September 1st was the Eed al Adha, the new emir invited the local inhabitants to a series of feasts for which sheep were slaughtered by the score. Word soon spread of Ibn Utaishan’s extraordinary hospitality, Bedouin traveled for miles to enjoy it, and as they made their farewells they were very happy to put their thumbprints on the sheets of paper that the emir’s aides had set out considerately on a table beneath the palms. Few, if any, of the guests can have realized, as they trailed home fed and happy into the wastes, that their thumbprints and names would soon be on their way to Geneva as proof to and international tribunal that their lands and flocks and home should be consigned irrevocably to the sovereignty of Sa’udi Arabia.

It is not certain how much Abdul Aziz realized or cared what Aramco was doing in his name. Abdullah Tariki, later Sa’udi Arabia’s first Oil Minister, then a young official charged by Abdullah Suleiman with the monitoring of Aramco’s pumping, sales and royalty accounts, remembers accompanying Aramco executives to an early 1950s meeting with the old king, now crippled and almost immobile with arthritis in his palace in Riyadh.

It was Tariki’s job as interpreter to get across the details of the various tactical ploys for which the oilmen sought royal support, but it soon became clear that Abdul Aziz was taking in very little of what they said.

‘You are my friends, you are my friends,’ he kept repeating, beaming rather vacantly at the earnest Americans with all their complex proposals. ‘You can count on me. Anything you want, anything you want…’

It was a sad final scene for the Lion of Nejd. ‘Anything you want’ was his response to oilmen, to the American ambassador, to all the brothers, sons, wives and advisers as they came to him with their insatiable demands – and all that Abdul Aziz asked in return was for some medical assistance that would stop the pain in his knees and which, more importantly, would also revive his sexual powers. The kings’ forty-third and final son, Hamoud, had been born in 1947, and that child was a solitary arrival after four long and blank years filled with the desperate efforts of the royal physicians to revive the potency that had expired with a clutch of births in 1942 and 1943.

After the commander of the USS Murphy thought he had seen the last of the Sa’udis and all their sheep at Suez in 1945, he received a desperate call from one of Abdul Aziz’s doctors who had left the royal medicine chest on board, and, sneaking a look inside before returning it, one curious American officer discovered it to be filled with the most extraordinary array of aphrodisiacs.

‘I have my responsibilities,’ Abdul Aziz used to mutter, ‘I have my responsibilities,’ and he brooded as old age made it more and more difficult for him to fulfill them.

It had long been Yussuf Yassin’s special skill – and one key to his influence – to secure ever more luscious concubines for his master, and in the quest for rejuvenation the Syrian drove their ages lower and lower, on the ancient theory that some transfer of vitality can be sparked by contact with the flesh of barely nubile little girls.

But it was to no avail. There were occasional flickerings of the old lasciviousness. At one soirée towards the end, Philby remarked on the new medical use of frogs in the West to determine whether or not a woman was pregnant, and a hilarious and increasingly ribald conversation developed as to how precisely the frogs might discover this. Where the especially small and slippery frogs?

Abdul Aziz quite recovered his old gaiety, and soon afterwards one of the royal entourage quietly slipped a bottle of Orston tonic pills to Philby to secure his translation of the precise dosage required.

In 1947 Dr. E. A. White of the American Legation in Jeddah had give Abdul Aziz a thorough medical examination, and had been able almost to chart the kings’ life history on his body:

There are two exit and entry bullet wounds, anterior and posterior to the left iliac crest (the upper flank) … a saber scar on the medical plantar aspect of the right foot … The eyes reveal blindness of the left eye due to corneal scarring of trachoma … All teeth are intact and in excellent condition… The heart is not enlarged, pulse 76, blood pressure 158/90, sounds of good quality with a soft apical systolic murmur. The abdomen is soft and rather obese. There is a small umbilical hernia which has been present all his life.

Abdul Aziz was then seventy and Dr. White summed up his patient’s condition as ‘one of excellent health for a man of his age.’ The king’s only serious affliction was hypertrophic arthritis in his knees, and the doctor gave Abdul Aziz a life expectancy of at least 10 to 15 years.

But less than three years later, in April 1950, a special US medical mission to the Kingdom was reporting Abdul Aziz as ‘considerably aged and enfeebled’, ‘increasingly senile’ and confined permanently to his wheelchair.

The royal arthritis, which Abdul Aziz attributed alternately to ancient battle wounds and to bathing in cold water when he was a child, had struck him down cruelly, and the disability appeared to have afflicted his entire state of health, mental and physical, for the king did not even gesture to rise, but remained slumped in his wheelchair when greeting the American doctors, who included President Truman’s own personal physician, Brigadier Wallace H. Graham. ‘The fire’, wrote Philby, ‘had gone out of him.’

The king spoke in a low, hoarse and dejected whisper, he mumbled his words, and he had no appetite for food of any sort, subsisting on warm, slightly curdled camel’s milk, which he continued to drink from the same ancient chipped enamel mug he had always used.

Ramps were built in his Jeddah palace so that Abdul Aziz could be driven by motor car, if he wished, right up on to the roof to hold his majlis in the old style. But his attention wandered, he would fall asleep, and everyone would sit around in embarrassed silence, shy of continuing their conversation, and scared of waking the king from his slumbers.

One British diplomat, quite unaware of the problem and angry at delays he was encountering at some lower level in the hierarchy, voiced his annoyance to the chief of protocol. ‘Someone’s going to sleep around here,’ he complained, and the outrage he provoked required an apology at ambassadorial level.

There was an attempt in July 1950 to celebrate the golden jubilee of Riyadh’s capture with free mutton and camel feasts in every town, village and settlement in Sa’udi Arabia – an expense, wrote Rives Childs, ‘completely out of proportion to the already wretched state of the country’s finances’. But the celebration was ruined for the old king by the death on its eve of his beloved sister Nura. Then in the following year his bright young son Mansour, the Minister of Defense, also died, still only in his twenties.

Nearly blind in his good eye, practically immobile below the waist and wearing thick woolen socks and Western slippers to try to maintain the circulation in his ankles, Abdul Aziz took to spending more and more time in his harem, in the quarters of his favorite, Umm Talal, sipping coffee, gossiping gently of the past and slipping off into long reveries as he fingered nostalgically the 7-foot spear he still kept beside his bed.

He had little interest in the world around him. When Daan van der Meulen saw the old king in March 1952, the royal beard and mustache dyed black, the gaze dead and lusterless, the Dutchman was struck most painfully by the royal voice: the music had quite gone out of it.

An American oilman at the meeting tried to make conversation, telling the kind how he himself had just recovered from a serious illness and how he now saw how wonderful God’s world was, how beautiful the fair sex could be, and that what really mattered in life was not money or success but religion. Religion ranked above all other things.

The old Wahhabi was not impressed. ‘Tell him’, said Abdul Aziz witheringly to his interpreter, ‘that if he had been a Muslim he need not have fallen ill in order to understand what matters in life. We knew that long ago.’

Overawed by their father to the end, Abdul Aziz’s sons did prevail upon him in the final months to delegate some of his powers to Crown Prince Sa’ud and to a Council of Ministers formed in March 1953. In the blazing summer heat of that year, the seventy-seven year old king was flown south to the cool heights of Taif, lying on the wide interior-sprung mattress with which President Roosevelt’s DC3 had come supplied, and there, at the old Hashimite mountain resort, inside the palace of his second son Faisal, Abdul Aziz ibn Abdul Rahman Al Sa’ud died in the small hours of November 9th, 1953.

It was not, in truth, before his time. Abdul Aziz had outlived himself in many senses. The old man’s moldering away only six years into the ten to fifteen years that the American doctor had so confidently predicted for him in 1947 was not a consequence of some new illness, but rather a recognition that life held little more for him to give or to receive. Depression at his physical afflictions, sorrow at the deaths of those he loved, fury and confusion at debt in the midst of plenty and delinquency at the heart of his own family: a multitude of disillusionments contributed to the erosion of a great man’s will to live; Abdul Aziz preferred to join his Maker in that garden where fruit and camel’s milk appeared without the need for ledgers and budgets, and where he would never again fail to satisfy, or be satisfied by, the luscious houris who would wait on him morning, noon and night.

Abdul Aziz had invented a country, but when he died that country’s flag did not fly at half-mast, for the Sa’udi flag is inscribed with the word of God, and that word cannot be lowered to mark the passing of any an, even if he has done as much for his Creator as Abdul Aziz had. The Lion of the Desert would not have expected otherwise, for he wore his Master’s leash and collar to the end without chafing.

Nor can you today easily identify the last resting-place of His Majesty King Abdul Aziz, for, though a few plain flat stones were placed upon the spot where he was laid to rest in his simple shroud, there is no tombstone or grave monument to the greatest modern Wahhabi. His remains lie somewhere in the sun-bleached dust of a communal cemetery, his memorial in the hearts of his family and of his people.


The British went so some trouble to get their Rolls-Royce just right for Abdul Aziz. It proved impossible to fulfill Winston Churchill’s promise to the letter and present the Sa’udi king with the very first car off the post-war production line. Rolls-Royce were still just producing aircraft engines. But an almost unused Phantom III ‘All Weather’ convertible was discovered and refitted by Hoopers the coach builders for conditions in central Arabia: the cocktail cabinet was removed and replaced by a large silver bowl in which Abdul Aziz could perform his ablutions before prayers; the silver cocktail shakers were exchanged for vacuum flasks to store the king’s favorite Mecca drinking water; and the back seat, with room for three, was converted into one huge armchair, for the British had heard how the wheelchair given to the king by Roosevelt had proved unable to accommodate the generously proportioned royal stern, and they made sure their upholsterers took no chances. The cost of the remodeled automobile was £3281.17s.

Rolls Royce Phantom III Convetible

Rolls Royce Phantom III Convetible

When the limousine arrived in Jeddah in the summer of 1946, it appeared fit for a king in every respect, down to its green reflective paintwork, its gun rack, its wide running boards and the chrome grab handles which had been screwed to the exterior for the convenience of the royal bodyguard. All that remained was to deliver the vehicle to the king 900 miles away in Riyadh, and the British minister, Laurence Grafftey-Smith, Stanley Jordan’s successor and, like Jordan, an old Jeddah hand who had known the town in Hashimite days, chose for the trip one of his junior officers, David Parker, and Britain’s pro-vice-counsel in Jeddah, Cyril Ousman.

Ousman had first come to Jeddah in 1929 as engineer in charge of the town’s seawater condenser and, as a pillar of the expatriate community, he had go on quite close personal terms with Abdul Aziz and a number of the royal family. Now, in July 1946, Ousman tested the car and touched up its paintwork, and on August 9th he drove out of the town in style.

Enthroned in the back of the limousine was Ousman’s companion David Parker, and the two Britons bumped across the desert for five days, camping out along the way, to be received with delight by Abdul Aziz in Riyadh.

Prime Minister AtleeIt was Ramadhan, so the presentation of the car together with a letter from Britain’s new Prime Minister, Mr. Attlee, was made in the middle of the night. But as the old king, whose eyesight was deteriorating with every passing year, began to look around the vehicle, something appeared to be troubling him. He was not interested by the throne-like rear upholstery with its silver bowl and flasks, for only women sat in the back of cars. Men sat in the front beside the chauffeur – to this day the king and senior Sa’udi princes sit cooped up in the front seat of their long limousines – and, in all their modifications, the British made one crucial omission. They failed to switch the car’s steering from right-hand to left-hand drive. So King Abdul Aziz would have to sit on the left-hand side of his driver, the position of dishonor – and the moment the king realized this Rolls-Royce lost all its charm.

‘You can have it,’ he told his brother Abdullah, who happened to be with him at the time, and that was the end of Winston Churchill’s present to the King of Sa’udi Arabia.

Twenty years earlier a free Rolls-Royce, right or left-hand drive, would not have been received in Riyadh in such an offhand fashion. But already, by 1946, Abdul Aziz was becoming a rich man. The American navy had begun to buy Sa’udi oil in bulk before the end of the Second World War. Annual crude production had vaulted from less than ½ million barrels in 1938, to 8 million in 1944 and some 60 million by 1946 (when oil revenues alone totaled $10 million, while, with peace, pilgrim receipts picked up sharply as a backlog of foreign Muslims hastened to perform their hajj. The American government continued to provide aid – in the Middle East only Turkey received more assistance that Sa’udi Arabia – and, most important of all, Abdullah Suleiman had discovered that, with all the oil in the ground, the world was suddenly eager to lend him money.

Sa’udi Arabia had been heavenly in debt before oil was struck, but the effect of increasing oil revenues was not to reduce spectacularly to enlarge her borrowing. Under the pressure of insatiable royal spending, the Sa’udi Finance Ministry took all the loans that foreign bakers had to offer in the 1940’s, so that a dozen years after the Second World War the country was to find itself teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

History has tended to blame Abdul Aziz’s son and successor, Sa’ud, for the financial crisis that afflicted Sa’udi Arabia in the late 1950s. But by the time Sa’ud bin Abdul Aziz came to the throne in 1953 a formidable deficit had already been built up by his father.

The Tale of Abdul Aziz and the Gift Horse

When Abdul Aziz’s knees and legs started to give him pain in his old age, he went to Hofuf to get relief by bathing in the hot springs there, and during his cure on of the Hofuf citizens presented the king with a fine gray horse.

Abdul Aziz now only rode into motor cars, but he was delighted with the gift, and called for his vizier to bring him the great leather-bound ledger in which he still wrote down personally the details of the presents to be bestowed upon each of his visitors.

‘300 riyals,’ he wrote against the name of the citizen who had given him the horse, and that was many riyals more than the horse was worth.

But as the king wrote the figure down in his ledger, the nib of the royal pen got stubbed into the paper, and a little shower of ink blobs flew our across the page, turning 300 riyals into 300,000 – for in Arabic the zero is not written as an open ‘0’ but as a closed dot like a period.

The vizier drew his master’s attention to the row of little ink blots.

‘This figure, oh long life, should read 300 riyals, I presume, and not 300,000,’ he said.

The king studied the ledger carefully.

‘I see,’ he said, ‘that my pen has clearly specified 300,000. So that is what you must pay – and immediately. My hand has written it, and I will have no one say that the hand of Abdul Aziz is more generous than his heart.”

The generosity that had once been the mainstay of the Sa’udi polity became its bane as oil revenues started expanding in the late 1940s. When Abdullah Suleiman tried in March 1946 to draw up some sort of budget based on the first twelve months of oil royalties since the end of the war, he found that in the coming twelve months he would have a to balance expenditures of £17.5 million against revenues of only £13.2 million – which meant that Abdul Aziz would have to borrow £1 for every £4 that he spent.

Harry St. John Philby

Harry St. John Philby

But this rate of indebtedness was less alarming than some of the heads of expenditure that made up the £17.5 million. Philby enumerated them: £2 million on existing debts that had to be repaid; £2 million for the expenses of the royal garages; £1 million for court hospitality and entertainment; and just £150,000 for new schools and national education.

Philby tried to rationalize the royal spending when he talked to foreign visitors: the mud palaces that were Riyadh’s only signs of the new wealth flooding into the capital were, he explained, a sort of Arabian ‘New Deal’ project: the king was anxious to provide his subjects with work, and so he got them building palaces.

But this was plain humbug. Philby could plausibly have argued that Abdul Aziz was hoarding nothing for himself. The old king was never nouveau riche, and most of his wealth, apart from the cash that his sons spent on foreign luxuries, filtered down in one way or another to tribesmen and the bazaar, since the Arabian system of rake-offs at every level is a reasonably efficient wealth distributor. Philby could even have argued, and probably did, that Bedouin coming to Riyadh cared little for alien and impersonal ministries or school buildings and were much happier with endless palaces where they could visit each prince, chat, drink coffee, sleep and gorge themselves for days at no expense.

But to pretend that Abdul Aziz had Western notions of national development was ridiculous. In the eight years from the end of the Second World War until Abdul Aziz’s death in 1953, the only major public works that he provided from some $400 million of personal revenues were a railway from Dhahran to Riyadh, a jetty in Jeddah, some tarmac roads and a network of water wells. The old man’s imagination could not stretch any further than simple generosity. He just gave his money away, and when his son Talal came to see him in 1949, requesting permission to build a public hospital in Riyadh, the ageing king stared at the youth in astonishment. He could not imagine what the boy was getting at.

Talal, then Abdul Aziz’s seventeenth surviving son, just coming up to the age of twenty, explained to his father that he had discussed the subject with his brothers, and he produced a letter signed by more than a dozen of them from Khalid down to Naif (the modern Interior Minister who was then sixteen). Several of them had visited Western countries, and they had also seen the health and welfare facilities that the oil company was providing for its employees and their families at Dhahran. The royal family should offer the same sort of service in Riyadh, said Talal.

The old king’s eyes filled with tears as he listened. ‘Do you really wish to do that, my son?’ he asked, as though listening for the first time to some totally novel mode of behavior. ‘Is that what you want to spend your money? Then so be it. What could be more wonderful?’

But the hospital never got beyond the planning stage in Abdul Aziz’s lifetime, for the infrastructure of a modern centralized welfare stat was alien to a ruler who liked to show off his financial system by summoning sacks of gold up from the royal treasury.

‘That’s my financial system,’ he would say triumphantly, pointing at the bags of bullion surrounding him. ‘I ask for the money and it appears. What more do you need to know than that?’

As a young man Abdul Aziz’s strength had lain in his open mindedness, his readiness to accept innovation. In old age, the very reverse seemed the case. The Sa’udi king even declined to recognize his own national anthem, a ditty knocked out on the spur of the moment by the bandmaster of King Farouk of Egypt when it was discovered, shortly before Abdul Aziz’s arrival on a state visit in 1946, that Sa’udi Arabia had no anthem.

The old Wahhabi in Abdul Aziz rebelled at showing reverence to a piece of music – and to other new-fangled innovations. His state was a welfare state in his eyes. Anyone who came to his palace door for a meal received one, and until the day of his death in 1953 visitors to Riyadh remarked on the hordes of Bedouin living on royal charity in their tents around the town that still depended on water hauled from the ground in leather buckets.

Riyadh was still very much the desert settlement in which Abdul Aziz had been born and in which he had grown up.

‘One of the first things that strikes you in Riyadh,’ wrote R.S.F. Hennessy, one of the Anglo-American commissioners who visited Ibn Sa’ud in 1946 to ascertain his views on the escalating Palestine crisis, ‘is a curious prolonged musical note, which appears to come from the country all round you, like the faint after-hum of a bell of the sound of wind through telephone wires.’

It was the sound of wooden water wheels, screeching and gurgling endlessly as blindfolded camels plodded round in circles, dragging leather buckets from their earthen wells. The perpetual creaking and sighing of their timber ratchets made up a lullaby that must have soothed the baby Abdul Aziz to sleep in the 1870s – and babies for centuries before that. From the air, Hennessy discovered, Riyadh was still ‘a medieval walled city, surrounded by vivid greenery, and then start desert.’

The airport was a cleared sand strip, with a windsock and a few old tents where visitors were offered sweet mint tea and coffee. Every plane had to receive the king’s express permission to land or to take off. Passengers flying across the Kingdom from Dhahran to Jeddah had to disembark in Riyadh and wait in the tents there, sipping coffee, while a messenger drove into town to discover whether His Majesty required the plane to transport any of his family or possessions to Jeddah; if it was siesta time, then everyone waited until the royal slumbers ceased.

To the end Abdul Aziz fought to retain personal control over every aspect of a society that had, in truth, been too complex and widespread for one man to handle since the addition of the Hijaz in 1925. But his selectivity was bizarre. The king got to hear of lingering circumcision practices in a few south western villages that were barbarous indeed: the ceremony was delayed until adolescence, and the skin of the victim was peeled back not just from the head of the penis but right along and up the lower belly.

The image of such pain inspired Abdul Aziz to put things right with a fury he could never muster for the inefficiency and peculation of those around him, and so it was that in the late 1940s the explorer Wilfred Thesiger, then making a locust-control survey, came across three boys in a Tihama village, each nursing ‘a bundle of stained wrappings which concealed the suppurating stump of his right hand.’

The boys had suffered twice, first from the savage initiation ceremony in which they were deemed to have been willing participants, and then from the savage remedy with which Abdul Aziz sought to stamp it out.

The royal world-view defied the complexities of the mid-twentieth century. Abdul Aziz could not understand why the USA did not take advantage of her nuclear superiority to drop the atom bomb on Russia before the communists could make one of their own. His conviction that communism was evil involved the settled opinion that acts of incest could be witnessed frequently in the public parks of Moscow. And while the Sa’udi king allowed locust-control officers like Wilfred Thesiger to investigate the Empty Quarter, he was dubious of their efficacy. Bedouin tradition had it that locusts were spewed out of the mouths of fishes, and where could fishes be found among the sands?

It was not surprising that Marianne Likowski, a bright young American from Long Beach, California, who met and feel in love with an attractive Sa’udi in her class at Berkeley, should feel she had stumbled back into the Arabian Nights when she traveled to Jeddah in the mid-1940s as Mrs. Ali Alireza. Her new sisters-in-law came on board the Khedivial steamer to envelop her in a thick black veil, and she was whisked back to the family harem where her fifteen years of tedium, laughter and sisterhood became the basis of the fascinating and deservedly successful book she later wrote – Marianne Alireza – At the Drop of a Veil.

Thanks to Marianne Alireza, the outside world first gained some insight into the day-to-day reality of the life behind the veil, and the American also charted a little of that vast unknown hidden half of the Al Sa’ud, the women of the family, dominated in the late 1940s by the king’s sister Nura, then by his favorite wives, and after that by his daughters.

Abdul Aziz’s daughters today occupy the same special niche on the distaff side of the family hierarchy as their brothers do so in public. At weddings and family functions any bint (daughter of) Abdul Aziz takes precedence, lesser cousins and sisters-in-law deferring and bowing to them. They are tall and heavily built, most of them, like their father, and when women gather with women unveiled, the splendor of their costume is nothing less than regal.

‘Their billowy robes had gold embroidery and multi-colored sequins,’ wrote Marianne Alireza, describing a female majlis on one of the last pilgrimages that Abdul Aziz made to the Hijaz, ‘which made every inch of the garments glitter under lacy black out coverings. The sleeves were so tightly fitted from elbow to the wrist that I wondered how the got them on, until I was told that the sleeves are sewn onto the arm at each wearing and ripped each night when undressing.”

The princesses had with them their team of black slave girls, who straddled the mutton carcasses down the center of the tent at dinner time, tearing off strips of flesh which they tossed unceremoniously on to the platters of the mistresses. Then the American was taken to be presented to the old king himself, who impressed her properly, even from behind two substantial thicknesses of black georgette. ‘I thought he had the biggest hands I have ever seen.’

Abdul Aziz gestured continually as he spoke to his womenfolk, and to the black shape of the foreign wife that young Alireza had brought back with him, he had just one thing to say: “We hope that you become a Muslim.”

The old man meant it deeply. He could conceive no other meaning to existence, no alternative route to earthly contentment, and long and earnest were his attempts to persuade J. Rives Childs, US minister from 1946 to 1951, to accept the superiority of the Muslim arrangements for soul and body. Childs was to write his own memoirs of his time in Arabia, curiously parallel to, but eerily remote from those of Marianne Likowski/Alireza, who lived in Jeddah throughout the same period but could not even attend functions at her own legation if men were present. Childs describes how Abdul Aziz, in his efforts to demonstrate Islam’s superiority with regard to sexual matters, offered him a houri to enliven the lonely nights the American often had to spend in Riyadh.

Later Childs recounted the episode to his diplomatic colleagues in Jeddah, making it clear that he had refused the royal offer.

“Only an American would,’ sniffed his French counterpart with disdain.

J. Rives Childs was to spend more than five years in Sa’udi Arabia, and one pf his principal duties as the old king’s life drew towards its close was to assess the character and ability of Crown Prince Sa’ud, for the State Department was naturally apprehensive as to whether the son was the measure of the father.

But Childs found it difficult to give Washington any solid answer. ‘The Department must be aware,’ he minuted in July 1947, ‘that the patriarchal discipline maintained by the King at Riyadh does not trend to the expression of individual personality.’

So although, on one occasion, Sa’ud unburdened himself to the American minister, spilling out all his unhappiness at the waste and lack of constructive development in the country and urging Childs to talk firmly to his father about it, the crown prince finished up by begging that these personal opinions should not be attributed to him. As late as 1950, after Sa’ud and his English speaking younger brothers had one evening staged a well rehearsed program of speeches and skits for some American medical visitors, the crown prince asked the doctors anxiously not to mention the entertainment to the king when they were attending him the next day.

In the royal presence all the princes would sit on the extreme edge of the majlis submissively. If invited to come and speak with their father, they would creep forward, head bowed, to seat themselves not in the chair beside him but on the carpet at his feet – and that went for Sa’ud and Faisal, men well into their forties, as well as for their younger brothers.

Abdul Aziz’s strictness with his children was understandable, for one of the darker themes of his declining years was their inability to handle the bounty that he showered upon them. The upbringing and education of his sons simply had not prepared them for the sudden rush of wealth that permitted them to gratify almost any whim.

In June 1947 Prince Nasir bin Abdul Aziz held a party.

The fatalities would probably have been hushed up if they had not included one of the princes from the house of Rasheed. He had lived at the Sa’udi court since the fall of Hail, and his relatives presumed that the poisoning was deliberate – poisoning in the Rasheed family usually were. So two of his cousins stole away from Riyadh to take refuge in Iraq, and there the Hashimite authorities gleefully made much of the Al Sa’ud saturnalia.

The moment Abdul Aziz heard of the affair, he flung Nasir into prison, depriving him of his Riyadh governorship, and summoning a gathering of all his elder sons to watch while he belabored their errant brother with his walking stick. Nasir cringed on the carpet as his father rained down blows upon his back, and the Abdul Aziz harangues his sons, warning them against the dangers of departing from the principles of their forefathers.

‘Have things come to this?’ Philby reported the king as crying, ‘I would have doomsday now!’

The pity of it was that Nasir had, in earlier years, been known for his piety and rigidly abstemious habits which had, apparently, crumbled totally in the course of just one brief visit to the United States. A more elastic and forgiving creed than Wahhabism might have stood the strain of the young man’s American excursion and turned it into a gently broadening experience. But the rigid ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ of the desert catechism allowed no compromise, and, failing to resist the culture shock, they had been totally swept away.

J. Rives Childs treated the tragedy with some insouciance, explaining to Washington how Nasir had sought ‘to telescope many lost weekends into one.’ The prince’s crime, thought the minister, was that of ‘transplanting Western customs too suddenly to Sa’udi Arabia’ – as if Wahhabism would, in time, adapt itself to the ways of the West, and whiskey would one day be swilled openly in Riyadh bars.

But sheikhs and ulema had, of course, no such vision of the future. The essence of their own dogma lay in its refusal to compromise, and the case of Prince Nasir suggested a sterile future for contacts between Wahhabism and the West: either hostility and confrontation in the Ikhwan tradition, or moral chaos in which the old rules were cast aside and no new rules took their place.

Another tragedy occurred in November 1951. Cyril Ousman, British pro-vice-consul and more than twenty years in Jeddah, had made many friends among local Sa’udis, entertaining them in his home, and serving them alcohol that non-Muslim foreigners were permitted to import in those days. Prince Mishari bin Abdul Aziz, aged nineteen and the eighteenth surviving son of the king, was at one such party, on the evening of November 16, 1951, when a row developed.

Mishari left, to reappear shortly afterwards carrying a gun with which he proceeded to spray bullets into the Ousman’s home. Mrs. Dorothy Ousman, secretary to successive British ministers, was shielded by her husband, but, as he pushed his wife to safety, Cyril Ousman was shot dead.

The pro-vice-consul was buried next day in Jeddah’s high-walled non-Muslim cemetery, where his simple marble gravestone can still be seen, and, though few people visit it today or even know of its existence, Cyril Ousman does have a memorial of which every non-Muslim in Sa’udi Arabia is well aware. In 1952 Abdul Aziz revoked the import concessions hitherto allowed to foreigners, and banned all alcohol totally from his kingdom.

Dorothy Ousman left Jeddah quietly, accepting Sa’udi compensation, on which she lives, in retirement in South Africa. Mishari was put in prison, saved from the death penalty by his royal status. There was nothing about the incident of which the Al Sa’ud could feel proud.

The oil bonanza churned up an ethical morass. Violence like Mishari’s proved an exception, but that was not the essence of the problem. Laziness, hypocrisy, shallowness, tastelessness, these were the creeping vices which oil wealth brought to corrode old decencies in post-war Arabia, since those inhabitants of the Kingdom who scrambled for the pleasure enticements of the West showed little interest in the traditions and disciplines that went with them.

America was a wonderful place, enthused one young man to Philby, and of all the things he had seen there the one that impressed him most was a glass-walled restaurant set below a swimming pool where you could eat your lunch while looking up at the naked legs of the ladies swimming past.

The Kingdom had survived adversity and impoverishment. Could it now survive prosperity?

Abdul Aziz

Abdul Aziz

On May 1, 1939 Abdul Aziz ibn Saud went to inspect his oil wells. The king looked over his first drilling rig, his first pipeline, his first tanker – an 8000 tonner called the D. G. Schofield, which carried the Sa’udi crude away from the little terminal that the oil company had constructed on the sand spit of Ras Ranura – and then he traveled back to Riyadh in high spirits. He was in a cavalcade of cars with his brothers and some of his elder sons, and, as they bounced back through the desert tinged green by the spring rains, the Al Sa’ud sang the victory songs of returning raiders, chanting in unison and capping each other with alternative couplets which they pulled exultantly out of the air.

Abdul Aziz was bringing back the ultimate booty. Casoc (California Arabian Standard Oil Company) had paid him over £200,000 in gold to mark their oil strike, and, in the months after Well No. 7 started flowing, the company’s prospectors discovered firm signs that this was just a small beginning. Sa’udi Arabia’s eastern province clearly covered one of the largest pools of oil in the Middle East, and the royalties to which the Al Sa’ud could look forward in the future were phenomenal.

But then on September 1, 1939 Hitler invaded Poland and the outbreak of the Second World War brought the growth of Arabian oil production to a sudden halt. International oil markets were disrupted, and tankers could not be spared for the long and hazardous journey round to the Persian Gulf. Well No. 7 and its new companions were squeezed down to the production of a few thousand barrels of ail a day, most of the oilmen went home, and for the next six years Abdul Aziz and his Arabia lived in limbo.

Towards the end of the Second World War, Winston Churchill was to praise Abdul Aziz for ‘his steadfast, unswerving and unflinching loyalty’ to Great Britain and to her allies throughout the course of the struggle against Hitler. But the Prime Minister was over-generous, or ill informed, for, though by 1945 it was possible to look back on Abdul Aziz’s war record was on of neutrality that had proved, in the event, to be benevolent towards the victorious side, the Sa’udi king had not, at the opening of hostilities, been acting in a fashion that was conspicuously loyal to his oldest infidel friends.

In January 1939 Sa’udi Arabia had opened diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany, and in February that year Abdul Aziz set a messenger to Berchtesgarten with a personal letter assuring Hitler ‘that it is our foremost aim to see the friendly and intimate relations with the German Reich developed to the utmost limits.’

German archives captured after Hitler’s defeat were to make clear just how energetically Abdul Aziz had courted the Third Reich I the build-up to the Second World War. In long personal interviews in January and February 1939 the Sa’udi king told Dr. Fritz Grobba, head of German operations in the Middle East that, at heart, he ‘hated the English’, and Grobba reported back to Berlin that strong anti-British feeling animated the kings’ immediate entourage: was Harry St. John Philby (father of the notorious Kim Philby), of course, gleefully predicting the imminent collapse of his homeland; while the king’s private secretary, Yussuf Yassin, and the royal doctor, Midhat Sheikh al Ardh, were both so emotionally pro-German that, when the war broke out, they would cheer like football fans as news of German victories came over the radio in the royal majlis.

The Sa’udi king had already concluded an arms agreement with Mussolini. Now in July 1939 he did a deal with Hitler for 4000 German rifles, ammunition and the construction of an arms factory near Riyadh, while he also ratified a treaty of friendship and trade with Axis’s eastern component, Japan, who had sniffed out the significance of Casoc’s spectacular strike before any other foreign power had and made a bid for a Sa’udi oil concession of its own.

Yet throughout these flirtations the Sa’udi king took care to remain on the best of terms with Britain’s representatives in Jeddah, swearing undying loyalty to His Majesty’s Government. The British did not realize how warmly Abdul Aziz was dealing with the Germans, and the American diplomats who started coming to the Kingdom in the war years were unaware of any strong pro-Axis sentiments. As one historian was later to remark after comparing the captured Nazi archives with what British and American documents of the same date had to say, ‘Abdul-Aziz ibn Saud was clearly adept at being all things to all men’.

As the war progressed, Abdul Aziz was to inch himself gently down from the fence on to the winning side with a number of modest, not to say prudent, gestures on which Churchill was to base his extravagant praise in 1945. Strapped for cash, the Sa’udi king never made a down payment on German arms, so he never took delivery of them. Squeezing more money out of Casoc, he courteously declined Japanese interest in his oil. Hearing that Philby was planning a defeatist and anti-war lecture tour of America, he tipped off the British so that they were able to detain Philby in Bombay in August 1940; and the Sa’udi king declined any open support for Rashid Ali al Kilani’s anti-British rebellion in Iraq in April 1941.

But Abdul Aziz did later give refuge in Riyadh to Rashid Ali, defying British attempts to extradite him. He kept his options open between 1939 and 1945 as skillfully as he had switched between Britons and Turks in the early years of the century, and it is not difficult to see how Hitler, if he had won the Second World War, would surely have been talking of Abdul Aziz in the same glowing terms that Churchill was to employ. The Sa’udi-German diplomatic contacts of 1939 could easily have become the foundations of a ‘steadfast, unswerving and unflinching’ friendship between Abdul Aziz and the German peoples, especially since one of the purposes of the abortive Sa’udi-Nazi arms agreement of July 1939 was to increase the flow of weapons which Abdul Aziz had secretly been sending to the Arabs fighting in Palestine.

These Arab guerillas had been harassing the British authorities in the mandate since 1936. Militant Palestinians had come to feel that only violence could check the Zionist influx that had followed the Balfour Declaration, and when these terrorists asked Abdul Aziz for help he supplied them with weapons. The Sa’udi king might exaggerate his dislike of Britain when he was talking to the Germans, but his feelings about the ‘Jews’ could scarcely be overstated.

Abdul Aziz never countenanced the Nazi ‘final solution’. He was horrified by Hitler’s extermination of the Jews, and he said so flatly to Lord Belhaven, the British Agent in Bahrain, when he visited the island in 1939. But his abhorrence was relative. There was no need for Hitler to have killed them, he said, just ‘to have shorn them of their possessions’; for the Jews were, in his eyes, ‘a race accursed by God, according to His Holy Book, and destined to final destruction and eternal damnation’.

Islam has a love-hate relationship with Judaism. The Koran enjoins respect for the Jews as ‘people of the Book.’ Like Christians, Jews share many of Islam’s prophets. Islam and Judaism have similar dietary rules: meat must be slaughtered in a specific fashion, pork is forbidden. Jewish and Muslim males are circumcised. Jews and Arabs are both Semites; and, at the beginning of Islam, Muhammad and his followers prayed toward Jerusalem.

But soon after he moved to Medina in 622 AD, the Prophet came into conflict with the Jewish community in the area. Islamic teachings about Judaism became more aggressive. The qibla, the direction of prayer, was switched from Jerusalem to Mecca, and the flames of this ancient hostility were fanned in the twentieth century by the Zionist revival.

‘Our hatred for the Jews’, Abdul Aziz told Harold Dickson in 1937, ‘dates from God’s condemnation of them for their persecution and rejection of ‘Isa (Jesus Christ) and their subsequent rejection later of His chosen Prophet (Muhammad)…

‘Verily the word of God teaches us – and we implicitly believe this O Dickson – that for a Muslim to kill a Jew (in war), or for him to be killed by a Jew, ensures him and immediate entry in Heaven and into the august presence of God Almighty.’

Abdul Aziz made this statement to Dickson as part of his protest at the Peel Report, Britain’s 1937 plan to partition Palestine into separate Jewish and Arab areas, thereby granting the Zionists the basis for the independent state that they have dreamed of:

“How, O Dickson, would the people of Scotland like it if the English suddenly gave their country to the Jews? … It is beyond our understanding how your Government, representing the first Christian power in the world today, can wish to assist and reward those very same Jews who mistreated our “Isa… an accursed and stiff-necked race that, since the world began, has persecuted and rejected its prophets and has always bitten the hand of everyone who has helped it.”

Britain’s collaboration with the Zionists – whose ambitions extended, in Abdul Aziz’s belief, to the creation of a Jewish-dominated state stretching down to Medina and across to the Persian Gulf – grieved the Sa’udi king intensely. Reader Bullard, invited to what should have been a joyful occasion, the reception of the BBC’s first Arabic broadcast in 1938, found that the atmosphere round the heavy battery set suddenly went sour when the newsreader announced the hanging by the British authorities in Palestine of an Arab caught with arms in his possession.

The party broke up in silence, and next day Abdul Aziz had tears in his eyes as he reproached the British Minister Plenipotentiary. “If it had not been for the Zionist policy of the British government,’ he wept, ‘that Arab would be alive today.’

Bullard did not know what to say, for twenty years after the Balfour Declaration Britain was finding herself ambushed in Palestine between the same deadly crossfire of righteous causes that was to catch her in India-Pakistan and later in Northern Ireland. As details of Hitler’s atrocities seeped out of Germany, it seemed obvious to Zionists, and to an increasing proportion of British and Western opinion, that Jewish refugees should be offered unlimited sanctuary in Palestine.

But the Arab inhabitants of that country were equally outraged that European barbarity should be expiated at their expense. The Arabs had done nothing to harm the Jews of Poland and Germany, and if Britain and America felt so sorry for those Jews they could welcome them into their communities.

‘But no,’ said Abdul Aziz bitterly, ‘it is easier to give away other peoples’ countries and not so dangerous.’

Reader Bullard and George Rendel, head of the Foreign Office Eastern Department for most of the 1930s, were always convinced that the help Britain gave to Zionism from 1917 onwards was the reason why Abdul Aziz moved away from Britain towards the end of the 1930s and had, by the conclusion of the Second World War, effectively ended the special friendship with London which had been a cornerstone of his foreign policy for so many years.

This assumption was based on the same touching – or patronizing – disregard for Sa’udi Realpolitik which had so often taken for granted Sa’udi allegiance to the ‘great government’. Abdul Aziz’s championing of the Palestinian Arabs was deeply felt, but also represented the continuation of a long-running feud. The Sa’udi king was suspicious of his old enemy, Abdullah of Transjordan, who had plans to incorporate Arab Palestine into his own Hashimite kingdom – and Abdul Aziz’s secret arms shipments to the Palestinian freedom fighters were intended as much to frustrate Hashimite ambitions as to help the Palestinians fight the British or the Jews.

The takeover of Arab lands by Jewish expertise, industry and wealth was a blow to Abdul Aziz’s ethnic pride that hurt him as bitterly as it has rankled with Arabs ever since. But loyalties beyond his frontiers, however worthy, never had too much sway with the Sa’udi king. Charity began for him at home. So, while the Second World War was indeed to mark the ending of Sa’udi Arabia’s special ties with Great Britain, Sa’udi Arabia emerged from the hostilities entwined more closely that she had ever been linked to London with the infidel power that was soon to prove the State of Israel’s most fervent sustainer and friend: the United States of America.

In the summer of 1941 the US State Department requested President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to offer Lend-Lease assistance to the Kingdom of Sa’udi Arabia. The department felt that official government aid to the Arabian king would help safeguard the Sa’udi oil concession for America until the war was over. But there were many requests for aid on the president’s desk in the dark days of 1941, and on July 18th Roosevelt scribbled a quick note to his Federal Loan Administrator, Jesse Jones:

Will you tell the British I hope they can take care of the King of Saudi Arabia. This is a little far afield for us! F.D.R.”

The special relationship between Sa’udi Arabia and the United States which has, by the 1980s, become one of the dominant international facts of life – if not always to the obvious pleasure of either partner – took its time a-growing. The USA did not formally recognize the existence of the Sa’udi state until May 1931 – five years after Britain and the Soviet Union – and throughout the 1930s the State Department resisted suggestions that America should actually send any representative to the Kingdom.

In June 1939, Japan’s fleeting interest in Sa’udi oil aroused Washington to the major commitment of American capital that Casoc’s Dhahran concession represented, and America’s Cairo minister was instructed to include Arabia in his bailiwick. But Roosevelt’s cheerful shrug of the shoulders in July 1941 remained typical of official America’s attitude towards the Arab world. At the outbreak of the Second World War the State Department’s Division of Near-Eastern Affairs had just a chief, an assistant chief,seven desk officers and four clerks – a total staff of thirteen, of whom only three could speak local languages. Dealing with an area that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the borders of India, the division’s slender and amateur talents were inevitably spread thin: J. Rives Childs, later American Ambassador in Jeddah, recalled how he had borne at one stage in his career ‘primary responsibility’ for Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, Sa’udi Arabia, Yemen, Ethiopia, Libya and Tunisia all at the same time, without an assistant or even a secretary to help him.

America regarded the Middle East as Britain’s sphere of interest, and Casoc’s spectacular 1938 oil strike was almost five years past before Washington started to think hard about the fact that an American company controlled one of the largest reservoirs of oil in the world.

The impetus that was to transform America’s blithe apathy towards Arabia into smothering concern in a matter of months was one of the ‘energy crises’ whose traumas regularly disturb the self-satisfaction of the developed world. In 1943 the panic was called a ‘strategic shortage’, and it derived from the realization that America, as the petrol tank of the Allies’ war effort, was pumping out 63 percent of the entire world’s oil consumption every day from her own reserves. The terrifying statistic was 3.8 million barrels per day (little more that a third Sa’udi Arabia’s 10.3 million b.p.d. in 1981), and at this rate, the experts calculated, the national reserve was dropping at the rate of 3 percent per year.

The problem had already been noted by the State Department, who foresaw perceptively in 1941 how America’s future search for oil abroad would compel her post-war foreign policy to become more aggressive and even imperialistic in the British mold, but the diplomats’ discreet forward planning was pre-empted by the politicians: ‘Before another generation comes on stage,’ thundered Senator Owen Brewster (Maine), ‘America will be a mendicant for petroleum at the council tables of the world.’ With such language America’s oil supplies became, for a season, ‘the question of the moment.’

The answer was supplied by Roosevelt’s flamboyant Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, Petroleum Coordinator for National Defense since 1941 and confident he knew just how to save American oil: burn foreign oil instead. In the western hemisphere lay the reserves of Venezuela which could be shipped conveniently northwards; in the eastern hemisphere American companies had rights in the Middle East; the Dammam Dome seemed to promise supplies which could stave off the evil day for American’s own reserves for many years to come.

‘It is our strong belief’, recorded a US memorandum of December 1942, ‘that the development of Saudi Arabian petroleum resources should be viewed in the light of the broad national interest.’

These were historic words. Under the stresses of war and the need to relieve political pressures built up by the ‘strategic shortage’ scare, America’s national concerns had become linked for the first time with the shores of the Persian Gulf 10,000 miles away: in just nineteen months Sa’udi Arabia had moved from being ‘far afield’ to become ‘vital to the defense of the United States’. This was the formula President Roosevelt employed when on February 18, 1943 he reversed his earlier decision and formally declared the desert kingdom eligible for Lend-Lease assistance under Executive Order, No. 8926; and out in the desert Abdul Aziz rapidly discovered how comforting it could be to have American playing the rich uncle.

In the three and a half years since the start of the Second World War the Sa’udi king had received annually from Great Britain some £3 million in goods and silver coins, plus some £750,000 which Casoc advanced in 1941 and again in 1942 against royalties anticipated from post-war oil sales. But in the two years after signing of the February 1943 Lend-Lease order some $33 million in cash (equivalent to £8 million), goods and bullion flooded into Sa’udi Arabia from the USA on top of oil revenues, and Abdul Aziz was at least £1 million a year better off – for, in their eagerness to make up for lost time in Arabia, the Americans gave with both hands.

Abdul Aziz was never reluctant to accept delivery of hard cash, and the early years of the war had been a difficult time for him in some ways. The Holy Pilgrimage (Hajj) arrivals in Jeddah had fallen to still lower levels than in the early 1930s (a source of income for Saudi Arabia) – only 32, 000 arrived in 1940, down from 130,000 – while drought and famine in Nejd had caused the tribes to make heavier demands than usual upon the royal purse. But the three or four million pound per year which the British and Casoc paid between them in the early 1940s was not a bad income for a country which had, a dozen years earlier, made do on less than two, and by the standards of combatant countries suffering from rationing and shortages, Sa’udi Arabia did very nicely out of its neutrality.

The Al Sa’ud themselves could scarcely be said to have tightened their belts, for, despite frequent pleas of poverty, Abdul Aziz managed to start on the construction of a huge bow-windowed palace of pre-stressed concrete in the gardens of al Kharj near Riyadh, while he was more than generous to the growing number of his sons who were entering adulthood. By 1943 over a dozen of them had reached the age to marry and have children, and their father provided the funds to set them up in a line of new mud palaces down the road from Riyadh towards Dar’iyah. Impressive automobiles drove in and out of the gates, and, when visiting America in the autumn of 1943 to celebrate the new friendship between Sa’udi Arabia and the USA, Prince Faisal and his brother Khalid requested fourteen more to be sent home for family use. The princes were quite surprised when they were told that wartime restrictions permitted the release of only two, and they showed themselves distinctly upset.

In Whitehall not a little resentment developed at the Sa’udis’ spendthrift ways: ‘It is apparent that the Saudi Arabian Government’, minuted the Foreign Office tartly in February 1944, ‘will spend as much money as His Majesty’s Government are prepared to give them.’

The Sa’udis, complained Whitehall. Were making ‘no effort to cut their coat according to their cloth’, for British representatives had been making a careful tally of the little treats that the Al Sa’ud had been giving themselves. ‘The continued demands for more currency to meet necessary governmental expenditure, when apparently unlimited rials can be found for such luxuries as palaces at El Kharj, make a bad impression,’ wrote Whitehall, while ‘the extravagance of the royal princes can only be regarded as an abuse of His Majesty’s Government’s generosity.”

An additional problem was the high proportion of the British subsidy that appeared to be sticking to the fingers of corrupt officials, and in somber moods Abdul Aziz would acknowledge this. ‘It is like date wood,’ said the king to the British minister in March 1944, admitting ‘the rottenness of the financial administration of the country.’

Yes such confessions were usually a prelude to requests for still more aid, and the root of the problem was that revenues reckoned in tens of millions of dollars were simply too much for

Abdillah Suleiman

Abdillah Suleiman

Abdullah Suleiman’s elementary housekeeping to cope with. The minister’s first rule had always been that the king should have whatever he asked for, and Abdul Aziz had never been a greedy man. But the tastes of his growing family were less restrained, and the old king, now into his sixties, was a doting father and grandfather. His natural generosity could not withstand the appetites of his ever-expanding clan, who already numbered hundreds approaching the thousand mark, while the king kept up his subsidies to the tribes via their chiefs, as well as maintaining the prodigal hospitality that still fed several thousand visitors very day in the courtyards of his Riyadh palace.

‘Saudi financial controls and accounting’ stated one gloomy American report in 1944, could only be described as ‘chaotic’; the taxation system was ‘inadequate’, bookkeeping was ‘backward and very inefficient’ – and this did not auger well for the day when oil started to bring in really major revenues.

The British Minister at Jeddah thought that things should be put right before it was too late. Stanley Jordan was a breezy Australian who had served a vice-consul in Jeddah in the final days of Hashimite rule in the Hijaz, and, arriving back in Jeddah in August 1943, he felt qualified, as on old Arabian hand, to speak his mind.

Abdullah Suleiman, in Jordan’s opinion, had got to go. The job hand simply become too big for him – and the British minister made his criticisms to Abdul Aziz’s face, offering the king the services of a native Indian government adviser who, as a Muslim, would be able to work in Mecca on the reform of the Finance Ministry from the inside. Abdul Aziz showed interest in the idea and early in 1944, as an apparent first step towards reform, he sacked one of Abdullah Suleiman’s aides, Nejib Salha, an official who had developed a certain reputation for venality.

It is scarcely likely that Abdul Aziz sacked Nejib Salha solely on the say-so of the British minister. The viziers around the Sa’udi king swam in a constant maelstrom of intrigue, and one of them probably seized on Jordan’s criticisms as a good moment to push Nejib’s head below the water for awhile.

But rumor had it that Abdul Aziz had acted in deference to the British minister. When the American chargé d’ affaires in Jeddah, James Moose, heard the gossip, he was outraged. It seemed to him to confirm two of Washington’s darkest suspicions about their British allies in Arabia: America’s generous Lend-Lease assistance to London; and, worse still, that the British were planning to use the leverage this aid gave them to demand a quid pro quo from the Sa’udis and to ‘horn in’, as Roosevelt put it, ‘on Saudi Arabian oil reserves’.

James Moose was only a second-rank diplomat who spoke little Arabic. He had opened up America’s first legation in Jeddah in May 1942, and when the State Department decided to upgrade the mission, they passed over Moose for minister in favor of his assistant, Colonel William Eddy.

But Moose was a faithful interpreter of State Department policy. Washington was determined that Britain should not exploit American war aid to reestablish her empire once hostilities had ended. President Roosevelt view British imperialism as outmoded and a source of international instability in the long term, and his feeling was shared with particular fervor in the State Department’s Division of Near-Eastern Affairs. Sa’udi Arabia was already being identified by Near East’s Arabists as a primary US interest in the post-war Middle East – so Stanley Jordan’s one-man campaign to reform the Sa’udi finances aroused Washington’s worst fears, particularly since Jordan was openly critical of America’s lavish financial aid which was, he complained, quite spoiling Abdul Aziz’s appetite to balance the books.

James Moose and the Near East division became convinced that Stanley Jordan was actively working to undermine the American position in Sa’udi Arabia, and in the summer of 1944 Washington lodged a formal protest with Whitehall at the behavior of His Majesty’s Minister in Jeddah.

The Foreign Office declined to be alarmed. ‘American impulsiveness and inexperience in dealing with the Arabs may sometimes lead them to act injudiciously,’ read a minute for August 1944, ‘but we must endeavor to persuade and guide them on the right lines and be patient with their mistakes.’

At least the British understood the possibility (which the release of the British and American documents for 1944 has since confirmed) that the Sa’udis were playing Jordon and Moose against each other in Jeddah in order to provoke an auction between rival benefactors. Jordan himself was for Britain getting out of the bidding: ‘The Americans wish to sink millions of dollars in the desert sands of Saudi Arabia,’ he wrote in September 1944, because ‘they will be taking billions out of the same sands in the form of oil. But I see no reason why we should be drawn into this vortex.’

In London officials sniffed at America’s ‘squandermania’, for it hurt to watch the mighty dollar buying influence in preserves that Britain had considered hers for a century. But by the end of 1944 President Roosevelt had come to identify Sa’udi Arabia as the perfect example of a country where he could develop the vision he had for the post-war era: generous US aid would help the poorer peoples of the world increase their purchasing power to their own advantage – and also to the advantage of America, who would be providing them with things to purchase. The president was not going to let London stand in his way.

Churchill, FDR, Stalin

Churchill, FDR, Stalin

So a grandiose $57 million post-war Sa’udi aid package that the British could not possibly match was worked out, old-fashioned imperialism yielded sway to new fashioned neo-colonialism, and Roosevelt discreetly laid plans to meet up with Abdul Aziz personally after the Yalta Conference of February 1945. The president had William Eddy, by now American Minister in Jeddah, make the arrangements secretly with Abdul Aziz so that no one in Sa’udi Arabia should find out, and then, on the night the Yalta Conference was ending, Roosevelt casually let Winston Churchill know that he was meeting the King of Arabia in a few days’ time.

The British Prime Minister was thunderstruck and ‘burned up the wires to all his diplomats’, according to Eddy, trying to arrange a meeting of his own with Abdul Aziz. But Churchill had to make do with an appointment after the American President, for by February 1945 the United States’ relationship with the Kingdom of Sa’udi Arabia had already become a special one.

The first outsider to get wind of Abdul Aziz’s secret arrangement to meet with Franklin Delano Roosevelt was probably the Dutch Minister at Jeddah, Daan van der Meulen, who had been invited up to Riyadh for and audience with the king, and had set out early in December 1944.

It had been raining, van der Meulen’s old station wagon had got stuck in the mud, and nine days out of Jeddah the Dutchman was still 80 miles short of his objective, sheltering in the ruined mud fort of the Marat oasis. Damp, cold and lonely, van der Meulen was looking out over the sodden desert disconsolately, when he was amazed to see a long convoy of heavily laden lorries come into view from the direction of Riyadh – 200 or more, virtually every truck in Sa’udi Arabia.

It could only mean that Abdul Aziz was on the move, and, sure enough, by nightfall, the red machine-gun-mounted trucks of the royal bodyguard had appeared, a long majlis tent had been erected, and two wireless units had their aerials up and working. Cooking fires were started, the cries of sheep and goats filled the air, and finally a posse of limousines with dark-glass windows and black curtains bumped through the camp.

It was the king’s harem – wives, daughters, relatives and serving girls – and these seventy of so ladies were accommodated out of sight of the men’s encampment, a few hundred yards away behind a hillock.

Next morning van der Meulen attended the royal majlis, sitting by invitation in the place of honor beside the king – to the evident disapproval of the local sheikhs and tribesmen, who had come in their best robes and with black-kohled eyes to drink coffee with Abdul Aziz – and the Dutchman was embarrassed to hear the king launch into one of his diatribes against the Jews.

Van der Meulen was still more embarrassed when Abdul Aziz turned to ask him what he thought about the accursed race, and the Dutch minister, representing a country whose people were more notable than most for the heroism with which they were shielding Jews from Nazi barbarity, did not know what to say. Mortified by his own mumblings, he left the majlis soon afterwards and tried to sort out his thoughts by walking up a nearby hill – to be checked by furious shouts. In his distraction van der Meulen had committed the ultimate delinquency, for he had climbed up the nearby hillock to a point from which he could look down into the women’s camp.

USS Murphy

USS Murphy

Soon Jeddah was surprised by the arrival of the royal entourage, and no one connected it with the appearance, shortly afterwards, of the USS Murphy, a destroyer making the first ever visit by a US naval vessel to Jeddah.

February 12, 1945 was the day fixed for Abdul Aziz’s departure. But the king’s planned rendezvous with the American president – the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal – was still within range of German bombers, and, requested by the Americans to preserve security as long as possible, Abdul Aziz imbued his getaway with all the secrecy of a pre-dawn raid.

At 3 O’clock on the afternoon of February 12, Abdul Aziz ordered his entourage to get ready for a move to Mecca, and not until they were in their cars did he tell the drivers to head instead for the harbor pier. There he embarked on waiting launches, and by 4:30 p.m. the Sa’udi king was steaming away from Jeddah on the Murphy, leaving the town behind him in a frenzy of rumors from abdication to kidnapping. Abdul Aziz’s womenfolk were almost the last to hear the truth when, wailing, they went to Faisal who, with Sa’ud in Nejd, had been entrusted by his father with interim authority.

Out in the harbor, the decampment did not go quite as smoothly as had been planned, for Abdullah Suleiman had preceded his master to the Murphy with a hundred live sheep for the voyage: Abdul Aziz had presumed that the American officers and crew would be eating as his guests for the two-day trip, and the Murphy’s commander was still explaining US naval regulations with regard to livestock on board warships when Abdul Aziz arrived with the American minister.

Colonel Eddy, a competent Arabist whose contribution to Arab-American understanding included framing the Arabic rules of basketball, managed to persuade the king that the entire crew of the Murphy would be clapped in irons if they ate his sheep and failed to observe the official diet prescribed for them by the authorities. But Abdul Aziz was horrified at the idea that he and his entourage should be expected to consume the old meat that the Americans kept in their cold boxes. Good Muslims should eat flesh fresh-slaughtered every day. So a compromise was arrive at, ninety-three sheep earned a brief reprieve, and, of the seven allowed reluctantly on board by the Murphy’s commander, one was already being slaughtered and skinned on the fantail of the destroyer as it steamed out of Jeddah roads.

The next few days provided a foretaste of the revelations and misunderstandings awaiting American and Arabians in the many years of collaboration upon which they were embarking. Instructed by Washington that the Sa’udi party must be limited to twelve people, Eddy told his superiors they must expect twice that number, and he thought he had done rather well when only forty-eight came on board.

There were big cabins for most of them, but that did not worry the cooks, bodyguards, coffee servers and slaves who made themselves at home in nooks and crannies around the destroyer’s open deck. They cheerfully started fires and brewed their coffee in the gun turrets and beside live ammunition racks, and they all slept out in the open on the deck – where Abdul Aziz joined them, spurning the captain’s cabin that had been specially prepared for his use.

The Sa’udi king preferred to sleep out on rugs beneath the canvas awning stretched across the fo’c’sle, and inside this ‘tent’ he held his majlis all day long. Five times a day the ship’s navigator brought the kind the exact compass bearing of Mecca, and having verified it with his own astrologer, Majid ibn Khataila, Abdul Aziz would then turn with his entire company towards the Holy City and led them in the prayers.

The American sailors were much more surprised and impressed by the Arabian guests than most of the Arabs were by life on board a metal warship – or perhaps the Americans just showed their wonder more openly. Eddy felt that the ability of the Arab to get off a camel and entrust himself to a mysterious machine like a destroyer without any special display of excitement or apprehension showed the strength of Islam and the submission by its adherents to a God who can accomplish any miracle.

But Arab fatalism is a racial as well as a religious characteristic. It contains a strong element of incuriosity – plain intellectual idleness – and it also involves a certain amount of arrogance and ‘face’. An Arab may well be excited or scared by some infidel mechanical marvel, but he is not going to let the infidel know that.

Abdul Aziz was untypical in the respect. Perhaps his achievements as the greatest Arab of his generation, now going to meet, as and equal, with the President of the United States, gave him the confidence openly to show how intrigued he was by the various devices of destruction which the destroyer deployed. He inspected all the armaments with keen interest, and was delighted by displays of anti-aircraft fire at smoke-shells, and when depth-charges were discharged at targets towed behind the ship.

His sons were intrigued by less military matters. A film projector was wheeled up on deck after sunset to treat the royal party to a screening of The Fighting Lady, a stirring documentary about an American aircraft carrier in the Pacific war. But Prince Muhammad bin Abdul Aziz discovered that the projector was to be used later in the evening for screening more frivolous fare in the crew’s quarters.

The prince called the American minister aside. Would Eddy prefer, he inquired, to be killed on the spot or to be chopped up in small pieces bit by bit?

This was Prince Muhammad’s idea of a joke. He wanted to see the Hollywood films with the crew, and he got his way. That evening he and his younger brother Mansour, Abdul Aziz’s bright eighth son who had just been named the first Sa’udi Minister of Defense, occupied the front row in the crew’s mess to enjoy the antics of Miss Lucille Ball cavorting in various states of undress around the dormitory of a men’s college.

An encore was rapidly organized at which fully half the Sa’udi party were present, and unfortunately Abdul Aziz never got to hear of the escapade. He had been disapproving enough about the documentary. It was a wonderful film, he said, but ‘I doubt whether my people should have moving pictures like this … It would give them an appetite for entertainment which might distract them from their religious duties.’

USS Quincy

USS Quincy

When East met West at the Great Bitter Lake on February 14, 1945, cultures clashed at a more substantial level. President Roosevelt, welcoming Ibn Sa’ud on board the USS Quincy, wanted to enlist the Sa’udi king’s help with the problem of Palestine. Roosevelt believed that the British were mishandling the question, and Jewish lobbies in the USA were elevating the need for a Jewish homeland into a major political issue.

The Jews of central Europe had suffered most terribly at Hitler’s hands, the president told Abdul Aziz – eviction, torture, mass murder. Roosevelt felt a personal responsibility to help these poor people now – indeed he had committed himself to finding a solution to their problems. Did the King of Arabia have any suggestions to make?

The king did. “give them and their descendants’, said Abdul Aziz, ‘the choicest lands and homes of the Germans who oppressed them.’

This was not what the president had in mind at all. The Jewish survivors of the holocaust, he explained, had an understandable dread of remaining in Germany where they might suffer again, and they also had ‘a sentimental desire’ to settle in Palestine.

Abdul Aziz ignored this last point, for surely, he said, Britain and America were planning to defeat the Nazi power in a total fashion. He could not see what the Jews had to fear if the Allies were fighting a serious war, for he, Ibn Sa’ud, could not conceive of leaving an enemy in any position to cause trouble after his defeat.

This was an exaggeration, for Abdul Aziz had got himself into trouble several times in his military career through showing leniency to defeated opponents – notably to Faisal al Daweesh after the battle of Sabillah. But his firmness disconcerted Roosevelt, who seems to have believed that a few hours’ personal chitchat and some lavish Lend-Lease assistance would win the King of Arabia to his purposes.

The president tried another tack. He was counting on the legendary hospitality of the Arab, he said, to help solve the problem of Zionism. But Abdul Aziz did not see why the Arabs of Palestine should feel especially hospitable towards the Jews.

‘Make the enemy and oppressor pay,’ he said; ‘that is how we Arabs wage war.’

It was not the Arabs of Palestine who had massacred the Jews. It was the Germans, and, as ‘a simple Bedouin’, the Sa’udi king could not understand why the president seemed so eager to save Germany from the consequences of its crimes. The Bedouin saved kindness for their friends, not their enemies – though he did have one final suggestion to make.

It was the Bedouin custom in war, Abdul Aziz explained, to distribute the innocent survivors and victims of battle among the victorious tribes, to be cared for according to their number and supplies of food and water. This might, perhaps, now be done with the Jews among the fifty or so members of the Allied camp. But Palestine, said Abdul Aziz, was among the very least of these, and it had already taken more than its fair share of refugees from Europe.

Roosevelt moved on to generalities, but, when the memorandum of the five-hour conversation between the two leaders was subsequently put on record, it turned out that the president had made some notable accommodations to the point of view which Abdul Aziz had argued so stolidly.

Roosevelt promised the Sa’udi king that ‘he would do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs and would make no move hostile to the Arab people’, and he encouraged a plan which Ibn Sa’ud had been nursing, to send a mission to the West to explain the Arab viewpoint on Palestine.

Abdul Aziz and FDR aboard the USS Quincy

Abdul Aziz and FDR aboard the USS Quincy

‘The President stated that he thought this a very good idea because he thought many people in America and England are misinformed’, and, speaking to Congress on his return, Roosevelt declared that ‘from Ibn Saud, of Arabia, I learned more of the whole problem of the Moslems and more about the Jewish problem in 5 minutes that I could have learned by the exchange of a dozen letters.’

Abdul Aziz said his farewells to the American president well pleased. Roosevelt was the first infidel head of state he had met in all his sixty-nine years, and now, within three days, he was due to meet another, Winston Churchill, who would be calling on him at the Auberge Hotel on Lake Karoun south-west of Cairo. Abdul Aziz’s very first question to Roosevelt after greeting him on the Quincy had been whether the president minded his meeting the British Prime Minster at this time, and FDR, having stolen a march on his British ally, was magnanimity itself.

‘Why not?’ he said ‘I always enjoy seeing Mr. Churchill and I am sure you will like him too.’

Abdul Aziz did not like Winston Churchill very much as it turned out – at least he did not warm to him as had to FDR – and this was partly because the American president had gone to considerable pains not to offend the king’s Wahhabi sensibilities. As the two men were descending to luncheon in separate lifts on board the Quincy, Roosevelt had reached out and pressed the red emergency button and, suspended in the lift shaft, had smoked two cigarettes in rapid time before continuing his journey to rejoin Abdul Aziz at the luncheon table, where not alcohol was being served.

Winston Churchill, however, made a little speech to the effect that, while he realized ‘it was the religion of His Majesty to deprive himself of smoking and alcohol, I must point out that my rule of life prescribes as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them’, and the Prime Minister proceeded to sip whisky and puff his pungent cigars through much of his three-hour discussion with Sa’udi king – which sounded very funny in his memoirs.

Abdul Aziz was less amused. Churchill’s smoking and drinking might not have mattered if the British Prime Minister had shown himself as receptive to Abdul Aziz’s view on Palestine as the American president appeared to be. But Churchill had considerably more experience than Roosevelt in Middle-Eastern politics – indeed his activities at the Cairo Conference of 1912 had contributed not a little to their complexity – and he knew better than to make undertakings as bold as those Roosevelt had given to the Sa’udi king. The President’s Great Bitter Lake promise to consult with the Arabs was soon to cause the US government some embarrassment, and the British Prime Minister adopted a different approach.

‘Mr. Churchill opened the subject confidently wielding the big stick,’ Abdul Aziz later reported to Colonel Eddy in Jeddah. ‘Great Britain had subsidized me for twenty years, and had made possible the stability of my reign.’ So, argued the Prime Minister, ‘since Britain had seen me through difficult days, she is entitled now to request my assistance in the problem of Palestine where a strong Arab leader can restrain fanatical Arab elements, insist on moderation in Arab councils, and effect a realistic compromise with Zionism.

This approach did not go down at all well. Abdul Aziz was nettled by Mr. Churchill’s ‘big stick’, and he later described himself to Eddy as giving fierce answer to the ‘preposterous’ idea that he should compromise with Zionism. The king probably embellished his description somewhat for the benefit of the American Minister, but Laurence Grafftey-Smith, who was present at the Sa’udi-British discussions on the verandah of the Auberge Hotel, also remembers impasse over Palestine and a certain atmosphere of strain.

‘You’d think they’d be grateful,’ grumbled Churchill later, ‘after all we did for Feisal and Abdullah.’

Grafftey-Smith was too shy to point out that his Prime Minister had got his dynasties muddled up, and that Abdul Aziz could hardly be expected to feel gratitude for what Britain had done for the Hashimites. But Churchill did feel some twinges of remorse that evening, as he tried on the magnificent robes, jeweled sword, dagger and diamond rings which Abdul Aziz had given him – and which the Prime Minister valued at £3500.

Churchill had only a £100 case of scent to hand over in exchange and, disconcerted to hear that Roosevelt had given the Sa’udi king his own wheelchair and a DC3 aircraft as a present, the Prime Minister had mad Abdul Aziz a grandiose off-the-cuff promise: the scent was only a token, he said, for he had made plans to have the very first Rolls-Royce off the Derby production line after the war shipped out to Arabia for the Sa’udi king’s use – ‘the finest motor car in the world, with every comfort for peace and every security against hostile action.’

Abdul Aziz went back home on a British cruiser – there were no gunnery demonstrations, no tents on deck, and no fraternizing with the crew, he later complained – to be greeted by intense rejoicing in the streets of Jeddah. The ulema were angry with him for having left the country without consulting them, and they were suspicious of his secret discussions with infidel leaders. But the news that the king had secured for fellow Arabs in Palestine pledges from the American president of consultation and protection was counted as a solid success, and on April 5, 1945 Roosevelt formally renewed his promise to Abdul Aziz in a letter which went to some lengths to make clear that the undertakings were not just personal, but were being issued deliberately ‘in my capacity as Chief of the Executive Branch of this Government.’

One week later Franklin Delano Roosevelt was dead, and the new chief executive of the US government chose to disregard the commitments that his predecessor had given. Abdul Aziz was rather less dismayed by this than were the State Department diplomats who had to explain to the Sa’udi king the strong support which President Truman elected to lend the Zionist ambitions in Palestine, culminating in recognition and assistance to the new State of Israel. As an absolute monarch, Abdul Aziz quite understood how the promises that a ruler made died with him, and how a successor might well switch loyalties in deference to any constituency which strengthened his succession.

Just the same, the Sa’udi king would have been surprised if he could have heard quite how casually Harry Truman tore up the promises that Roosevelt had given to the Arabs as the Great Bitter Lake. In the autumn of 1945, less than six months after Roosevelt’s death, President Truman summoned to Washington the US Chiefs of Mission in Sa’udi Arabia and the other countries principally concerned with the Palestine problem, to hear their report on the fear and anger being aroused in the Arab world by the favor that the new president was showing Zionist ambitions.

When their report had been presented, Mr. Truman asked some questions and listened some more. But nothing he heard appeared to change his mind.

‘I’m sorry, gentlemen,’ said the president, summing up his position with the utmost candor, ‘but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success for Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.’

Transnational organized crime continues to grow in the absence of a comprehensive, integrated global counter strategy. estimates world illicit trade to be about $1 trillion per year, with counterfeiting and piracy at $521.6 billion, the global drug trade at $321.6 billion, trade in environmental goods at $55.7 billion, human trafficking at $43.8 billion, consumer products at $37.5 billion, and weapons trade at $10.1 billion.

Higher estimates are available for illegal drugs and weapons. This does not include extortion or organized crime’s part of the $1 trillion in bribes that the World Bank estimates was paid last year or its part of the estimated $1.5–6.5 trillion in laundered money. Hence the total income could be well over $2 trillion—about twice all the military budgets in the world. Estimates for TOC (Transnational Organized Crime) are also difficult because the increasing use of cash couriers, diamonds, and anonymous Internet banking hides its gains.

According to the UN, there are 27 million people held in slavery today, far more than during the peak of the African slave trade. The vast majority are found in Asia. The Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking was launched this year and the UN Protocol Against Trafficking in Persons has been ratified by more than 110 countries, but with little effect. Since the World Bank estimates that just $20–40 billion of the total paid in bribes went to developing and transitional countries, the vast majority of bribes are paid to people in richer countries. These countries can be understood as a series of decision points that are vulnerable to vast amounts of money. Decisions could be bought and sold like heroin, making democracy an illusion.

The government of North Korea is reported to derive $500 million to $1 billion annually from criminal enterprises, and many Afghan government officials are allegedly in the illegal drug trade. Daily international transfers of $2 trillion via computer communications make a tempting target. Internet crimes such as mass identity theft have now become a substantial activity of TOC. The 13–15 million AIDS orphans, with potentially another 10 million by 2010, constitute a gigantic pool of new talent for organized crime. Meanwhile, prescription drug abuse has outstripped the use of conventional illegal drugs in many areas, and counterfeiting of these compounds is a new line of business for TOC.

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Financial Action Task Force has made 40 recommendations to counter money laundering, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has created the Global Program against Money Laundering. There is also the International Narcotics Control Board, the World Customs Organization, the International Group for Anti-Corruption Coordination, Interpol, and the International Criminal Court. Nevertheless, TOC continues to grow and has not surfaced on the world agenda in the way that poverty, water, and sustainable development have. It is time for an international campaign by all sectors of society to develop a global consensus for action against TOC, which has grown to the point where it is increasingly interfering with the ability of governments to act. The head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has called on all states to develop a coherent strategy to deal with the problem. One global strategy has been informally endorsed by several countries in Europe and Latin America. An international body would use a priority system for collaboration for arrest and prosecution of one TOC leader at a time based on the volume of money laundered rather than specify categories of crimes.

The UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime came into force in September 2003. It calls for international cooperation to help fight organized crime. Possibly an addition to this convention could establish the financial prosecution system as a new body to complement the related organizations addressing various parts of TOC. In cooperation with these organizations, the new system would identify top criminals by the amount of money laundered, prepare legal cases, identify suspects’ assets that can be frozen, establish the current location of the suspect, assess the local authorities’ ability to make an arrest, and send the case for immediate action to an appropriate court. When everything is ready, all the orders would be executed at the same time to apprehend the criminal, freeze the assets and access, open the court case, and then proceed to the next TOC leader on the priority list. Courts could be deputized like military forces for UN Peacekeeping, via a lottery system among volunteer countries. Countries would have to give up some sovereignty, as the global system would set the location for prosecution, preferably outside the accused country (extradition is accepted by the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime). After initial government funding, the system would receive its financial support from frozen assets of convicted criminals rather than depending on government contributions for continued operations.

Challenge 12 will have been successfully addressed when money laundering and crime income sources drop by 75% and when law enforcement organizations are effectively integrated across all countries.
Regional Considerations


Africa: The hashish trade in Morocco is being used to support terrorism in both Europe and North Africa. Links between African rebel factions, organized crime, and terrorism may be increasing, which is potentially exacerbated by millions of AIDS orphans with few legal means to make a living. Corruption has permeated much of African society and is now perhaps the greatest limit to growth in many countries.

Asia and Oceania: Heroin production and trafficking in humans provide huge sources of income for the region. It is reported that Chinese organized crime gangs are spreading their activities into Russia. China has enacted a strong new anti-money laundering law.

Europe: European coalitions based on national politics cannot address global organized crime. Russia’s now more porous border adds to the security problems caused by the EU’s integrated economic territory, and the human trafficking problem from the accession countries of Eastern Europe will be exacerbated by the open frontiers. Corruption has fallen in the transition countries of Europe and Central Asia.

Latin America: UNODC says crime is the single largest issue impeding Central American stability, where drug-related violence has risen sharply. The U.S. Plan Colombia, lasting six years and costing almost $5 billion, has left cocaine availability, price, and quality unchanged. It is estimated that 5% of Mexican GDP is laundered, and its drug cartels are moving into Peru, where coca output is up about 40%.

North America: The U.S. Dept. of Homeland Security has opened a Human Smuggling and Trafficking Center. Organized crime and its relationship to terrorism should be treated as a national security threat. Countries must be held accountable for corporations that are involved in criminal activities in their own and other countries. Intellectual property loss in just the U.S. is estimated at $200–250 billion. The use of radio frequency and other forms of identification tags will help trace legal materials into illegal transactions. About half of the 17,500 foreigners trafficked into the U.S. in 2006 were for the commercial sex business, and some 200,000 people are considered to live in slavery in the United States.


Here’s an article from the UK.


After antidepressant treatments are discredited, fears grow that other products may be ineffective.

The pharmaceutical industry came under assault from senior figures in medical research yesterday over its practice of withholding information to protect profits, exposing patients to drugs which could be useless or harmful.

Experts criticized the stranglehold exerted by multinational companies over clinical trials, which has led to biased results, under-reporting of negative findings and selective publication driven by the market, which was worth £10.1bn in the UK in 2006, amounting to 11 per cent of total NHS costs.

The latest attack was triggered yesterday by an analysis of published and unpublished trials of modern antidepressants, including Prozac and Seroxat, showing they offer no clinically significant improvement over placebos (dummy pills) in most patients. But doctors said patients on the drugs should not stop taking them without consulting their GPs.

It was the first time researchers – from the UK, Canada and the US – had successfully used freedom of information legislation to obtain all the data presented to regulators when the companies applied to license their drugs. In some cases it had not been made public for 20 years. Over the past two decades the drugs, known as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs), have been among the biggest selling of all time, earning billions of pounds for their makers. Yesterday’s finding suggests that the money may have been misspent. Drug companies are required by law to provide all data on a drug, published and unpublished, to the regulatory authorities when applying for a license. But this requirement does not apply to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), which assesses cost effectiveness and recommends which drugs should be used by the NHS.

Peter Littlejohns, the clinical and public health director of Nice, said: “The regulatory authorities have access to everything. Obviously we have access to the published data and we do ask the industry for unpublished data, but it is up to the companies whether to deliver it or not. We have no power to demand it. The issue is that it relies on the good will of the industry.”

Professor Mike Clarke, the director of the UK Cochrane Centre, an international collaboration between researchers in 100 countries which has published more than 3,000 systematic reviews of published trials to establish best medical practice, said lack of co-operation from the drug industry was damaging medical care.

“When we ask for details of a trial the company might tell us nothing. We have even less power than Nice. Researchers trying to make sense of trials for decision-makers need to have access to this data. If we have only got access to half of the data, when we see evidence that a drug works we don’t know whether to believe it or not.

“It makes us doubtful – that’s the big worry. The companies are in the business of making profits – but they are also in the business of providing safe, effective health care.”

Legislation to compel the drug industry to publish its results was included in Labor’s manifesto at the 2005 election and last month the Commons Health Select Committee demanded that Nice be given unfettered access to all clinical trial results.

Yesterday, the Government said it had been told that compelling the industry to publish trial data would not be allowed and it was instead pursuing a voluntary approach, developing a “searchable register” of all trials that have taken place in the UK and pressing the EU to make its own confidential register public.

A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “The Government has consistently supported open access to information about research when the findings could affect decisions about treatment or health outcomes. We planned to support the principle of mandatory registration of clinical trials in the UK, but legal advice stated this would be illegal under EU law.” A World Health Organization working group is examining how to improve reporting of clinical trials and is expected to announce a consultation shortly.

The pharmaceutical industry was unrepentant about its strategy yesterday. Richard Tiner, the head of medicines at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industries, said: “The regulatory authorities have access to all the data – absolutely everything. Nice is not a regulatory authority – it is making decisions on whether medicines should be available on the NHS… There is no reason why the companies would restrict access – it depends what they are asked for. The industry is very much more transparent than it was 10 years ago.”

GlaxoSmithKline, maker of Seroxat, said yesterday it “fully endorsed public disclosure of all clinical trial results” and had published all data relating to Seroxat on its website “regardless of study outcome”.

The antidepressant debate

Paul Bough, 41: ‘You name it, I’ve tried it: none of them worked’

“The findings go against several decades of experience. I have suffered three major traumas in my life – my father leaving home when I was 11, my husband having an affair, and now an unpleasant divorce – and I’m convinced these drugs helped me survive them. I’ve been close to suicide myself, but now, in my 60th year, I’m feeling positive and able to survive all the terrifying experiences each day throws at me. I take 20mg of Fluoxetine each day, and it makes me feel I can cope. I simply don’t buy the idea that it’s just a placebo – but then I suppose the point is even if it were I wouldn’t care. These drugs are my crutch and my comfort; without them I would lose hope altogether. I’m staying on.”

Sylvia Genge, 59: ‘Without these drugs I would lose hope altogether’

“The findings of this latest report don’t surprise me in the slightest. In fact, they confirm what I already knew.

“I’ve been a depressive for most of my life, and all of my adult life. After the umpteenth failed suicide attempt seven years ago my doctor said I should try taking antidepressant drugs. You name it, I’ve tried it. Diazepam, Citalopram, Prozac, Seroxat, Atenolol [a beta-blocker], Efexor: none worked. They turned me into a zombie, totally incapable of motivation or movement and forced to vegetate on a sofa.

“I’d say to anyone on these drugs, you’re better off going cold turkey. Talk to people, have therapy, be sociable: but don’t rely on these little happy pills. Having tried the lot, I’m coming off – and staying off.”


WASHINGTON (AP) — The Bush administration offered Thursday to pump $200 million into U.S. cities next year to combat violent crime, winning tepid support from mayors who want to see more cops on the street.

The money, announced by Attorney General Michael Mukasey, mostly targets crime-fighting programs across regions – meaning it likely won’t cover the cost of hiring new police officers.

“I know that many of your communities continue to face challenges,” Mukasey told the U.S. Conference of Mayors in a Thursday morning speech. He won light applause in announcing the new money, which will be part of the Justice Department’s budget request for the 2009 fiscal year.

Mukasey also rapped U.S. Sentencing Commission plans to allow some 19,500 federal prison inmates, most of them black, to seek reductions in their crack cocaine sentences. The attorney general described many of the inmates as violent gang members who could threaten public safety if released sooner than initially expected.

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The illegal drug market is one of the most profitable in the world. It is extremely difficult to know the global value of the drug trade since it is a business that is illegal, underground, and hard to trace. The United Nations Drug Control Program estimates that it is worth $400 billion per year, equivalent to 8% of world trade. In the United States, alone, the drug trade is worth upwards of $100 billion per year. It is now close to 20 years since the U.S. government has been fighting the “War On Drugs,” but despite the billions of dollars spent, an enormous amount of drugs continues to flow into the country.

The drug trade in the United States has had extremely negative consequences in terms of violence and corruption. But its effect on Latin American countries has been even more severe. It has led to violence, corruption, and social dislocation on such a scale that in many cases the very viability of the state as an institution has been threatened. Domestic drug consumption in Latin America is relatively low. The vast majority of the drugs produced in Latin America are intended for the U.S. market. When talking about the negative effect of drugs, it is important to look at the overall effect throughout the continent, not just in the United States.

This article examines changes in the narcotics industry over the past 20 years. It focuses particularly on the negative effects of the drug trade on the countries of Latin America. Finally, the article explores some of the implications of the drug trade for our border community here in El Paso/Ciudad Juarez and forms an argument for the legalization of the production and sale of drugs.

Developments in the Drug Trade During the 1980s

One of the most significant trends in the drug trade during the 1980s was the growth in the trafficking of cocaine and its synthetic derivatives. This development led to the infamous appearance of crack cocaine on the streets of U.S. cities, which enormously affected the drug market for users as and fueled violent gang wars between the suppliers. Although Bolivia and Peru were the largest coca and cocaine base producers, it was Colombia that dominated the actual processing of the drug. By the 1980s, Colombian trafficking organizations were supplying approximately 50% of the cocaine to the U.S. market, primarily by way of maritime and air routes through the Bahamas and other parts of the Caribbean. During this time, Colombian drug organizations were firmly entrenched in the South Florida area.

Also during the 1980s, Colombia was the primary source of foreign-produced marijuana in the United States, supplying approximately 80% of the market. Mexico and Jamaica were responsible for a further 10%, while domestic production supplied the rest. During the same decade, Southwest Asia was the primary source (60%) of heroin to the United States. The other 40% was Mexican-produced heroin, which supplied the western half of the United States.

The 1980s was the first time that the power of drug trafficking organizations to seriously disrupt civil society was witnessed. The 1980 coup in Bolivia, led by Garcia Meza and apparently backed by one of the country’s drug organizations, undermined drug control policies in that country. In 1981, the Colombian M-19 guerilla group kidnapped the sister of the head of the Medellin drug cartel. The cartel responded by organizing death squads that systematically killed guerillas and their families until the sister was released. These death squads went on to intimidate and murder journalists and politicians in an effort to repeal Colombia’s extradition treaty with the United States.

It was also during the 1980s that the drug trade was first perceived as a threat to the national security of the United States. As a response, the resources of the CIA and the military were put at the disposal of the anti-drug effort that was to become known as the War on Drugs.

Emergence of Mexico’s Role During the 1990s

The 1990s saw a significant shift in where drugs were produced and how they were brought into the United States. Because of increased surveillance of the Caribbean area by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Colombian drug traffickers began to rely upon Mexican organizations to smuggle cocaine into the United States, making Mexico the main transshipment point for U.S.-bound drugs. Central America was also increasingly used as an arrival destination for Colombian cocaine. Colombian organizations paid Mexican drug cartels with portions of the smuggled cocaine, sometimes up to half of the load. Usually small, twin-engine planes were used to transport drugs from Colombia as far as northern Mexico, but there were occasions when large, ex-service commercial jets brought in multi-ton quantities.

Drug-related violence continued unabated in South America. Over 150 groups loosely organized into cartels dominated the cocaine trade in Colombia. Guerilla groups such as the FARC and the ELN became more powerful and wealthy as they taxed drug producers, while right-wing paramilitary groups, often funded by the drug cartels, carried out murders and kidnappings in support of the drug cartels’ objectives.

Mexican heroin continued to supply the western half of the United States during the 1990s, while Colombian heroin replaced the supply from Southeast Asia. Colombian heroin was of an extremely high quality and could be snorted, avoiding the stigma of injecting Southeast Asian heroin with a needle.

Partly due to the success of marijuana eradication programs in Colombia, production there was severely disrupted, so Mexico stepped in as the major supplier to the United States. According to U.S. government figures, the number of marijuana users in the United States declined sharply between 1980 and 1990, but it was still extremely attractive to Mexican traffickers because of the high profit margin. The 1990s also saw the beginning of production in Mexico of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine, which until then had been produced mainly inside the United States.

Mexico’s development as the main transshipment point for Colombian cocaine entering the United States, and largest supplier of marijuana to the U.S. market, led to an enormous increase in wealth and power for the Mexican drug cartels. This growth has had serious consequences for Mexican society. In 1994, the Mexican Attorney General’s office estimated that the drug trade contributed around $30 billion annually to the Mexican economy. Only $7 billion was generated that year by oil earnings. The amount of money laundered in Mexico from drug trade was thought to represent between 4% and 20% of the GDP. The drug trade directly employed directly approximately 360,000 Mexicans and occupied as many as 20,000 soldiers in drug eradication efforts on a daily basis.

The enormous income generated from the drug trade is used to build and buy houses, cars, and ranches, and is invested in legitimate businesses such as hotels, factories, and stores. Much of the large tourist development in states such as Jalisco and Yucatan is funded in part with proceeds from the drug industry. Analysts have argued that drugs are Mexico’s most successful export. They also assert that the drug industry has softened the blow of economic restructuring programs and financial crises experienced by Mexico and other Latin American countries over the past 20 years. In the face of an agricultural crisis brought on by the import of cheap foreign food imports, Mexican farmers are turning to the cultivation of poppies or marijuana as alternative cash crops. Many involved in the drug trade are poor people with limited economic opportunities, tempted by the ease with which large amounts of money. This is not to excuse their participation in what is an illegal and dangerous occupation. But the widespread poverty and deprivation that exists in Mexico and the rest of Latin America cannot be discounted as a factor in the growth of the drug trade.

Drug Trade and the Border

Today, the southwest border has become the main entry point for illegal drugs into the United States. The long, rugged, and in many places, isolated, 2,000 mile border is an ideal place to smuggle narcotics. Seventy-two percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States is brought across it. Colombian organizations continue to use the Mexico-Central America corridor to transship cocaine into the United States. Increasingly, they use the Pacific Ocean as the preferred maritime route as it is much larger than the Caribbean and an easier place to evade detection. Fishing boats and speedboats transport multi-ton quantities of cocaine to southern Mexico, where it is broken down into smaller loads and transported through Mexico and into the United States. Nonetheless, the Caribbean continues to be an important transit point for cocaine, by way of countries such as Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

After almost 20 years since the initiation of the War on Drugs, and despite a current annual budget of $20 billion, an enormous amount of narcotics continues to enter the United States. In 1996, 120 tons of cocaine a month was being brought into the country from Chihuahua, Mexico, alone—1,440 tons a year (El Diario de Juárez, March 2004). In the same year, according to DEA statistics, almost 45 tons of cocaine was seized nationwide. Officially, the DEA estimates that it seizes between 20% and 25% of drugs brought into the country. Unofficially, the figure is put at 1% to 2%. Only 13 truckloads are required to supply the United States with cocaine for a year. With almost 20,000 kilometers of coastline, 300 ports of entry, and 7,500 kilometers of land border, stopping illegal drugs from entering the United States has been compared to looking for a needle in a haystack.

According to the DEA, southern New Mexico plays a major role in the laundering of drug revenue. Much of this money passes through Native American casinos that are unregulated by the state. The DEA also points to the large number of banking institutions in Las Cruces, New Mexico as evidence of the economic benefits of the drug trade. A city of Las Cruces’ side would typically have five to six banking institutions, but the city actually has over 200. El Paso also reaps considerable benefit from the trade in drugs. The Federal government estimates that $3.5 billion of drug money is laundered through the El Paso economy each year—more than twice the $1.7 billion budget of the military base at Fort Bliss, which itself represents 10% to 15% of the local economy.

Negative Effects of the Drug Trade

Anti-Drug Laws in the United States

A distinction can be made between negative effects caused by government policy to combat drugs, and negative effects caused by the actual trafficking of the drugs. In the United States, one of the government responses to the drug trade has been increasingly harsher sentences for those convicted of drug offenses. These measures, however, are generally seen as having failed since they have not led to a noticeable decrease in drug use and are extremely expensive. In 2001 it was estimated that the 55% of prisoners convicted for drug offenses were costing the taxpayer $3 billion per year. Some of these prisoners are untreated drug addicts stuck in a cycle of constant re-imprisonment in the criminal justice system. Others are people who have been convicted for minor offenses, such as possession of small amounts of narcotics. In 2002, over 45% of arrests for drug offenses involved marijuana, the vast majority for possession. The decision to introduce mandatory minimum sentences for the possession, sale, and use of drugs has made the U.S. prison population balloon to two million people. On a per capita basis, that is the largest prison population in the world. Many people argue that harsher drug sentences have had little effect on drug use.

One of the most controversial aspects of the War on Drugs is how anti-drug laws have disproportionately impacted the minority population. Almost 77% of prisoners are from minority populations (56.7% African-American and 19% Latino). In the early 1990s, there were more young African-American men in prison than in college. According to the federal Household Survey, 72% of illicit drug users are white, a slight over-representation given that they make up 69% of the population. Yet 52% of prisoners convicted of drug-related offenses in state prisons are African- Americans. African-American and Latino populations are more likely to be arrested for drug offenses than whites, and much more likely to receive prison sentences.

Drug-Related Violence

Another negative effect of the drug trade is the enormous amount of violence that accompanies it. It is difficult to estimate, but the majority of murders and other types of violence in Mexico are linked to the trade in narcotics. It is estimated that in Sinaloa, a state in western Mexico where a large amount of marijuana and poppies are grown, close to 16,000 people have died over the past 20 years as a result of drug-related violence. The vast majority of the violence is between and within the cartels, sometimes between cartels as they struggle for control of a share of the drug trade. In other cases, factions within a cartel dispute control of a particular area, theft of drugs, or other conflicts. Occasionally, drug-related violence spills over and innocent people are targeted or affected. The mere existence of such a high level of violence, even when it doesn’t affect the average citizen, is extremely detrimental to the overall well being of the society.

Much of the drug-related violence in the U.S. occurs in poor, inner city areas. Although these areas have average drug use rates, they are often used as drug distribution points because of their lack of social capital, and thus become battle grounds for gangs and factions that seek to control the drug market. Indeed, the majority of gang violence in U.S. cities is related to the drug trade. Inner cities areas subsequently experience a higher level of violence and crime than they otherwise would.

Economic Effects and Government Corruption

Although the drug trade in Latin America does create a large influx of money into generally unstable and impoverished economies, many analysts argue that the overall economic effects are negative. For example, taxes are often not paid on the income generated by the drug trade. Also, businesses funded by drug money are able to operate at a loss, which undercuts legitimate businesses selling the same products.

The trade in drugs in Mexico and the United States also causes enormous amounts of corruption and lawlessness. Mexican sociologist Luis Astorga argues that since the beginning of the drug trade in his country, drug traffickers have had a very close relationship with the political elite. It is not an exaggeration to say that many politicians in Mexico are directly benefiting from the drug trade. Probably the most famous example is General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, who in 1996 was installed as the equivalent of the Mexican Drug Czar with great fanfare. It was felt at the time that the military was Mexico’s most uncorrupted institution. By early 1997, however, General Rebollo had been arrested and charged with actually being a paid employee of the Carrillo Fuentes, or Juárez drug cartel.

This does mean that all politicians are corrupt. But it does mean that political institutions are so intertwined with and compromised by drug cartels that they are incapable of bringing them under control. In Mexico, organizations that produce and traffic drugs have penetrated the political, law enforcement, and judicial institutions to such an extent that they are able to carry out their business with a minimal amount of interference from the authorities. Many drug cartels actually employ police officers and soldiers, both active and retired. There are numerous cases in which the soldiers or police officers that are supposed to be fighting the drug trade are actually working with the drug traffickers themselves. President Fox has a reputation as an honest politician. But the fact that cocaine seizures by Mexican authorities were down from 33.5 tons in 1999 to 12.5 tons in 2002 suggests that as a whole, the Mexican government is unwilling or unable to stem the flow of illegal drugs in to the United States.

Despite changes in government, the production and trafficking of drugs is relentless. From 1986 to 2004, three governors from different political parties were in power in Chihuahua, Mexico. During their respective administrations, the cultivation and trafficking of drugs in Chihuahua was constant. In 1984, 11,000 tons of marijuana was seized from El Bufulo, a plantation in Jimenez, Chihuahua covering 200 hectares and employing 12,000 men. Obviously, the existence of a plantation of this size employing so many people was not a total surprise. El Bufulo was “discovered” by the Mexican authorities after it was revealed by DEA agent Enrique Camarena. According to a government report, the plantation was run not only by the Juárez drug cartel, but also by Mexican police organizations that offered protection and safe passage up to the northern border. During the early 1990s, the Juárez drug cartel would regularly fly into Chihuahua and other northern states multi-ton loads of cocaine aboard large ex-commercial planes. The Carrillo Fuentes cartel alone is alleged to have operated 22 ex-service Boeing 727 jets.

In 1994, two more large marijuana plantations were “discovered” in Chihuahua, one of 90 hectares and the other of 103 hectares. In 2004, Jesus Solis Silva, Chihuahua’s attorney general resigned, partly because of accusations that he was directly benefiting from the trafficking of drugs. There are allegations that the governors of Chihuahua were directly benefiting form the drug trade. Either way, the scale of drug trafficking in Chihuahua, and the fact that it continued despite changes in the government, are astounding.

In January, 2004, police in Juarez uncovered the bodies of 12 men in the small back yard of a house in a middle class area of the city. The men were all victims of the drug trade and all involved in trafficking. The extent of police involvement in the murders in Juárez is incredible. Many of the murders were carried out by a unit of the Chihuahua state police while their were on duty, in uniform, and using police vehicles. They would identify their victims, stop them, kidnap them, torture them, and then murder them. In El Diario of Juárez there are photographs of the state police commandante at the scene of murder investigations. He is standing with other police officers purportedly investigating murders that he himself committed. This unit of the Chihuahua state police was not an isolated rogue unit. Such actions by law enforcement are terrifyingly common. Some of the people who were murdered at this site had gone to a federal police unit, the Agencia Federal de Investigaciones (AFI), the equivalent of the FBI. They had gone to denounce a drug safe house, then found themselves detained and eventually murdered. Reporting crime in Mexico can be dangerous. Being a police officer in Mexico can be deadly. Police are faced with a stark choice: la plata o el plomo—silver (money) or lead (bullets). Many times even turning a blind eye is not an option.

Obviously the drug trade cannot be blamed for causing corruption nor the smuggling of contraband products. These are structural problems that have existed in all societies since the beginning of time. Eradicating them is a process that requires much time and effort. Many people argue that if it weren’t drugs that were being trafficked, another illicit product would take its place. But a strong argument can be made that drugs are a special case because of the ease with which they are cultivated and transported and the enormous profit margin that can be obtained with them. Officials estimate that a drug smuggler can lose 90% of his or her load and still make a profit. Additionally, one of the factors that make the drug trade so powerful in Latin America is that it is such an extremely lucrative and powerful industry, taking place in fragile societies where there are huge disparities of wealth and severe lack of economic opportunities. From the highlands of Peru and Bolivia to the shantytowns that skirt the cities of the U.S./Mexico border, the poverty is fertile ground for the growth and development of an illegal narcotics industry.

Although the United States is the richest society in the world, and by and large its institutions are well run and respected, the enormous wealth generated by the drug trade means that even here there is corruption involving law enforcement officials. Although U.S. customs agents are well paid (earning on average $40,000-$50,000 per year, the amount of money offered by the drug cartels is often too much of a temptation to resist. The immigration and customs agencies of the United States investigate about one case of corruption per week. It is hard to understand how such large quantities of drugs are able to enter the United States without some collusion by customs, immigration, and other law enforcement officials on the U.S. side.

Destructive Effects of Violence and Corruption

Probably the most destructive impact of the drug trade in Mexico and Latin America is the general destabilizing effect that the violence and corruption has on the society. Of the almost 400 murders of women in Juárez since 1993, it is estimated that around 25% were directly related to the drug trade.

When such a high level of drug-related violence is experienced by a society, violence and crime in general start to be tolerated and accepted; so, when other crimes are committed, there is less outrage and less expectation that the crimes will be solved. Also, when there is a general understanding that police officers are to some extent complicit in the trafficking of drugs and other illegal activities, law enforcement is not trusted. In Juárez, it is estimated that 95% of crimes go unsolved and unpunished. There are widely held perceptions that crimes can be committed with no consequences, and that if someone is inclined to report a crime, the police is the last place to go. At best, nothing will be done about it; at worse, you could pay for it with your life. People are often scared of reporting even mundane crimes, fearful of where it may lead. All this has extremely negative consequences for the smooth and orderly functioning of any society. The trade in drugs has simply become far too powerful, and far too lucrative, to be brought under control by the Mexican government and other governments in Latin America.

The power of the drug cartels and the influence that they exert on countries such as Mexico has never been greater. The Mexican drug cartels now exist as institutions more powerful than the state itself. This has had an enormous impact on our border region. The former director of the DEA, Thomas Constantine, has publicly stated that Mexico is in danger of becoming a narco-democracia, where the drug cartels are in control and lawlessness and violence are the norm. Mexican soldiers are patrolling the streets of Nuevo Laredo in northern Mexico. In Juárez, a unit of the state police has been accused of operating as a hit squad for the local drug cartel.

Examples like this show how the drug trade is destabilizing the countries of Latin America to such an extent that the very fabric of their society is seriously threatened. The vast majority of the violence and corruption that these societies experience is directly caused by the drug trade. The United States as a society bears great responsibility for this situation since it is our fellow citizens who are consuming the products of the drug trade. One of the reasons that the drug trade is so entrenched in Latin America is because there is simply not a viable economic alternative to it. Until there is, it seems likely that the trade in illegal drugs will continue to act as a subsidy to the legal economy. Mexico has struggled in the ten years since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Its agricultural sector is devastated, and its manufacturing sector is subject to the whims of the U.S. consumer. The United States is currently attempting to create a similar free trade zone throughout Latin America. These free trade agreements are structured to benefit the wealthy in both the United States and Latin America. Unless there is a serious effort to restructure trade and to reorient the current economic model so that society as a whole benefits, the drug trade will continue to flourish, to the detriment of the entire continent.

The Case for the Legalization of Drugs

In the meantime, there is a strong case for the legalization of the drug trade. The benefits are that the drug trade would be taken out of the hands of the powerful criminal organizations responsible for so much violence and corruption. It would be regulated by the government and subject to taxation. In the United States, legalization is still very much a fringe issue, but in Europe and Latin America it is starting to become part of public debate.

There are many arguments about the best way to legalize the drug trade. The most popular public perception of legalization is a free market distribution of all drugs. Some people advocate the legalization of soft drugs such as marijuana; hard drugs such as cocaine and heroin would have restrictions put on them, much like alcohol and tobacco. Others advocate a regulated distribution of drugs through public health facilities, where they would be legal but monitored and where addicts would be in regular contact with health professionals.

The actual form that legalization would take would be the product of extensive discussion and negotiation. But it is at least time to start to have a public debate about the legalization of drugs. To do otherwise is to ignore the grave injustice that the drug trade is inflicting on all of the American continent, but especially in Latin America.

In the fall of 2003, Maria arrived at Casa Peregrina in Juárez with her two small boys. She had been referred by a local domestic abuse organization. Maria was different from most of the guests we receive at Casa Peregrina. She had money, her children were well educated, and she had traveled widely in both Mexico and the United States. Maria had been subjected to serious domestic abuse and was seeking a separation from her husband. The problem was that her husband was a member of the Juárez drug cartel. Maria could not go to the authorities to report what had happened to her because the police regularly visited her husband at home and could not be trusted. Maria’s only option was to go to the international bridge and request political asylum. She did this and is presently in hiding in the United States.

In the spring of 2004, Rosa Emma Carbajal was given a parking ticket in the small town of Palomas, Chihuahua for double parking. Because of this she attempted to run over the police officer and was subsequently charged with resisting arrest. Shortly after being released on bond, she returned to the police station with between 30 and 40 people. The mob assaulted the police station, smashing windows and destroying equipment. Fearing for their lives, the police commander, along with six colleagues managed to flee. They dispersed the crowd by firing into the air and managed to reach the US Border where they immediately requested political asylum. The day after the incident we received the police commander’s wife and child at Annunciation House where they stayed for a few days until family members in the US could be contacted.

Afghanistan risks degenerating into a state controlled by “narco-terrorists” and drug cartels unless the soaring level of opium and heroin production is curbed, the UN warned yesterday.



Afghanistan risks degenerating into a state controlled by “narco-terrorists” and drug cartels unless the soaring level of opium and heroin production is curbed, the UN warned yesterday.

Two years after US air power and northern guerrillas drove the Taliban from power, the world’s biggest source of heroin is cultivating opium poppies and processing the opium into heroin at near record rates despite the introduction of western programs aimed at eliminating the drug .

The UN’s annual survey of Afghanistan’s opium poppy cultivation and production, released yesterday, paints a bleak picture of a drug culture spreading vigorously in defiance of intense efforts by the international community, humanitarian organizations and charities to wean Afghan farmers off the lucrative crop.

The Vienna-based UN office on drugs and crime (UNODC) has been surveying Afghan poppy production for the past decade and has concluded that this year’s harvest is the second biggest recorded, surpassed only by the bumper production of 4,600 tons of opium in 1999, a year before Taliban hardliners banned its cultivation.

This year’s production of 3,600 tons represents a 6% year-on-year increase, while poppy cultivation, at almost 81,000 hectares (200,000 acres), was up 8%. A further cause for concern is that opium poppies are now being grown in 28 of Afghanistan’s 32 provinces, against 18 in 1999.

“The country is at a crossroads,” said Antonio Maria Costa, director of UNODC. “There is a palpable risk that Afghanistan will again turn into a failed state, this time in the hands of drug cartels and narco-terrorists.”

Afghanistan is by far the biggest source of the heroin trafficked in western Europe, supplying 90% of the market.

The report found that Afghanistan produces 75% of the world’s illicit opium and that two in three opiate users take drugs from Afghanistan. The poppy industry generates around half the official gross domestic product.

The industry is controlled by warlords and crime cartels who use two prime routes to ferry the contraband to western Europe. Raw opium is refined into heroin at illicit laboratories all over Afghanistan.

The heroin is taken north, through the former Soviet states of central Asia and up into the Russian Urals, before heading for western Europe via Moscow and St. Petersburg. Alternatively, it is dispatched Turkey and then smuggled into western Europe via the Balkans.

“Out of this drug chest some provincial administrators and military commanders take a considerable share. The more they get used to this, the less likely it becomes that they will respect the law, be loyal to Kabul,” Mr Costa said.

“Terrorists take a cut as well. The longer this happens, the greater the threat to security within the country and on its borders.”

In one of his first moves on taking office last year, President Hamid Karzai outlawed opium poppy cultivation, trafficking and consumption while charities and other outsiders sought to develop crop substitution projects and payments to farmers to eradicate poppy growing.

To judge by the figures released yesterday, there is scant evidence of success. The bumper harvest of 1999 was followed in 2000 by the Taliban prohibition, a gambit aimed partly at gaining international recognition of the regime.

The ploy failed but the ban went ahead, slashing that year’s opium production. Last year, however, UNODC confirmed a “major resurgence” of poppy growing”.

Mr Costa called for stiff “interdiction measures”, backed by the international community, “to destroy the terrorists’ and warlords’ stake in the opium economy”.


Two years after US air power and northern guerrillas drove the Taliban from power, the world’s biggest source of heroin is cultivating opium poppies and processing the opium into heroin at near record rates despite the introduction of western programs aimed at eliminating the drug .

The UN’s annual survey of Afghanistan’s opium poppy cultivation and production, released yesterday, paints a bleak picture of a drug culture spreading vigorously in defiance of intense efforts by the international community, humanitarian organizations and charities to wean Afghan farmers off the lucrative crop.

The Vienna-based UN office on drugs and crime (UNODC) has been surveying Afghan poppy production for the past decade and has concluded that this year’s harvest is the second biggest recorded, surpassed only by the bumper production of 4,600 tons of opium in 1999, a year before Taliban hardliners banned its cultivation.

This year’s production of 3,600 tons represents a 6% year-on-year increase, while poppy cultivation, at almost 81,000 hectares (200,000 acres), was up 8%. A further cause for concern is that opium poppies are now being grown in 28 of Afghanistan’s 32 provinces, against 18 in 1999.

“The country is at a crossroads,” said Antonio Maria Costa, director of UNODC. “There is a palpable risk that Afghanistan will again turn into a failed state, this time in the hands of drug cartels and narco-terrorists.”

Afghanistan is by far the biggest source of the heroin trafficked in western Europe, supplying 90% of the market.

The report found that Afghanistan produces 75% of the world’s illicit opium and that two in three opiate users take drugs from Afghanistan. The poppy industry generates around half the official gross domestic product.

The industry is controlled by warlords and crime cartels who use two prime routes to ferry the contraband to western Europe. Raw opium is refined into heroin at illicit laboratories all over Afghanistan.

The heroin is taken north, through the former Soviet states of central Asia and up into the Russian Urals, before heading for western Europe via Moscow and St. Petersburg. Alternatively, it is dispatched Turkey and then smuggled into western Europe via the Balkans.

“Out of this drug chest some provincial administrators and military commanders take a considerable share. The more they get used to this, the less likely it becomes that they will respect the law, be loyal to Kabul,” Mr Costa said.

“Terrorists take a cut as well. The longer this happens, the greater the threat to security within the country and on its borders.”

In one of his first moves on taking office last year, President Hamid Karzai outlawed opium poppy cultivation, trafficking and consumption while charities and other outsiders sought to develop crop substitution projects and payments to farmers to eradicate poppy growing.

To judge by the figures released yesterday, there is scant evidence of success. The bumper harvest of 1999 was followed in 2000 by the Taliban prohibition, a gambit aimed partly at gaining international recognition of the regime.

The ploy failed but the ban went ahead, slashing that year’s opium production. Last year, however, UNODC confirmed a “major resurgence” of poppy growing”.

Mr Costa called for stiff “interdiction measures”, backed by the international community, “to destroy the terrorists’ and warlords’ stake in the opium economy”.


Yes, I know this all happened in 2005, but how is it that we still aren’t pissed-off.

The pharmaceutical industry is bracing itself for criticism when the film ‘The Constant Gardener’ opens next month. But Jeremy Laurance reports that away from the Hollywood script is a true story of how multinational drug companies took liberties with African lives with devastating consequences.


In a dusty schoolyard in Kano, northern Nigeria, a group of children are kicking a football. One of them, a solemn-faced boy called Anas, sits watching quietly. He cannot play because he has pains in his knees that prevent him from running.

Nobody knows what caused Anas’ pain but suspicion has fallen on Big Pharma. Six years earlier, Anas was a patient in a trial of a new drug run by one of the world’s biggest companies. A known side effect of the drug, called Trovan, was joint pain. The issues raised by Anas’ story have become the subject of a major British film.

The multinational pharmaceutical industry is bracing itself for an uncomfortable autumn. Next month, The Constant Gardener, the film based on the novel of the same name by John Le Carré, opens in London.

Directed by Fernando Meirelles, of City of God fame, it is a thriller, a love story and a blistering attack on the drugs industry and the way it carelessly expends the lives of innocent citizens in the Third World in the quest for billion-dollar medicines to sell to the first world.

As with dramas of this kind – such as the 1999 film, The Insider, which detailed the perfidious dealings of the tobacco industry – it raises the question of how far fiction resembles fact. So it is worth examining the background to The Constant Gardener. The film opens in a remote area of northern Kenya where Tessa Quayle (played by Rachel Weisz), the wife of a British diplomat, has been murdered. Her travelling companion, a local doctor, has disappeared, and the evidence points to a crime of passion.

At the time of her death, Tessa, an activist and passionate campaigner, was on the verge of uncovering a conspiracy involving the testing of a new drug. In personality she was the opposite of her husband, the mild-mannered Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), whose chief passion is his plants – he is the gardener of the title.

But in his grief, and goaded by whispers of her infidelity, he sets out to complete what she started, embarking on a quest to expose the truth about the pharmaceutical industry.

What he uncovers, as the film’s blurb puts it, is “a vast conspiracy, at once deadly and commonplace, one that has claimed innocent lives – and is about to put his own at risk”. At the center of this conspiracy is the idea that pharmaceutical companies use African people to test drugs which are destined to become huge profit-earners in the West.

It is not the first time such allegations have been made, but they have rarely been leveled with such dramatic effect. Some will find The Constant Gardener’s thesis overblown, but it is a gripping thriller, ravishingly shot by César Charlone, that conveys the chaos, grandeur and darkness of Africa with unequaled authenticity. After the credits roll, a note from John Le Carré appears on screen that reads: “Nobody in this story, and no outfit or corporation, thank God, is based upon an actual person or outfit in the real world. But I can tell you this; as my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.” This is hard to credit. The film features two brutal killings, a savage beating, a campaign of harassment, intimidation and threats involving two governments and their security services – all to protect the interests of a pharmaceutical company that is testing a drug on mothers and children and quietly burying its failures.

Maybe there are pharmaceutical companies that have engaged in such crimes and enlisted the support of corrupt governments. Who can say? But it is not necessary to posit such a gargantuan conspiracy, where paranoia is the only rational response. The crimes of the pharmaceutical industry – from the price protection of Aids drugs which have denied life-saving medicines to millions, to the cover up of lethal side effects to protect profits – are well documented.

But there are two cases in which named companies have been accused of wrongdoing that partly inspired The Constant Gardener and which give resonance to the allegations about the secret testing of drugs on the unsuspecting and the suppression of any negative findings.

In 1996, Kano was suffering from outbreaks of cholera and measles when a third, even more deadly, disease arrived: meningitis. The infection spread quickly through the cramped slums of the city and within weeks thousands of children were ill.

The outbreak was not reported in the West but it did not go unnoticed. An internet message alerted scientists at the research headquarters in Connecticut, of one of the world’s biggest drug companies: Pfizer.

The company reacted swiftly. It chartered a plane to Kano with a new drug called Trovan that was a potential life-saver and a potential billion-dollar profit earner. But Trovan had never been tested on children.

The Infectious Diseases Hospital in Kano was under siege from desperate parents who brought their dying children begging for help. One of these was Anas, then aged six. His father, Mohammed, said his son was given a drug by “a doctor from overseas” and put to bed. Mohammed assumed the doctors who treated his son were from Médecins Sans Frontièrs, an independent medical organization, who had arrived several weeks before the Pfizer team.

Only later when he examined a card he was given did he realize that Anas had been included in a trial of the new drug Trovan. The card was numbered 0001 – Anas was the first.

His story was told in the documentary “Dying for Drugs”, broadcast in 2003, which alleged that Pfizer had failed to obtain informed consent from the parents of the children tested, and had back-dated a letter granting ethical approval for the trial from the ethics committee of the Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital. Pfizer said it remained satisfied the Kano experiment was conducted properly.

Since the trial, Anas has had a pain in his knee which X-rays showed was inflamed and which prevents him from running. Trovan was not used in the US because it caused side effects including joint pain. It is impossible to tell whether Anas’s knee problem was caused by the drug or was a consequence of the meningitis. Trovan was later withdrawn from the market for unrelated reasons, after it was linked with a number of deaths of patients from liver damage.

But the case against Pfizer did not end there. Lawyers seeking damages for the children involved in the Trovan trial obtained a letter sent by Pfizer’s childhood diseases specialist, Dr. Juan Walterspiel, protesting strongly about it. Dr. Walterspiel set out eight grounds for opposing the trial including the fact that Trovan had “not been tested for its sensitivity before the first child was exposed to a live-or-die experiment.” His contract with the company was terminated soon after.

Brian Woods, who made Dying for Drugs, met Meirelles and Le Carré, during the development of The Constant Gardener. “We had an entertaining lunch in which we were all frothing about the pharmaceutical industry,” said Woods, who last week won a commission from Channel 4 to make a follow-up film.

Meirelles, whose Brazilian background gave him a strong interest in the issue of first world/Third World exploitation, distributed copies of Dying for Drugs to cast members, and it had the desired effect. After watching it and reading other background material that Meirelles had given him, Ralph Fiennes said: “There are huge questions about Big Pharma. The companies are not obliged to disclose a lot of information about how they test or make their drugs. There’s big, big money involved.” Rachel Weisz concurred. “It’s David and Goliath; the little people taking on the big corporations. They [the pharmaceutical companies] make all this money, yet people in developing countries can’t afford the drugs that could save their lives.”

A second case of dubious practice by the pharmaceutical industry also has echoes in The Constant Gardener. A Canadian specialist, Dr Nancy Olivieri of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, was among the world’s leading experts in the blood disorder thalassaemia when she agreed to take part in the trial of a new drug, Deferiprone, made by the US company Apotex.

Deferiprone helps clear iron from the blood which builds up in patients with thalassaemia and can be fatal. At first the trial went well and Dr Olivieri published promising results in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Then she noticed worrying liver changes in some of her patients. She raised her concerns with the company and tried to find a way of adapting the trial. But she was unprepared for the response of the company, whose potential million-dollar drug she was now questioning.

Mike Spino, the vice-president of Apotex, informed her that the trial had been terminated, and warned her that she would face legal action if she spoke about it to anybody, in breach of her duty of confidentiality.

That triggered a dispute between Dr Olivieri and Apotex that has dragged on for more than five years, during which she has not published new research. Sir David Weatherall, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University and a supporter of Dr Olivieri, said the case raised a “fundamental issue of academic freedom”. Nor was it an isolated case. Sir David added that editors of medical journals including The Lancet and The Journal of the American Medical Association had come under pressure not to publish data or to change it.

This story is also told in Dying for Drugs. Deferiprone is now licensed in more than 24 countries, including the UK, and Apotex insist it is safe and effective. The company also accused Dr Olivieri of making errors in the trial that made her results worthless.

Wherever the truth in the cases of Pfizer and Apotex, the behaviour of Big Pharma will come under renewed scrutiny thanks to The Constant Gardener. Even if its picture of multinational corporations engaged in global conspiracies with corrupt governments seems excessively paranoid, there are real issues to confront. The bigger scandal lies not in the forging of consent forms to clinical trials, nor even in the intimidation of recalcitrant researchers. It lies in the rapacious pricing of the pharmaceutical industry that puts life-saving drugs out of reach of individuals, hospitals and even nations. The words used to justify these prices are “research and development”. But in truth, the industry’s biggest cost is marketing. Extraordinary sums are spent persuading doctors to prescribe new drugs only fractionally different from older, cheaper ones, which ramp up prices.

Great as this conspiracy is, unfortunately it does not provide for a blockbuster thriller.


Drug companies are placing depressed patients at risk by not publishing negative results from clinical trials and distorting the evidence doctors use to decide which drugs to prescribe.

New research published in The New England Journal of Medicine found nearly a third of the 74 industry-sponsored studies of antidepressants they examined were not published, most of which showed negative outcomes for the drug involved. Not only were positive results 12 times more likely to be published, but negative results were often written so as to convey a favorable outcome.

Researchers warn that selective reporting of clinical trials can lead to misrepresentation of the benefits and risks of a drug and could mislead healthcare professionals into believing some drugs are more effective and less harmful than they actually are, which could place patients at risk.

The published articles suggest 94 per cent of the trials conducted had positive results, whereas analysis by the FDA found only half were favorable.