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.’