Sixty years ago Allied forces were closing in on Nazi Germany and victory in Europe was just months away. For a week in early February, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt met Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at Yalta in the Crimea to discuss the shape of post-war Europe. The summit ended on February 11, 1945 and FDR departed for a rendezvous at the Great Bitter Lake, a waypoint along the Suez Canal in Egypt, with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz bin Abdulrahman Al-Saud. The King, known as Ibn Saud, sailed from Jeddah aboard an American warship to the meeting with FDR. The two leaders’ focus was shaping the future relationship between the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Rachel Bronson, Director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the forthcoming book, Thicker than Oil: The United States and Saudi Arabia, recently spoke with SUSRIS about the meeting. In this conversation she provided the historical context of the meeting and perspective on the relationship that resulted from FDR’s and Ibn Saud’s rendezvous at Great Bitter Lake.
The Meeting at Great Bitter Lake: A Conversation with Dr. Rachel Bronson
SUSRIS: Thank you, Doctor Bronson for talking with us today about the early days of the official relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. Tell us about your research and about the 1945 meeting at Great Bitter Lake.
Rachel Bronson: I’ve been working on a book called, “Thicker than Oil: The US and Saudi Arabia,” that examines the political relationship, the diplomatic history if you will, between the two countries from 1945 to the present. It looks at how the relationship has evolved over time and what has kept the two countries so closely together.
SUSRIS: Why did the leaders of the United States and Saudi Arabia meet, especially when America was still engaged in fighting the war in Europe and the Pacific?
Rachel Bronson: What brought FDR to the Great Bitter Lake? Officially he went to Great Bitter Lake because of oil. He was sailing back from his meeting at Yalta. It was a very dangerous time for him to be deviating from his path. We were still in the thick of World War II and ships were very vulnerable. He decided while he was out there he was going to meet three leaders. Abdulaziz was one of them. While he was there he met King Farouk and he met the Ethiopian king.
The meeting seemed to be a last minute thing. Two weeks before he went to Great Bitter Lake he sent a memo to the king saying he would like to talk about oil; although oil is not the main part of the conversation as far as I can tell. It’s hard to believe they didn’t speak about it, but they spoke about other things as well.
When Churchill learned FDR was going he was beside himself since the British and the Americans were competing for influence in the peninsula. So Churchill decided he wanted to meet Abdulaziz and King Farouk as well. So FDR sailed in and Churchill came in behind.
Getting back to why does he go? Well, FDR had actually said in a previous trip he had taken to Tehran  that he really did want to stop and meet the Saudi monarch. He wrote a letter to Abdulaziz saying he was sorry he was not able to stop to meet him but if there were future trips to the region he would very much like to.
There are a number of reasons he was interested. First of all, what became very clear was that both Abdulaziz and FDR were very curious about the charismatic leadership of the other. I think it was Harry Hopkins, adviser to FDR, who was skeptical of the meeting. He felt Roosevelt just wanted to go out and meet the monarchs in the region. It’s in part true. They were both very much taken by the other. Each had the other described to him in larger than life terms and wanted to meet the other.
There were other reasons to meet. Oil was obviously very important – its importance had been clearly shown throughout World War II. But King Abdulaziz, who had been essentially neutral throughout the war, was tending toward the Allied side. He had allowed the Allies to use Saudi Arabian airspace and made it easy for them to operate in the region. That was of considerable importance. In 1945 the United States was working to get permission to help build a base at Dhahran, which was going to be incredibly important for moving troops from Europe to the Pacific theater. In the end it wasn’t needed because the war was ending. But Abdulaziz’s leaning toward the Allies was important to the United States and that was another important reason to meet him.
SUSRIS: What did they discuss?
Rachel Bronson: There were not many details reported about the meeting — they talked about development, and agriculture among other things. The big issue they talked about was Palestine. FDR realized that Palestine was an emerging problem and he wanted King Abdulaziz’s help.
As far as the results of those discussions, if you go back and look at a letter that Eleanor Roosevelt wrote to her friend Joseph Lash she reported that FDR was a bit disappointed that he could not get more from the king on the Arab Israeli conflict. Mrs. Roosevelt was really behind the Jewish cause, but her take on the meeting was that FDR didn’t get any solution, which he would have liked. However it was an important, very symbolic meeting.
One of the striking results, on a personal level, was the story about the wheelchair. FDR and Abdulaziz met on the USS Quincy and Abdulaziz was lumbering toward FDR who is sitting in his wheelchair, sort of the old statesman. King Abdulaziz says something to the effect, “Aren’t you lucky you have something like that to move you around?” Roosevelt had an extra wheelchair and gave it to Abdulaziz. It became one of the king’s most prized possessions. It was a symbol of their friendliness and the appreciation one had of the other.
SUSRIS: What other gifts were exchanged?
Rachel Bronson: The Americans gave an aircraft and the British gave a car. Churchill met with King Abdulaziz after the Great Bitter Lake meeting with FDR but it just didn’t go as well.
For instance, on one hand FDR, a smoker, was determined not to smoke in Abdulaziz’s presence. He could have but he wanted to be respectful. There are stories of FDR finding a room and smoking in a stairwell quickly before he would meet with Abdulaziz.
Winston Churchill, on the other hand, was a smoker and he was going to smoke. He had a drink and a smoke and all that was fine, but Abdulaziz was really taken with the respect shown by FDR.
It extended to the exchange of gifts as well. FDR gave King Abdulaziz an airplane, as I mentioned. Churchill sent a car, but the steering wheel, of course, is on the right hand side because it’s British. It turned out that the position of respect is on the right hand side of the vehicle. So if the King was driven in it, and he wanted to sit in the front, he would have to ride on the driver’s left. So apparently he never drove in it. It suggested to the King a lack of cultural sensitivity on the part of the British.
In the case of FDR’s gift of the aircraft, it was actually very useful. The Americans also supplied an American crew for the plane. The British car ended up sitting in a garage.
SUSRIS: The different approaches of the respective FDR and Churchill meetings with Ibn Saud are interesting — the smoking, the gifts and so forth — but what were the other dynamics at play in the Saudi’s differing views of Americans and British.
Rachel Bronson: I think the King was certainly familiar with the motivations of each side. It goes back to 1933 and awarding the oil concessions to the Americans. The Americans were interested in the business arrangement and were not interested in culturally rearranging the country the way the British were known to do. They were not a colonial power. That meant an awful lot to Abdulaziz, one of the only rulers in the area not colonized. He trusted the Americans in that they were unlike the British who were more meddlesome.
King Abdulaziz clearly had a good grasp of geopolitics. He understood that the Americans were the up and coming international actors. He was more comfortable working with them in large part because of their lack of a colonial past. For those reasons he allowed the United States to build a base whereas the British had a much harder time getting access to the kingdom. So there were the geopolitical reasons, and he was culturally more at ease with Americans and had less to fear from them.
SUSRIS: How did concerns for the post-war balance of power vis-a-vis the Soviet Union enter into FDR’s approach to the relationship with Saudi Arabia?
Rachel Bronson: The concern for the Soviets came later. I’m sure it was in the back of his mind, but it didn’t appear as an issue that was front and center. The purpose of a US base at Dhahran was really to help get troops to the Pacific theater of war. So their focus was on the war itself.
Later there were concerns about how you protect the oilfields from a possible Soviet invasion south, especially when they saw the Soviet provocations concerning Iran. There was a concern that emerged on the US side of, “Whoa, wait a minute, the Soviets are coming.” But in terms of building the relationship in 1945, I think it was mostly the competition between the British and the Americans. How do you secure the position there for the United States — oil, industrial and development interests?
SUSRIS: When observers talk about the scope of the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia they often refer to the Great Bitter Lake meeting. How would you characterize the meeting in terms of the longer historic relationship?
Rachel Bronson: They do because it was the first time the President visited that part of the region and it was the first time American and Saudi leaders met. I see it as the beginning of official relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. Up to that point there were some shared interests in oil — the concessions in 1933 — but it was February 14, 1945 that marks the beginning of official US-Saudi relations.
SUSRIS: In his book “Inside the Mirage,” Thomas Lippman talked about Colonel William Eddy, the Naval Attaché in Egypt, as the “impresario” of the Great Bitter Lake meeting. Can you talk about the part he played?
Rachel Bronson: At the time the United States did not have ambassadorial representation in Jeddah and a lot of what we were doing was out of Egypt. Bill Eddy was one of the best “Arabists.” He had grown up in Lebanon and he was one of the best that America had in the region. So it made perfect sense that he was the interpreter. That he was the interpreter for both sides was also very rare.
SUSRIS: Eddy recorded his observations in a monograph called, “FDR meets Ibn Saud.” Can you talk about his perspectives?
Rachel Bronson: Yes. It talks about the promises that were made. My book is going to discuss these issues. There is the letter from Eleanor Roosevelt, that I already mentioned, to suggest that the results might not have been so neat and clean as Eddy suggests.
SUSRIS: Thomas Lippman, again in “Inside the Mirage,” relying on Eddy’s account, said the Saudis came away from the meeting believing the Americans would not move on the Palestine question without prior consultation with the Arabs. How did this commitment play out?
Rachel Bronson: It is the question of consultation that is the key. FDR wouldn’t have made promises about what he would do in the future but he apparently agreed to consult with them. That was what became a big issue. They felt that Truman never consulted with them, except just before something happened.
For example, at the UN, Faisal, Abdulaziz’s second son, was blindsided by the United States move forward for a Jewish state. It wasn’t an active negotiation process. It wasn’t even an active dialogue. They didn’t feel they were consulted. Truman’s response was, “Of course you were consulted. I was never unclear about what I was going to do.”
In fact, Truman was unclear about what he was going to do. Truman heard arguments from both sides and wasn’t really sure until three days before he decides on the recognition of Israel. That’s the part the Arabs felt that FDR had promised them. If nothing else they would be consulted on how to proceed and it turned out they were not.
SUSRIS: Other than the discussion of Palestine how did the Saudis view the outcome of the Great Bitter Lake meeting?
Rachel Bronson: It was a huge success. There’s a stream of letters exchanged after the meeting about their excitement to meet each other. There were statements that FDR was a great man and it was confirmed by the meeting. There were very warm feelings between the old physically challenged leaders.
The king had taken risks about going. There was some worry that when he was away there would be domestic unrest at home, but he took those risks to meet the President. Even going on the ship was a challenge. He had only been on a ship once before.
The gift of the wheelchair was very symbolic. It became very cherished. Visitors would be shown the wheelchair. The airplane was used. It was a very, very warm meeting and set the tone of the relationship.
About Rachel Bronson
Rachel Bronson is a senior fellow and Director of Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations where she is concluding research on her forthcoming book Thicker than Oil: The United States and Saudi Arabia, a History, under contract with Oxford University Press (2005). She co-directed the January 2003 report “Guiding Principles for US Post-Conflict Policy in Iraq,” co-sponsored by CFR and the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. She has testified before Congress’ Joint Economic Committee on the topic of Iraq’s reconstruction, and the President’s 9-11 Commission on whether or not the US is involved in a “Clash of Civilizations.”
Dr. Bronson is the recipient of the Carnegie Corporation’s 2003 Carnegie Scholars award. She has served as a consultant to the Center for Naval Analyses, as a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and as a Fellow at Harvard’s Center for Science and International Affairs. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Foreign Affairs, Survival, The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune. She has commented extensively in the media including CNN, BBC, NPR, Washingtonpost.com and al-Jazeera and is a consultant for NBC news. She received her doctorate from Columbia University in Political Science in 1997.