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.

Buraymi

Buraymi

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.

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:

“Jess-
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.’