What happened when Saudi King Abdul Aziz met US President Roosevelt

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Jonathan Gornall
February 13, 2020

It’s been 75 years since the two leaders first met on Feb. 14, 1945, creating a personal bond and cementing ties between their countries
Read a detailed account of the extraordinary meeting, on a ship in the Suez Canal, the first time the king had ever left his desert land

 

Editor;s Note:   For those not able to read the full article I bring one extract here:

Roosevelt said the Jewish survivors of Nazi persecution in Europe had “a sentimental desire to settle in Palestine and, quite understandably, would dread remaining in Germany where they might suffer again.”

The suggestion surprised the king. “He said that he had no doubt the Jews have good reason not to trust the Germans,” Eddy reported, “but surely the Allies will destroy Nazi power forever and in their victory will be strong enough to protect Nazi victims?” After all, if the Allies did not expect to control future German policy, “why fight this costly war? He, Ibn Saud, could not conceive of leaving an enemy in a position to strike back after defeat.”

Roosevelt pressed on, saying he was counting on “Arab hospitality and on the King’s help in solving the problem of Zionism,” but Ibn Saud was adamant. “Make the enemy and the oppressor pay,” he said. “That is how we Arabs wage war. Amends should be made by the criminal, not by the innocent bystander. What injury have Arabs done to the Jews of Europe? It is the ‘Christian’ Germans who stole their homes and lives. Let the Germans pay.”

According to Eddy, Roosevelt then gave Ibn Saud two assurances — that he “would never do anything which might prove hostile to the Arabs and (that) the US Government would make no change in its basic policy in Palestine without full and prior consultation with both Jews and Arabs.”

To the king, Eddy noted, “these oral assurances were equal to an alliance; he did not foresee that Death was waiting in the wings to bear the speaker away before the promises could be redeemed.”
Roosevelt did not leave it at that. He repeated his double pledge in a letter to Ibn Saud — dated April 5, 1945 — just one week before his death. On March 10, 1945, the king had written to him after their meeting on the USS Quincy, stressing again his concern for the fate of the Arabs in Palestine.

In his reply, addressed to his “Great and good friend,” the president reassured Ibn Saud that he was “mindful of the memorable conversation which we had not so long ago and in the course of which I had an opportunity to obtain so vivid an impression of Your Majesty’s sentiments on this question.”

Roosevelt repeated his pledge that “no decision (would) be taken with respect to the basic situation in that country without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews.” He added that “it gives me pleasure to renew to Your Majesty the assurances which you have previously received … with regard to the question of Palestine and to inform you that the policy of this Government in this respect is unchanged.”

UNQUOTE

RIYADH: After more than five years of World War II, there was nothing unusual about the sight of an Allied warship transiting the Suez Canal. But in the early-morning light of Feb. 14, 1945, any witness to the passage of the solitary US destroyer making its way from the Port of Suez toward the Great Bitter Lake could have been forgiven for dismissing what they saw as nothing more than a mirage conjured up out of the desert sands.

Beneath its shade, the armored decks were strewn with dozens of exquisite Oriental rugs, upon which was set an imposing gilded chair
The USS Murphy had seen exceptional service during the war, but nothing quite like the extraordinary mission on which it was now embarked.

The USS Murphy carrying King Abdul Aziz and his entourage to the meeting with FDR at Great Bitter Lake, Egypt. (Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum)

The entire foredeck was covered in a magnificent Arab tent, through the center of which the ship’s forward 5-inch gun pointed skyward, serving as the tent pole. Beneath its shade, the armored decks were strewn with dozens of exquisite Oriental rugs, upon which was set an imposing gilded chair.

But it was the occupant of that chair whose presence, had it been witnessed from the shore, might finally have convinced any onlooker of the unreality of the situation. On board the destroyer, having left his own land for the very first time and now making his way to a historic rendezvous with the US president, was none other than King Abdul Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia.

The 1,200-km voyage from Jeddah to the Great Bitter Lake, where Franklin D. Roosevelt was waiting on board the heavy cruiser USS Quincy, took just two nights and one day. But in making it, the king had taken the first historic step toward a relationship between America and his country that has endured for the past 75 years.

The voyage was not without considerable risk — America was, after all, still at war with Nazi Germany. In great secrecy, Roosevelt had stopped off in Egypt on his way back to the US from the Yalta Conference in the Crimea, where the “Big Three” Allied leaders — himself, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin — had thrashed out a post-war plan designed to secure lasting peace.

In the words of retired US Marine Corps Col. William A. Eddy, the American diplomatic representative to the Saudi court who had been charged with arranging the meeting at short notice, “bombs were still being dropped on Cairo and on the Suez Canal, and a target more attractive to German bombers could hardly be imagined than a cruiser with the American President and the Arabian King on board.”

Eddy, a decorated veteran of World War I, had been born in Lebanon in 1896, the son of American Presbyterian missionaries who lived in Syria. From 1923 to 1928, he had taught English at the American University in Cairo and, fluent in Arabic, would serve as the sole interpreter between Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz, commonly known as Ibn Saud.

In 1954, Eddy wrote the first account of the meeting between the two men and, from his opening words, his admiration for Ibn Saud was clear. The king, he wrote, “was one of the great men of the twentieth century,” who had “won his kingdom and united his people by his personal leadership.”

In Eddy’s eyes, Ibn Saud “excelled in the common tasks which all must perform. He was taller, his shoulders were broader, he was a better hunter, a braver warrior, more skillful in wielding a knife whether in personal combat or in skinning a sheep, he excelled in following the tracks of camels and finding his way in the desert. In him his subjects saw their own lives in heroic size, and therefore they made him their king.”

The meeting between Roosevelt and Ibn Saud was unprecedented, but had been set in motion over a year earlier by a visit to the US by two of the king’s sons, both future rulers of their country.
In September 1943, then-Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal had traveled to the US, accompanied by his younger brother Prince Khalid. The two men — who visited Washington, New York and parts of the US southwest — were on an agricultural fact-finding mission. According to an account published in 2005 in The Link, the journal of the non-profit organization Americans for Middle East Understanding, “upon their return home, they reported favorably to their father, and also informed him that they had been told President Roosevelt enjoyed collecting stamps.”

That, wrote Thomas W. Lippman, a Saudi Arabia specialist at the Middle East Institute, “gave the king an opening to approach the president directly (and) he sent the president a set of Saudi Arabian stamps, then quite rare in the West.” The gift prompted a letter of thanks from Roosevelt, and the die was cast for the historic meeting.

In addition to the danger posed by marauding Luftwaffe aircraft, there was another good reason for the meeting’s secrecy. Roosevelt had promised Churchill that after the war, the US would not interfere in territory the British regarded as within their sphere of influence.

But in meeting with Ibn Saud, Roosevelt had two goals in mind, both of which trod heavily on Britain’s toes: His politically motivated determination to solve the Palestinian-Jewish problem, and the economic and strategic imperative of securing a post-war US relationship with Saudi Arabia, including, crucially, access to its oil.

The plan was for the USS Murphy to steam south from the Great Bitter Lake on the pretext of paying a courtesy call to the king in Jeddah, but in reality to pick him up and transport him and his retinue back up the Red Sea to his meeting with Roosevelt.

Preparations in Jeddah

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On Feb. 11, the morning before the planned departure from Jeddah, Capt. B. A. Smith of the USS Murphy, accompanied by US Navy Commodore John S. Keating, came ashore to pay their respects to the king, Prince Faisal and the governor of Jeddah at the royal palace.

A few days earlier, Eddy recalled, Ibn Saud had traveled to Jeddah from Makkah for his annual visit to “meet the officials and notables of the province of Hejaz, receive petitions from his subjects, and distribute charity and food to the poor.”

Equally few people on the Saudi side knew of the planned meeting with Roosevelt. Eddy wrote that the success in keeping the secret in Jeddah, “where news both true and false travels through the Suq with the speed of light, was really remarkable (and) aided by the fact that the King had never left Saudi Arabia even to visit neighboring Arab rulers.”

At 3 p.m. the following day, the king “simply and suddenly gave orders at the palace to break camp and ‘strike the tents’” for a supposed return to Makkah. There was, as Eddy well knew, “nothing strange about this order since the King normally makes such decisions for immediate execution without advance notice to those about him.”

A telegram in code was sent to Crown Prince Saud in Riyadh, telling him “to carry on in his father’s name until further notice.” Prince Faisal was instructed “to take complete charge in the Hejaz.”
The secrecy was maintained right up to the moment the king announced the list of people who were to travel with him, who boarded the royal motorcade bound ostensibly for Makkah, but which was then directed instead to head for the pier at Jeddah. There, launches from the USS Murphy were waiting for them, and the destroyer set sail at 4:30 p.m.

Dhows had arrived at the USS Murphy laden with ‘tons of vegetables, sacks of grain and rice, and one hundred of the best and fattest sheep … the normal provisions which the King would provide for an extensive sojourn in the desert’

In the hours before sailing, Eddy wrote, dhows had arrived at the USS Murphy laden with “tons of vegetables, sacks of grain and rice, and one hundred of the best and fattest sheep … the normal provisions which the King would provide for an extensive sojourn in the desert.”

The USS Murphy had ample provisions on board for all — enough for 60 days, with a journey of only two nights and one day ahead — and no room for much more, let alone an impressively large herd of sheep. The king, however, insisted that “his American guests must eat from his table and from the produce of his country, and particularly they must eat the freshly slaughtered lamb every day.”

Eddy prevailed upon Ibn Saud to compromise. “No Saudi Muslim ever ate meat more than twenty-four hours old,” wrote Eddy, who in the end persuaded the US Navy to take seven live sheep on board.

The king travelled with an entourage of 47, including several members of the royal family, Deputy Foreign Minister Yusuf Yassin, Finance Minister Abdullah Sulaiman and Minister of State Hafiz Wahba.

There was enough room on board to give these dignitaries cabins — the king had the use of the commodore’s. But the rest of the entourage — including the court astrologer, bodyguards and coffee servers — “bunked wherever they could find space, many sleeping in the gun turrets, wrapped up in their Arab robes in the scuppers, or curled up near the feet of the look-out on the bridge.”

The king did not actually sleep in the commodore’s cabin. “Bred and raised in the desert, four walls gave him claustrophobia,” Eddy recalled. Instead, “canvas was spread over the forecastle deck to convert it into a tent; oriental rugs covered the deck; one of his own chairs, large enough for him to sit in, had been brought aboard, and the King sat on deck and held his Majlis as usual all day long.”

At prayer times, “the ship’s navigator would give him the exact compass bearing for Makkah which the King would verify with his astrologer. Facing toward the holy city he would then lead the entire company of Arabs in their prayers.”

An account of the voyage from Jeddah to Suez was written by Ensign W. Barry McCarthy, a deck officer on the USS Murphy, and published in the March 19, 1945 edition of the US magazine Life under the headline “Ibn Saud’s voyage — US destroyer creates history with deck full of royalty, sheep and coffee-makers.”

McCarthy recalled arriving off Jeddah at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 11, and his first impression of the town as “a flat, dusty looking collection of muddy-looking little buildings that sat huddled together on the sandy flat below the mountains.” Far to the right, “looking like a mirage, was one of the King’s palaces,” while to the left “a cluster of giant oil-storage tanks testified to the presence of western industry.”

As the captain and his officers, wary of reefs and shallow water, pondered their approach to the harbor, a wooden dhow pulled alongside and a barefooted Arab “came bounding up our ladders, his face … a hard leather color … framed in a cropped black beard.”

The man introduced himself as Mohammed Ebraham Salamah, and as “a very good pilot” who before the war had worked for the British Blue Funnel shipping line. To compound his credentials, he told the officers his father had also been a pilot, and his great-grandfather before him. This, he added, was the first time a US warship had visited Jeddah — a story he could not wait to tell his father that evening.

With no other obvious choice, the captain accepted Salamah as his pilot, and “Mohammed took command of the ship with a laconic pronouncement: ‘I think we go ahead now’.” With that, McCarthy recalled, “he bounded off to the wing of the bridge, shouting some unintelligible order to his boat crew (and) then took stock of our position. He wasn’t interested in charts. He guided the ship by mountain peaks, reefs, marks on the beach and the color of the water.”

The USS Murphy dropped anchor 5 km offshore, where the water had become too shallow to risk going farther in. The captain and the commodore went ashore to pay their respects to the king and later returned with his ministers Yassin and Sulaiman, “who were to acquaint us with Ibn Saud’s needs.”

Chief among these was the construction of a tent on the deck of the destroyer. That night, the wood and canvas were brought out to the ship by dhow, and the ship’s forward 5-inch gun “was pointed to the sky to serve as a kind of center pole for the tent.” After the construction was complete, “to the men on the bridge who saw it from above, this tent was known as the ‘Big Top,’ and to those who built it, it was ‘The Hotel’.”

The next morning, the day of departure, the sheep arrived and “our stunned crew reacted with ingenuity,” McCarthy wrote. “Several men quickly improvised a sheep pen by stringing ropes from one depth-charge to another on the stern. Here, too, was stored the sheep’s feed, and here during the trip they were slaughtered and bled, hanging from the flagstaff.”

The sheep were followed by 10 boatloads of royal belongings, including “royal gilded chairs, bundles of hay, large kitchen pots and giant silver platters.” Just before midday, when the king was due to board, the USS Murphy fired a salute — not from its 5-inch gun, now serving as a tent pole, but with shells from a 40 mm anti-aircraft gun.

McCarthy recorded for posterity the moment Ibn Saud came on board. “The crew manning the rails stood at attention as the (destroyer’s) whaleboat, piloted by the ecstatic Mohammed, pulled alongside,” he wrote. The boat was hauled slowly up and over the side of the ship, and “we noticed then that a charcoal fire was burning in the boat.” It was being used to heat coffee, the traditional Arabic gesture of greeting.

The king’s face, recalled McCarthy, “was impassive, as if all this was usual procedure for him. He simply rose to his full 6 feet and 4 inches (and) stepped out of the whaleboat to the deck.”
Journey to the Suez

A destroyer, built for speed and manoeuvrability but not for comfort, is not the most stable of ships in the best of seas. And with the wind on the nose as they traveled north, it was not an easy voyage.

“Ibn Saud showed no effects from the ship’s motion,” McCarthy noted. But while he refrained delicately from using the word “seasick” in his report, it was clear that not all in the group shared the king’s iron constitution. Members of his party “were poor sailors,” McCarthy wrote. “Our ship’s force was to have its work cut out for it, washing decks and bulwarks each morning.”
In Eddy’s account, the American sailors were “much more impressed and astonished by the Arabs and their ways than the Arabs were by life on the US destroyer. Neither group had seen anything like their opposites before, but the difference is that any such violent break with tradition is news on board a US destroyer; whereas, wonders and improbable events are easily accepted by the Arab whether they occur in the Arabian Nights or in real life.”

As Eddy explained for the benefit of his Western readers, “the Arab is by nature a fatalist and accepts what comes as a matter of course and as a gift from Allah, all of whose gifts are equally wondrous, undeserved and unexplained. The Arab gets off a camel and climbs into an airplane without any special excitement even though he has skipped all the intervening stages of the horse and buggy and the automobile.

“Allah gave the camel the proper equipment to walk on the sand and he gave the airplane wings with which to fly like a bird. There is, therefore, no reason to be astonished at the airplane any more than to be astonished that camels can walk or birds fly.”

During the voyage, the Arabs and the sailors “fraternized without words with a success and friendliness which was really astonishing. The sailors showed the Arabs how they did their jobs and even permitted the Arabs to help them; in return the Arabs would permit the sailors to examine their garb and their daggers, and demonstrate by gestures how they are made and for what purposes.”
‘The entire group sat cross-legged on the deck around the King who was in the best of humor and entertained the company with anecdotes of his battles’

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