Editors Note: This is the first installment of a series of articles that will highlight the Corps involvement in Saudi Arabia. To understand the Corps involvement, it’s important to understand the U.S. – Saudi Arabia relationship as a whole. This first article talks about the foundation for that relationship.
On February 14, 1945, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with King Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia aboard the USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake on the Suez Canal. This meeting would have lasting implications on U.S. - Saudi relations for years to come.
Though the two nations established diplomatic relations in 1939, no American official higher than a minister in the diplomatic service had ever met the king. It wasn’t until 1942 that the State Department posted its first resident envoy in Jeddah, a career officer named James Moose, the second diplomat assigned to the nation and the first to live there. In 1943, Roosevelt recognized that Saudi Arabia was important to war efforts during World War II due to its oil production and declared the country eligible for financial aid. Later that year, the U.S. diplomatic mission in Jeddah was upgraded to legation and Moose was replaced with a higher ranking official, Marine Col. William Eddy. Eddy developed a close relationship with King Abdul Aziz and it was his efforts that made the meeting with Roosevelt possible.
The two leaders were very different. Roosevelt was knowledgeable, well-travelled, and president of one of the world’s most advanced nations. By contrast, the 64-year old Saudi King was semi-literate, had travelled no further than Basra, Iraq, and was king of one of the world’s most impoverished nations.
Though they had more differences than similarities, Roosevelt and Abdul Aziz immediately developed a strong rapport.
The king told the president that his legs were getting weaker each year and that the president was lucky to have a wheelchair to get around. This caused Roosevelt to give Abdul Aziz one of the two wheelchairs he had with him on the trip. The king was grateful and called it his “most precious possession” and said it was “a gift from my great and good friend,” Eddy recounted in a brief narrative, “F.D.R. meets ibn Saud,” published in 1954.
In addition to the impromptu gift of the wheelchair, Roosevelt gave the king a DC-3 passenger airplane. The plane even included a rotating throne so the king could always face Mecca when flying. This gift would have major effects on the country’s future in aviation and would become the first plane in the fleet of what is now the Saudi Arabian Airlines.
During his trip, the king was treated by the Americans to great food including apple pie a la mode, a dish he especially grew to love. He enjoyed the food so much that he requested the cook be given to him as a gift from the President. Roosevelt explained that the sailor had a commitment to the Navy and giving him as a gift wouldn’t be possible. As an alternative, he offered to have the cook train some of the king’s staff, according to Tom Lippman, author and former diplomatic correspondent and Middle East bureau chief for the Washington Post.
Roosevelt and Abdul Aziz spent several hours speaking in private about the relationship between the two countries. Roosevelt, who was known for being charming and well-liked, made a great impression on the king.
Roosevelt was not the only world leader that Abdul Aziz met at that time. Having learned about the meeting with Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wanted to meet with the king. He viewed Saudi Arabia as part of Britain’s sphere of influence in the Middle East and didn’t want to be upstaged by the United States. A meeting was set up with Churchill, but the meeting was not as productive as the meeting with the president.
During the visit with the king, Roosevelt refrained from smoking and drinking in front of the king, however, Churchill did not.
“If it was the religion of His Majesty to deprive himself of smoking and alcohol I must point out that my rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also drinking alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them,” Churchill wrote in his memoirs.
In addition, Churchill’s gift of a Rolls Royce further offended the king because the driver’s side was on the right and required the king to sit on the left, which was considered a “position of dishonor.” He never once used the car, according to Lippman.
Overall the king’s impression of Churchill was not favorable. He compared the two during a private meeting with Eddy.
“’The contrast between the president and Mr. Churchill is very great,’ the king said,” wrote Eddy. “’Mr. Churchill speaks deviously, evades understanding, changes the subject to avoid commitment, forcing me repeatedly to bring him back to the point. The president seeks understanding in conversations; his effort is to make the two minds meet, to dispel darkness and shed light upon the issue.’ The king concluded: ‘I have never met the equal of the president in character, wisdom and gentility.‘”
Even after Roosevelt’s death shortly after the meeting, the strong impression left on the king allowed President Truman to continue the relationship with Saudi Arabia. One of the results of the meeting was the king’s approval of the U.S. military to build the Dhahran Airfield, but more on that in the next installment of this series.