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April 2000

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Saudi Arabia and the United States:
Birth of a Security Partnership
By Parker T. Hart
(Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Pp. 283. $35 cloth.)
Previously by
Hermann Eilts in
American Diplomacy:

On The Wye Memorandum: Breakthrough or
Band-aid?

"The Clinton Administration deserved no credit for the substance of Oslo I but was happy to appropriate it for public relations purposes. Ironically, so were the Israelis and the Palestinians. In the ensuing three years, the Clinton administration’s primary concern has been process rather than substance."
[Winter 1999]

On How Many Palestine Refugees?:
"When and if in the final status talks the issue of compensation for Palestinian refugees arises, we shall undoubtedly see all kind of Palestinian claimants coming out of the woodwork in order to claim a share of what they hope will be a financial bounty." [Letters, Spring 1999]

Other reviews in this issue:

The Arabists: WASP Missionaries to Arabia
Michael Kolodner on Robert D. Kaplan's The Arabists:
Kaplan "skillfully exposes how the clique of WASP missionary Arabists goes on to become the core of the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau at the State Department and how their perspectives shape American foreign policy for good and ill throughout the twentieth century."

The Great Game: A Duel of Intriguing Imperialists
Michael Cotter on Meyer and Brysac's Tournement of Shadows:
"Their rendering of the tales of the explorers, adventurers, spies, and archaeologists who ventured deep into the Eurasian heartland during this period makes intriguing reading."

The American Metternich Remembers Realpolitik
Victor Fic on Henry A. Kissinger's Years of Renewal:
Kissinger’s supporters will invoke the memoirs as proof that he was the master conjurer behind magical diplomatic feats; his detractors will say that the book covers up his role as the evil warlock who destroyed Vietnam.

VENONA: The Cold War's "Smoking Gun"
Rorin Platt on
Haynes and Klehr's VENONA: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America
"The authors claim that most of the 349 Americans identified by the Venona transcripts to be Soviet agents were members of the Moscow-controlled CPUSA, an ‘auxiliary’ of Soviet intelligence, whose active collaboration facilitated Stalin’s espionage offensive against the United States."

Called to Serve: The Life of an American Envoy
Kenneth P. Vickery on Peter Bridges' Safirka: An American Envoy
"Indeed, it is accurate to say there is no such thing as Somalia, or at least a Somali state, anymore; rather, a congeries of breakaway regional movements and warlord-driven zones."

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Uncle Sam
Supreme Guardian of the Saudi Crown

By Hermann Fr. Eilts

In 1991-92, President George Bush deployed a half million American troops to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf region, the largest such surge since the Vietnam War. His purpose was twofold: to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi aggression and to deter a putative Iraqi attack on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. His action was an earnest expression of the longstanding U.S. concern for the political independence and territorial integrity of the Saudi polity. Ambassador Hart’s posthumous memoir details the origins and early evolution of that American security tie.

Parker “Pete” Hart was a pioneer in the U.S.-Saudi relationship. One of the first Arabists in the U.S. Foreign Service, he enjoyed a distinguished 35-year career in American diplomacy in the Middle East. Three of his tours of duty were in Saudi Arabia. He opened a U.S. consulate in Dhahran in 1944, and five years later became U.S. consul general there. After various tours of duty in senior Department of State positions dealing with the Middle East, he was named U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia (1961). He served for four years before being transferred as U.S. ambassador to Turkey. During his ambassadorship to Saudi Arabia, he was concurrently accredited as the first non-resident U.S. ambassador to newly independent Kuwait and U.S. minister to imamic Yemen, diplomatic bailiwicks he frequently visited. To borrow a phrase from Dean Acheson, Hart was “present at the creation” of the U.S.-Saudi security link and one of its principal architects. His account chronicles the often bumpy course of that bilateral relationship as he experienced it.

The United States, Hart recalls, first became interested in Saudi Arabia when an American oil company, Standard of California (SOCAL), obtained a petroleum concession there in 1933. An executive agreement according U.S. recognition to Saudi Arabia was signed in the same year, but no resident U.S. diplomatic mission was established until 1941. Instead, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt was concurrently accredited and made occasional visits to the kingdom.

The arrival of the first Americans in a highly conservative Islamic Saudi society clearly offered scope for potential cultural discord. The American oil prospectors were segregated, but gradually there had to be increased interface with the Saudis. Fortunately, this potential problem was handled with great sensitivity by most of the first American oilmen and subsequently, at the official level, by Parker Hart and his colleagues in Jidda and Dhahran. By temperament and patience, Hart was ideally suited to serve as a critical solvent in mitigating potential clashes between the two cultures, neither of which at the time knew much about the other.

After several years of exploration, oil production in modest commercial quantities began just before the outbreak of World War II. Future prospects already looked promising. During the war years, with U.S. oil resources being heavily drawn upon, the potential of Saudi Arabian petroleum was increasingly recognized. Indeed, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of interior, Harold Ickes, with the approval of FDR and King Abd al-Aziz, unsuccessfully sought a U.S. government buy out of SOCAL’s concession in order to supplement what were then viewed as rapidly depleting American oil reserves. Free and unfettered access to Saudi oil, on reasonable commercial terms, remains a vital U.S. interest in the Middle East.

Hart recounts the wartime and immediate post-war tensions with the British, who considered the kingdom within their Middle Eastern sphere of influence. There were American concerns, fueled by oil circles, that the British might seek to use their Lend-Lease aid in order to take over the concession of the American consortium ARAMCO. Similarly, there were British efforts to prevent a U.S.-proposed international wireless station from being built, lest it compete with a British Cable and Wireless monopoly in the kingdom. Most importantly, the British initially sought to forestall an American proposal that a military airport be built at Dhahran. The resolution of these Anglo-American conflicts required high-level U.S. diplomatic representations to London.

The Saudi monarch, more commonly known as Ibn Saud, initially insisted that the United States and Britain resolve their differences concerning his kingdom. Gradually, however, he became distrustful of perceived British aims. Concomitantly, he looked increasingly to the United States for support, despite uncertainty about the durability of American interest in his kingdom. According to Hart, he worried that Washington had conceded the Middle East to London. In that context, he expressed his concern to U.S. diplomats that Britain favored [rival] Hashemite-family ascendancy in the region. Any such development — in his view — would be to his kingdom’s disadvantage since there were still rumors of a Hashemite scheme to recover the Hijaz. He was reassured by U.S. officials on that score.

By the late 1940s, moreover, there were Saudi border disputes with the British-protected states of Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and Oman. Largely ignored in the past, these areas were now believed to hold promising oil deposits. An American-backed international arbitration on Buraimi collapsed when the British representative charged his Saudi counterpart with subornation of tribal witnesses. The Saudi legal case was buttressed by ARAMCO Arabists. Nevertheless, the potential military confrontation only gradually dissipated.

In 1944, with Ibn Saud’s support, the United States began construction of an airfield at Dhahran as a staging base for anticipated military flights from Europe to the Far East theater of operations. The war ended, however, before it was completed and the Saudis converted it into an international airport consistent with ICAO standards. Unable to man the technical requirements of such a facility, Ibn Saud agreed that the U.S. Military Air Transport Command (MATS) might continue to use and operate it. This bilateral U.S.-Saudi agreement was renewed for a five-year period in 1957 and included the commitment of American grant-military aid in training and equipment as rental for continued U.S.A.F. use of the airport. By then, U.S. economic assistance, largely in the form of Philadelphia-minted Saudi silver riyals, had also been provided.

The rise of Nasserism in the Arab world put pressure on the Saudis to eliminate the “American military presence” in the kingdom. Responding to such pressure, the Saudis informed Washington that they would not renew the Dhahran airfield agreement when it expired in 1961. That agreement was terminated by mutual consent and with a minimum of controversy. Since the Saudis were still technologically unable to operate the Dhahran airport by themselves, they hired a private American company, the Vinnell Corporation, to run it. A U.S. Military Training Mission (USMTM), which had been coterminous with another U.S.A.F. Command, was allowed continued use of the airfield as its headquarters. Hart also recalls that in his final year as ambassador to Saudi Arabia, he was able to arrange for a U.S. Corps of Engineers mission — at the Saudi’s request — to supervise Saudi military and development projects.

Ironically, the U.S.-Saudi security relationship became stronger even as the Saudi monarch objected to Washington’s pro-Israeli policy and its indifference to Palestinian rights. Nonetheless, he believed that the Truman administration had reneged on promises made to him by Roosevelt in 1945. Seeing the “encirclement” of his kingdom, Ibn Saud and his successors sometimes worried that America’s Middle Eastern policy favored Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser. Hart observes that the years 1953-54 marked a low point in U.S.-Saudi ties. Not long after its inception, the Saudis unilaterally canceled a U.S. Point IV economic and technological assistance program.

A few years later, however, the pendulum swung once again towards closer Saudi-American ties. The Iraqi revolution of 1958, the Egyptian-Syrian union, and attendant Saudi concerns about Nasser’s pan-Arab objectives brought King Saud (who had succeeded his father in 1953) to Washington in 1957. For awhile, President Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles viewed him as a counterweight to Nasser. Saud had accepted, albeit somewhat equivocally, the so-called Eisenhower Doctrine, which would undercut Nasser’s Pan-Arab aspirations.

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