A secret war-time meeting. Fear of an oil shortage. An exchange of gifts (including a wheelchair) and a budding friendship. When Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Abdul Aziz ibn Saud on February 14, 1945 aboard a U.S. Navy destroyer in the Suez Canal, it was the first time a U.S. president had ever met with a Saudi Arabian king, and the encounter laid a foundation for U.S.-Saudi relations that would continue for generations—and ensure U.S. access to Saudi oil reserves.
The principal reason for the meeting, which lasted several hours, according to Scott Montgomery, author and affiliate faculty member in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington, had to do with the prospect of a Jewish homeland in the Middle East, with Roosevelt trying to persuade the king to accept 10,000 Jews in Palestine.
Montgomery says Abdul Aziz was internationally considered a key Arab leader, heroic warrior and legendary figure. Their meeting was secret, he says, because the war was still going on and FDR had pledged to England’s Winston Churchill that the United States would not intervene in territory controlled by the British. Just a few weeks before, Stalin’s armies had liberated Auschwitz, exposing its horrors to the world.
“FDR seems to have taken the plight of the Jews as a personal mission, as the leader of the new free world,” Montgomery says. “Roosevelt was famous for his charm and conversational wit and warmth and had confidence in his own powers of persuasion. He strongly believed in the value of personal diplomacy—frank and intimate meetings between powerful leaders—to solve weighty and pressing issues.”
Another key reason for the meeting: oil.
“In the late 1930s, two U.S. oil companies in partnership, Chevron and Texaco, had discovered enormous volumes of oil in the eastern part of the kingdom,” Montgomery says. “Subsequent geologic analyses showed that the entire center of gravity in world oil production and supply would soon shift to the Persian Gulf, to Saudi Arabia in particular.”
Moreover, he adds, the Roosevelt administration and oil industry leaders had deep concerns that a major oil shortage was imminent.
“Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, saw Saudi oil and the national security/welfare of the U.S. as umbilically linked and even proposed that the federal government establish direct control over all oil resources owned by American companies in Saudi Arabia,” Montgomery says.
There were also signs that the British were trying to take control over Chevron-Texaco, so part of Roosevelt’s goal in meeting the Saudi king was strategic. As Montgomery says, FDR knew it “would serve U.S. national interests in oil security long-term.”
It turns out, the two leaders hit it off so well that Roosevelt, who would die just eight weeks after the meeting, gifted the king with one of his wheelchairs (as well as a DC-3 passenger plane). The king, in turn, gave the president gifts, including a diamond-encrusted dagger, perfumes, pearl jewelry, belts of woven gold thread and embroidered harem costumes, Montgomery says.
“Roosevelt seems to have been in top form and the king was warm in return,” he adds. “He famously said that he and FDR were ‘twins’ of a sort—roughly the same age, both heads of state with grave responsibilities, both farmers at heart and both stricken with physical infirmities, as FDR was in a wheelchair and the king walked with much pain and difficulty due to wounds in his legs from many battles when he was younger.”
William Eddy, Roosevelt’s translator who was present at the meeting, would later report that whenever Abdul Aziz took friends through his palace, he would say, “This chair is my most precious possession. It is the gift of my great and good friend, President Roosevelt, on whom Allah has had mercy.”
Despite the personal good will, however, Roosevelt failed in persuading Abdul Aziz that Palestine should be a Jewish homeland, according to Montgomery.
“Based on accounts by Roosevelt and his translator, FDR was persistent in returning to this subject, but to no avail,” he says. “The king’s position was firm: The Germans should be made to give up territory for this purpose. They were the aggressors and had committed the crimes and oppressions against the Jews.”
As for the topic of oil, Montgomery says a major victory for the United States was that the relationship formed between the two leaders helped ensure Great Britain would not gain control over Saudi Arabia and its oil, “and that the country would remain within America’s sphere of influence instead.”
By 1949, according to Montgomery, Abdul Aziz had authorized a pipeline to the Mediterranean, allowing the flow of Saudi oil to U.S. allies, a U.S. Air Force-operated base near the oil fields and a military training program. “None of this, nor the concession given the American oil companies (later, in combination with Saudi Arabia’s own Arab Oil Co., named Aramco) was undone by the 1948 war in Palestine,” he adds.
And although the “arms and security for oil” relationship between the two countries is often mentioned as a result of the meeting, Montgomery says it doesn’t seem likely such an arrangement was specifically agreed to at the meeting itself.
“More important, in a sense, for the long-term was the U.S. belief that oil scarcity was always on the horizon," he says, "and could really only be mediated by the gigantic and cheaply extracted reserves under the Saudi desert."