Today in History – King Abdulaziz and President Roosevelt Meeting

Published: February 14, 2011

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Editor’s Note:

Today marks the 66th anniversary of a landmark meeting between King Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt onboard the U.S. Navy cruiser Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake segment of the Suez Canal. The February 14, 1945 meeting was the first face-to-face contact between top American and Saudi leaders and served as the foundation for the longstanding relationship between Washington and Riyadh. This week SUSRIS is presenting several articles describing the events and their significance. Today we are pleased to reprint a book excerpt from Thomas Lippman’s “Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia.”

This snapshot of U.S.-Saudi history was provided by Mr. Lippman for SUSRIS readers in 2005 and we thank him again for sharing it. We should also mention that he contributed another book on U.S.-Saudi history with the publication of “Arabian Knight: Colonel Bill Eddy and the Rise of American Power in the Middle East.” As you will see in the anniversary articles we provide this week, Colonel Eddy was a key player in fostering the relationship between America and Saudi Arabia in the early days. We recommend both books to your attention (book details below).

Anniversary of Historic Meeting between King Abdulaziz and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Excerpt from Inside the Mirage by Thomas W. Lippman (pages 27-29)

To the rest of the world, Saudi Arabia was still largely unknown and the Middle East a sideshow in the great war against the Axis powers, but the Americans were soon to see how the country’s profile had been elevated in the official Washington. On February 14, 1945, Abdul Aziz met President Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy in Egypt’s Great Bitter Lake. Photographs of that encounter – the king in his robes, laughing as he talked, and Roosevelt, listening intently, only two months from death, his famous cloak over his shoulders – were published around the world.

The arrangements for that meeting were as complicated as the two cultures were different. The king wanted to bring his own sheep, for example, because he believe that good Muslims eat only freshly killed meat. When the USS Murphy arrived in Jeddah to ferry the royal party to Egypt, the king appeared with forty-eight traveling companions, although Americans had said they could accommodate no more than ten. The Arabs insisted on sleeping in tents pitched on deck rather than in cabins. Yet the two leaders appreciated each other and developed a mutual respect in their conversations, a rapport that papered over it – reconcilable views about Palestine. The king, a large man who used a can because he had difficulty walking, was grateful for a spontaneous gift from the president: the spare wheelchair that traveled with him.

The impresario of that meeting was Colonel William A. Eddy, who had succeeded Moose as resident U.S. minister in the summer of 1944. Eddy was born in Lebanon in 1896, a son and grandson of Presbyterian missionaries. He grew up speaking Arabic, and was the interpreter at the meeting between Roosevelt and Abdul Aziz. In the photographs, he is the tall man in U.S. Marine Corps uniform, his face turned away from the camera.

Eddy, a decorated combat veteran of World War I, held a doctorate from Princeton. In the 1920s, he lived in Egypt, where he taught at the American University in Cairo. He is said to have introduced basketball to Egypt. He rejoined the Marines during World War II and was posted to Cairo as naval attaché. According to an Aramco biographical sketch, he later “became one of General William J. ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan’s most energetic and gifted OSS intelligence agents.” Most of what we know about the meeting of Roosevelt and Abdul Aziz is drawn from Eddy’s account “F.D.R. Meets Ibn Saud,” a monograph published in 1954.

In his opening paragraph, Eddy describes the king as “one of the great men of the twentieth century. He won his kingdom and united his people by his personal leadership. He possessed those epic qualities of the leader which Samuel recognized in Saul; he excelled in the common tasks which all must perform. He was taller, his shoulders were broader, he was better hunter, a braver warrior, more skillful in wielding a knife whether in personal combat or in skinning sheep; he excelled in following the tracks of camels and finding his way in the desert.”

Eddy’s account of the voyage from Jeddah harbor to Great Bitter Lake aboard the Murphy is quiet droll: “A good time was had by all except me,” he wrote, because it was his responsibility to sort out the cultural clashes. Not only did the king insist on bringing sheep but he demanded that the American sailors join him in eating them, in accordance with the laws of Arab hospitality. He was deterred only when informed that the crew was prohibited by Navy regulations from eating anything except the military rations provided for them: Surely he did not wish to see these fine young men sent to the brig!

The king inspected with interest the ship’s armaments and navigational devices. His sons and others in his party had more frivolous interests: They were fascinated by a movie shown in the crew quarters that featured Lucille Ball “loose in a college men’s dormitory late at night, barely surviving escapades in which her dress is ripped off.”

In his talks with Roosevelt, Eddy wrote, the king did not even hint at any desire for financial assistance. “He traveled to the meeting seeking friends and not funds,” and that is what he got, despite the arguments about Palestine and Jewish immigration. The king’s view was that if the suffering of the Jews had been caused by the Germans, Germans should pay the price for it; let the Jews build their homeland on the best lands in Germany, not on the territory of Arabs who had nothing to do with what happened to them. The most he could get from Roosevelt was a promise that the president would “do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs and would make no move hostile to the Arab people.” The king taking this as a commitment from the United States and not just from Roosevelt personally, was furious to discover three years later that Harry Truman did not consider himself bound by it.

Inside the Mirage: America’s Fragile Partnership with Saudi Arabia
By Thomas W. Lippman

Description – The 60-year marriage of convenience between Saudi Arabia and the United States is in trouble–with potentially rocky consequences for the United States and its relationship to Islam. The relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia has always been a marriage of convenience, not affection. As the result of a bargain struck between President Roosevelt and Saudi Arabia’s founding king in 1945, Americans bought Saudi Arabian oil, and the Saudis bought American: American planes, American weapons, American construction projects, and American know-how. In exchange, the Saudis got modernization, education, and security. The marriage of convenience suited both sides. But how long can it last? In Inside the Mirage, journalist Thomas Lippman shows that behind the cheerful picture of friendship and alliance, there is a grimmer, grimier tale of experience and repression. Saudi Arabia is changing as younger people less enamored of America rise to prominence. And the United States, scorched by Saudi-based terrorism, is forced to rethink this bargain as it continues to play the dominant role in the ever-volatile, ever-shifting Middle East. With so much at stake, this compelling and absolutely necessary account looks at the relationship between these two countries, and their future with one another. Ordering Information

Arabian Knight: Col. Bill Eddy USMC and the Rise of American Power in the Middle East
By Thomas W. Lippman

Description – Examining his roles as warrior, scholar, spy master, and diplomat, this chronicle of Colonel Bill Eddy’s life details the origin and early development of the U.S.-Saudi diplomatic relationship and its implications on present-day Middle East policy. From his birth in the Presbyterian missionary community in Lebanon to his service in intelligence operations in World Wars I and II to his involvement in academia and his close friendship with Abdul Aziz ibn Saud—the founding king of Saudi Arabia—this narrative traces the unheralded Marine Corps officer’s intimate ties with the Arab world and his unending dedication to promoting good relations between America and the Middle East. Ordering Information

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