The United States and Saudi Arabia: An Unnatural Marriage

In the alliance between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, a democratic republic and an absolute monarchy ruling by divine right, Washington tends to be the one that bends to its ally.

February 1945 shaped the history of the world. From the fourth to the 11th of that month, in the spa resort town of Yalta, Crimea, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, United States President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill divided up the postwar world at a moment when Nazi Germany and imperial Japan were about to surrender. The decisions made there shaped the world’s existence until the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989.

But if Yalta stopped being relevant 29 years ago, there’s another agreement, more informal and ignored by history, that took place that same month and that continues to shape world geopolitics. It was Feb. 14, in Egypt, when Roosevelt, who was returning from Yalta, met with King Abdulaziz ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia on the American warship Quincy.

That Valentine’s Day, an alliance was born between the United States and Saudi Arabia. This alliance has withstood everything: oil embargoes; wars; the nationalization of assets in strategic American companies; the disappearance of the common enemy, the USSR (which many see as the raison d’être of the alliance); and even the killings of 9/11, carried out by 19 terrorists, 15 of whom were Saudi, at the orders of another Saudi man, Osama bin Laden. It’s an alliance that this week went a level higher, with the Trump administration’s support of Saudi ‘strongman,’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in the controversy over the suspected murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

The marriage between Washington and Riyadh is an unnatural union. On one hand, a democratic republic based on the principles of the Enlightenment; on the other, an absolute monarchy ruling by divine right. Furthermore, the United States, the stronger party, tends to be the one that bends to the weaker one, Saudi Arabia.

The deference of America – and the West in general – to Saudi Arabia was already made clear that Feb. 14 of 1945 on the Quincy. The power disparity was overwhelming. Roosevelt, or as he’s known in the U.S. by his initials, FDR, was on his way back from dividing up the world with Stalin. Ibn Saud had left the kingdom for the first time in his life. And even so, he was the one that set the conditions.

When he boarded the destroyer ship Murphy, which was to take him to the Quincy, the king showed up with 100 sheep and lambs, although he agreed to leave 92 of them on land when he saw that the boat had enough provisions for the week-long trip. Even so, he brought eight animals, which his entourage sacrificed and cooked on deck, according to journalist and consultant Daniel Yergin in his canonical work on oil politics in the 20th century, “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power.” Ibn Saud didn’t want to sleep in a cabin, but rather in a canopy that his entourage of 48 – including an astrologist – set up on the Murphy’s deck.

FDR played along and made an effort to be in the good graces of the strict Wahhabi – that is, a follower of the most hard-line sect of Islam – he had as a guest. The American president, who smoked constantly, didn’t take a puff in Ibn Saud’s presence during the five hours their conversations lasted, and he even went as far as to lock himself in an elevator to enjoy a couple of cigarettes without the king finding out.

The topics of the negotiation sound very current: “oil, God and real estate,” as historian Rachel Bronson summed it up in her 2008 book on Saudi-American relations, “Thicker Than Oil.” FDR won priority for his country’s oil companies, at the expense of British companies, in exchange for guaranteeing the kingdom of Saud’s independence from the traditional colonial power in the region, Great Britain. And though he didn’t manage to convince ibn Saud to support the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine, Roosevelt was satisfied with the meeting. So was ibn Saud, who received one of his most valued objects as a gift from FDR: his wheelchair. The American was paralyzed as a result of polio, and the monarch had difficulty walking due to injuries sustained in wars against other feudal families.

A Game of Alliances

The alliance today hasn’t changed so much. The oil is still there. And the matter of real estate, in the form of the two yachts that Donald Trump sold to the Saudis, together with an entire floor of one of his Trump Towers, and the “forty million dollars, fifty million dollars” that, according to the American president, the subjects of the desert kingdom invest every year in his real estate properties. God is still present. At least for the ‘Zionist Christians’ of the U.S., who defend Israel at any price, and whom Salman has won over with his alliance with Tel Aviv. An alliance that’s stranger, if that’s possible, than the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the U.S., and which is due in part to the common enemy: Iran.

The 1945 tension with Great Britain is now tension with Iran, against whom the United States is soon to launch a total oil blockade. But there’s also Turkey. If Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting for supremacy in the Islamic world, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are in a confrontation over the leadership of Sunni Islam. As a diplomatic source explains, “the fact that they dismembered Khashoggi precisely in Turkey could be interpreted as a message to that country.”*

Trump is taking what FDR did to the extreme. Instead of marginalizing London to Riyadh’s benefit, the U.S. president is sidelining Turkey, a NATO member, in order to maintain his alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia against Iran. Trump decides his Middle East politics with Tel Aviv and Riyadh alone. And if Europe doesn’t like it, too bad.

This is something that, again, has a precedent in 1945. When British Prime Minister Churchill found out about FDR and ibn Saud’s meeting on the Quincy, he demanded a similar meeting in order to counteract his ally’s move. So, on Feb. 17, the king met with Churchill in a hotel in Egypt. But the meeting didn’t go well.

Churchill’s attitude must’ve been the confirmation of ibn Saud’s worst fears regarding London. “I was the host and I said that if it was his religion that made him say such things,” wrote Churchill in relation to the Wahhabi prohibition on smoking and drinking alcohol, “my religion prescribed as an absolute sacred rite smoking cigars and drinking alcohol before, after, and if need be during, all meals and the intervals between them.”

With that starting point, it’s not surprising that Great Britain didn’t break up the romance between Saudi Arabia and the United States. It’s not as if ibn Saud didn’t make an effort. The king gave the prime minister swords encrusted with precious stones, in addition to 1,500 kilos (approximately 3,307 pounds) of pearls and diamonds that, he said, were not for Churchill but rather for what was translated into English as his “womenfolk.” Churchill, embarrassed – by the generosity of ibn Saud, not by the “womenfolk” reference – had to give the king one of his Rolls-Royces. Today, 73 years later, it’s clear that Roosevelt’s wheelchair has had a much more lasting impact than Churchill’s Rolls-Royce.

*Editor’s note: Although accurately translated, the source of this quoted remark was not identified, and the statement could not be independently verified.

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