America does diplomacy

In researching another post I happened across a very interesting monograph by William A. Eddy, the first U. S. “minister plenipotentiary” to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In the monograph Eddy describes a meeting between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Abdul Aziz al Saud, called Ibn Saud, the first king of Saudi Arabia. Most of our knowledge of the meeting comes from Eddy’s description—he was the translator for FDR and, apparently, the only person in either party who spoke both English and Arabic.

A number of things struck me in reading this post but one of them is what a wonderful example it was of how the traditional domestic influences on American foreign policy (economic realism, isolationism, idealistic internationalists, and populist nationalists) operate synergistically in creating U. S. foreign policy.

America’s entrée to Saudi Arabia was economic realism. Ibn Saud granted a U. S. company an oil concession in 1933 (it was the successor to a voided concession granted to a British firm that expired in 1928). Why did an American firm receive the concession? Were the British not interested (there’s evidence of that)? Did the Americans offer a better deal? Probably both of the above but I also suspect that Ibn Saud believed that the U. S. was likely to be less meddlesome than on of the colonizing powers. America’s traditional reflexive isolationism helped put our foot in the door.

Eddy himself was a nearly perfect stereotype of the missionary internationalist. Born in Lebanon of Presbyterian missionary parents (and grandparents), he grew up speaking Arabic. He has been characterized as one of the best Arabists that the U. S. has produced and his writing suggests an understanding of and sympathy with Arab customs and interests.

The opening and closing paragraphs of the monograph reinforce the suggestion of the sources of Eddy’s attitude in his faith:

THE KING OF SAUDI ARABIA, WHO SIGNED HIMSELF “Abdul Aziz Al Saud” but who has come to be known as “Ibn Saud,” was 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.


The United States can still tip the balance one way or the other. If we regard the nations of the world as a string of sixty-odd pearls, we have to admit that the string has been broken and many of the pearls lost. The most precious of all remaining pearls, one which is not firmly within our mutual circle, but which is still within our reach, is the friendship, the good will, and the resources of the three hundred million Muslims of the world. There are those who are bent upon taking this pearl of great price and hurling it to the bottom of the sea. If they succeed in that wanton and disloyal act, let them hope that the American people will some day forgive them; for they know not what they do.

BTW if there were ever a biography crying out to be written it would be that of Eddy. He was something rather rare today: an intellectual man of action. I understand that when he died he left an unfinished and as yet unpublished memoir.

The honor, sense of duty, and just plain decency of our Jacksonians (populist nationalists) was evident as well:

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.

Do we still have the ability to cooperate to the benefit of our country as this incident from history suggests? I think so; but we must take care to view the varying different interests which have shaped our country as collaborating interests rather than as competing ones.

7 comments… add one
  • Funny about Eddy… He had a son who was Consul General in Dhahran in the late 1970s. He had a granddaughter who was Public Affairs Officer in Jedda in the early 2000s. Also, he was my father-in-law’s god father.

    The one person most responsible for the US-Saudi-oil connection was Charles M. Crane–of Crane Bathroom Equipment Co. of Chicago, now part of Crane Co. of NY.

    He was first sent to the Middle East by Woodrow Wilson, as half of the King-Crane Commission, to suss out Arab reaction to the Balfour Declaration and Sykes-Picot agreement. They came back with a thumbs down, but it didn’t matter. Their recommendations were slotted into the Versailles Peace Conference, but were completely disregarded.

    But Crane developed an interest in the Middle East. In 1930 he offered to look for mineral wealth in the region–at his own expense–to boost the economic prospects of the benighted people there. His timing was excellent, as Abdul Aziz, not yet king of the Kingdom, was in dire need of money. The worldwide depression, following on the heels of WWI, had kicked the stuffing out of revenue raised by taxing hajjis. According to one estimate, Haj income dropped from 5 milltion to under 2 million Pounds Sterling.

    Crane offered to fund a survey of the mineral potential of the country and hired 20 engineers to do so. (He had done similarly in Yement and Ethiopia… Crane was clearly a “do-gooder”.)

    The survey first looked for water. Then it looked for minerals, including at the old gold mines (probably the real “King Solomon’s mines”), and eventually for oil. It didn’t find oil, but did find that the British were prospecting in Bahrain, across a narrow body of water from the Eastern Province, and that the geology as similar.

    Through a byzantine set of circumstances, which included broken contracts by the Brits and general unhappiness with them for myriad reasons; skullduggery by St. John Philby; and a lot of luck, Abdul Aziz was more favorably inclined toward the US than the UK. He gave the concession to search for oil to a US company (SoCal) in return for 35K Pounds down, 20K Pounds after 18 mos., 5K pounds annual rent, 50K Pounds if oil was found, and an additional 50K Pounds a year later. The payments were to be set against royalties of 4 shillings gold per ton of oil.

    [General story and figures from “The Kingdom” by Robert Lacey.

  • Now that’s yet another fascinating topic for a paper, John: the geopolitical implications of hajj taxes. Something that never occurred to me.

  • It’s certainly a big deal, or was until the Al-Saud abolished them in the 1960s, when oil revenues started being real money.

  • I’m not sure that this is relevant to your discussion but …

  • Thanks, Soccer Dad. I think it’s more relevant to Re-Drawing the Map. Like nearly all countries, the KSA is a made-up country, compounded in its case of at least three not particularly compatible sub-states. If you look at Peters’s map he divides the Muslim holy areas in the area along the Red Sea, the oil-producing eastern Shi’a areas, and the Saud homeland in the center of the Arabian Peninsula into three distinct countries as well as ceding a little of the KSA in the south to Yemen.

    His plan is a complete non-starter for so many reasons I can’t even start to list them including lack of natural boundaries, lack of bright lines of ethnic or sectarian demarcation, and, most importantly, that the Sauds found their claims of legitimacy on the control of the Muslim holy places.

  • Wow!

    Incidentally if Peters is recommending ceding parts of southern KSA to Yemen it’s possibly because two provinces (one was Najran, I forget the name of the other) were conquered from Yemen at the founding of the modern Saudi nation in 1935 or so. A later treaty between the two legitimized the conquest. The Jews from those provinces were evicted from their homes and not allowed to take any property with them.

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