DB761 1. What policies, presidential initiatives, or actions did your president create or support in the Middle East region? Why and how were these important to USFP and Americans generally. Chapter 23
FROM BIBLES TO DRILL BITS
THE POSTWAR SETTLEMENT IN THE MIDDLE EAST DID NOT, as its architects intended, bring concord and stability to the region, but only endemic conflict. The 1920s were a time of mounting resistance to European rule in the region, with anti-British revolts breaking out in Egypt and Iraq, and a rebellion raging against French rule in Syria. Palestine would become a perennial center of bloodshed. Safely removed from this upheaval, the Arabian Peninsula was virtually forgotten by the colonial powers as well as by the nationalists who sought to oust them. A wasteland of flinty sand, salt flats, and rock, the area seemed devoid of the most basic natural resources. Its principal source of income was the Muslim pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, both located in the western Hejaz district. The British were content to let their Hashemite allies rule the Hejaz and to ignore the rest of the peninsula. The French were utterly indifferent.
No less than the Europeans, the United States was consistently uninterested in Arabia. The State Department scarcely reacted when, in 1923, a coalition of tribes led by ‘Abd al-‘Aziz ibn Saud (1880–1953) and backed by the militant Wahhabi movement conquered the holy cities and ousted the Hashemites. The region “is of little commercial importance,” remarked one expert at the Division of Near Eastern Affairs, while another felt that the Saudis’ warlike behavior “demonstrated that the Arabs…have not progressed from where they were 13 centuries ago.” Ibn Saud subsequently declared himself king over a new country, Saudi Arabia, but the United States withheld formal recognition and refused to accord it an ambassador.
But the State Department’s insouciance toward Arabia was not shared by all Americans. Missionaries remained keenly engaged in the area. Before the turn of the century, it may be recalled, the American missionary Samuel Zwemer established the peninsula’s first modern medical clinic and imported an American physician, Paul Harrison, to head it. A dashing, Valentino-like figure with a penchant for Bedouin garb, Harrison in fact had little affinity for the natives’ culture. “Not even their religion has ever been able to unite them for any long period into a stable state,” he attested, and listed the succession of “intrigue and assassination, revolt and riot, and wars great and small” that had haunted Arab history. Such shortcomings could not, however, deflect Harrison from ministering to the medical needs of the natives or from seeking to save their souls. “We want them to become Christians,” he admitted, “but in Arabia that is an extremely slow process.”
To expedite the procedure, Harrison expanded his medical services in the years before World War I and established branch clinics in Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain. New doctors were added to the staff, among them several American women. Eleanor Calverly recounted her serendipitous arrival in Arabia in 1912, remarking, “What had, until that moment, seemed a tragic sacrifice instantaneously became the only thing in the world I wanted to do…. Never had I felt such joy!” Another physician, Mary Allison, found that landing in the Hejazi port of Jidda was “like being born anew,” a rapt experience both spiritually and sensuously. “I knew what ecstasy felt like—to reach the place of my dreams.”
Allison’s experience was hardly unique. Drawn to Arabia by their religious convictions, many missionaries would become enchanted with the desert’s immutable beauty and the romance of its perambulant tribes. And few aspects of Arabia were more mesmerizing for Americans than that of its king, ibn Saud. Towering at over six feet, four inches, in flowing robes and braided hair, with his teeth gleaming and an ebony glint in his eyes, the monarch overwhelmed the missionaries. “Every line of him…told of intelligence, energy, determination, and reserves of compelling power,” one of them recalled. The fact that ibn Saud had 125 wives, was accompanied by machine-gun-toting guards, and maintained an alliance with the infidel-hating Wahhabis failed to disillusion the spellbound evangelists.
Ibn Saud was less concerned with enthralling Westerners, though, than with obtaining effective medical care. He first heard of the American doctors in 1911, when missionary physicians in Bahrain tended to ten of his men who had been shot in a pearl-fishing dispute. In 1914, ibn Saud sent some of his malaria-stricken kin for treatment at the American clinic in Kuwait, and three years later he invited Harrison to Riyadh. “I know you are a Christian,” the monarch greeted him, “but honorable men are friends though they differ in religion.” Finally, stricken by a swollen facial cellulitis in November 1923, the king summoned another American doctor, Louis Dame, from Kuwait. With his dark, fleshy features and trim black beard, Dame blended well into the local population and passed for a Bedouin sheikh as he rode nearly forty hours by camel to Riyadh. He cured ibn Saud within a week. Over the course of a quarter century, Dame, Harrison, and the other missionary doctors treated some 300,000 inhabitants of Arabia, among them many grateful Saudis.1
That indebtedness would soon prove pivotal in ibn Saud’s choice of a Western ally. Resentful of the British who prevented further expansion of his realm into Transjordan and southern Iraq and inherently distrustful of the French, he would turn to the nation whose citizens had worked so selflessly for his people’s welfare. When the possibility arose that his country contained not only rock and sand but also the wellsprings of the world’s most sought-after fluid, the king would remember Harrison and Dame.
In Search of “Liquid Muck”
While American missionaries were laboring in the parched Arabian desert, their countrymen back home were acutely thirsting for oil. By the early 1920s, accelerated industrialization, the mass production of automobiles, and electrification of households had propelled the demand for petroleum in the United States well beyond its production capacity. American oil companies were forced to search desperately for overseas reservoirs, with much of their hopes fixed on the Middle East. But beyond the technical difficulty of locating the oil in this remote and inaccessible region lay numerous political obstacles to American exploration. Iran had the largest proven deposits, but Britain’s national oil company already had a monopoly over the southern part of the country, while the recently established Soviet Union dominated the north. In Syria, Iraq, and Palestine, where American prospectors had looked for oil before World War I, Britain and France now claimed that the mandatory powers granted them by the League of Nations—an organization boycotted by the United States—endowed them with exclusive drilling rights. “The Anglo-French combination is determined to keep American companies out of the new oil fields of the Near East,” America’s ambassador in Paris, Hugh Wallace, complained. Wallace’s attempts to remind the former Allies that, without America’s intervention in the trenches of Europe, there would have been neither a League nor any mandates proved unpersuasive.
Eager to break the European monopoly over Middle Eastern oil, the U.S. government for the first time became actively involved in the oil business. In 1921, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, a seasoned manager of international relief efforts, rallied the seven leading American petroleum companies—New Jersey (later Esso/Exxon), Texas (later Texaco), Sinclair, Mexican, Atlantic, Gulf, and New York (SOCONY, later Mobil)—into a potent consortium. Assailed by this united front, the European companies relented and invited the Americans to join them in forming a new cartel, the Iraq Petroleum Company (IPC). In return for forfeiting their right to explore for oil outside of the IPC framework (the so-called self-denial clause), the Americans received 23.75 percent of all the petroleum extracted from the Middle East. The formula, which satisfied the escalating energy needs of the United States without saddling it with political responsibilities in the Middle East, marked a victory for American diplomacy and a potential bonanza for American oil. The vastness of the riches hidden beneath Iraqi sands was partially revealed in October 1927, when prospectors in the northern city of Kirkurk unleashed a geyser so powerful it killed two of them.
Questions nevertheless persisted regarding the geographical scope of the IPC contract and the exact borders of the Middle East. Did the agreement cover only Iraq, Syria, and Palestine, for example, or did it apply to the Arabian Peninsula as well? To resolve these issues, the heads of the cartel solicited the advice of the Armenian-born businessman, sybarite, and financial genius Calouste S. Gulbenkian, who had managed to procure for himself a full 5 percent of the IPC’s shares. In a meeting with IPC executives in July 1928, Mr. Five Percent, as the Americans admiringly called him, unfurled a map of the Middle East and, with a bright red pencil, encircled Turkey, Arabia, and the mandated areas. “That was the old Ottoman Empire which I knew in 1914,” the squat, potbellied Gulbenkian explained. “And I ought to know, I was born in it, lived in it, and served in it.”
This Red Line Agreement essentially excluded all but IPC members from exploring for Middle Eastern oil. This was devastating news for ibn Saud. A sudden drop in the numbers of Muslims making pilgrimage to the holy cities had left the ruler desperately short of funds, yet he hesitated to let IPC’s British engineers survey his kingdom for oil and other minerals. He preferred to work with countries that would respect Saudi Arabia’s sovereignty and with professionals like Harrison and Dame, who seemed free of European imperialist agendas.
A solution to ibn Saud’s dilemma was provided in February 1931 by his chief adviser, Harry St. John Philby. A brilliant but unconventional British explorer who had converted to Islam and become a peevish critic of Britain’s Middle East policies, Philby was alert to the king’s needs and fears as well to the possibilities of personal gain. Already he had obtained the exclusive right to sell Ford automobiles in the kingdom, augmenting his wealth and connecting him to American industry. Now, addressing the country’s deepening economic crisis, Philby suggested that ibn Saud turn to the United States for help and to the American most closely identified with Islam and the Arab world.
Charles Crane, the philanthropist and long-standing advocate of Arab nationalism, had not been discouraged by the failure of world leaders to implement the recommendations that he, together with Henry King, had made for reordering the postwar Middle East. Throughout the 1920s, he continued to fund Middle Eastern studies programs in the United States and to act as a goodwill emissary between America and the rulers of Iraq, Transjordan, and Yemen. While journeying across the Arabian desert in 1929, Crane was attacked by Wahhabi bandits and his traveling companion, the Reverend Henry Bilkert, was killed. While recovering from the trauma, Crane received a letter from ibn Saud expressing regret that “the friend of the Arabs should have been attacked in Arabian lands,” and inviting him to visit Riyadh.
The visit was an extravagant success. For four days, Crane was feted with Bedouin feasts, horse and camel races, and reviews of the royal guard. At one point, purportedly, ibn Saud asked his guest to remain in Arabia, to become a Muslim, and serve as the chief muezzin of Mecca. The real purpose of the meeting was not revelry, though, but business, Would Crane fund a geological study of the country, the king finally asked Crane, to be conducted by American engineers? The reply was unreservedly positive. Crane left Riyadh on March 3 with a pair of the king’s prize stallions and permission to launch the first American survey of Arabia.2
To lead that expedition, Crane chose an engineer who had previously worked for him in Yemen, a quiet Vermonter named Karl S. Twitchell. Though fated to be the progenitor of Saudi-American relations, Twitchell, spare and sad-eyed, was hardly a patriarchal type. His outstanding assets, it seemed, were an unflagging esteem for ibn Saud, “a man of wisdom and righteousness…of justice, generosity, and hospitality…[who] ranks among the foremost figures of this age,” and a no less unwavering faith in Arabia’s economic potential. From his Yemen experience, he knew that even the harshest deserts could mask artesian springs and profitable mineral deposits.
To prove his hunch, Twitchell set out from the Red Sea port of Jidda in February 1932 and trudged over four hundred miles inland. On the outskirts of Medina, he succeeded in identifying an ancient gold mine, which he then reactivated and restored to profitable production. But the proceeds from the mine could not compensate the Saudis for the loss of pilgrimage revenue and the kingdom still faced insolvency. Twitchell continued his search, journeying an additional six hundred miles to the Persian Gulf, without finding a single resource of worth, not even water. The situation appeared irremediable when, on June 1 of that year, engineers from the Standard Oil Company of California (SOCOL) suddenly struck oil on the barren Gulf island of Bahrain.3
The discovery augured a windfall for Twitchell. Located a mere twelve miles from the Saudi mainland, Bahrain was geographically linked to the Arabia Peninsula, and it was reasonable to assume that if the island contained oil, so, too, would the adjacent coast. Acting on this premise, Twitchell returned to the United States and met with the representatives of the IPC. The American companies, however, bound by the Red Line Agreement to work collectively in Arabia, refused to take on projects independently. “Some of these firms think that ‘Hejaz’ is the name of a new drink,” Twitchell complained. Only SOCOL, a non-IPC member, was prepared to take the risk. Accompanied by SOCOL’s attorney, Lloyd Hamilton, Twitchell arrived back in Jidda in February 1933 and immediately sought a royal concession for prospecting in the al-Hasa region, on the shoreline opposite Bahrain.
Not since the Jackson administration’s secret negotiations with the Ottomans in 1830 had Americans engaged in such intense and direct discussions with a Middle Eastern government, and the talks once again proved convoluted. No sooner had Hamilton and Twitchell opened discussions with ibn Saud’s shrewd and unflappable finance minister, Abdullah Suleiman, than Suleiman began negotiating with lawyers from the IPC. A bidding war ensued in which the two sides offered increasingly stratospheric sums, which the Saudis then coyly rejected. The Americans ultimately triumphed, however, thanks to their willingness to pay in gold (the IPC offered rupees) and to provide Philby, who had served as SOCOL’s consultant, with a thousand-pound annuity. Even then, the entire deal nearly collapsed when, in response to the currency crisis triggered by the Great Depression, the U.S. government banned all gold exports. The bullion was only secured at the last moment—ironically—from a British bank. In Jidda on August 25, under Suleiman’s scrutinizing gaze, Twitchell counted out 35,000 gold sovereigns—the equivalent of $15.5 million today—and offered the Saudis loans totaling many millions more.4
The agreement with ibn Saud represented a turning point in America’s relations with Arabia and indeed with the entire Middle East. Penetrating a region formerly regarded as an exclusive British sphere, Americans had entered into a binding bilateral relationship with a respected Arab monarch and laid the groundwork for enduring economic ties. But the strategic and financial value of that treaty was still far from guaranteed. Without roads, aerial surveillance, or access to the most basic supplies, American engineers had to survey an area of 320,000 square miles of virtually uncharted desert.
The first of Twitchell’s team, Schuyler Henry and Bert Miller, arrived in September 1933, both of them veterans of the Bahrain explorations the preceding year. Dozens eventually followed—not only engineers, but drillers, rig builders, mechanics, bureaucrats, and cooks. Initially living in camel-hair tents near the port of Jubail, they eventually built blockhouses and imported American luxuries such as air-conditioning, radios, and even a swimming pool. Several workers also brought over their wives. With a fusion of fascination and contempt, Philby wrote of Americans “descending from the skies on their flying carpets with strange devices for probing the bowels of the earth in search of the liquid muck for which the world clamors to keep its insatiable machines alive.” Yet life in the Arabian desert, plagued by sandstorms, brackish water, corrupt local officials, and 120-degree heat, was rarely romantic for these Americans. Deep cultural clefts divided them from the native population, which took umbrage at some of their coarser habits, such as cursing. The revulsion was often mutual. The engineer Thomas Barger, formerly of North Dakota and future oil company president, recoiled from the age-old Bedouin practice of eating locusts. “They boil them, dry them in the sun, pound them in mortar and make a sort of locust mush,” he reported. “I think I’ll stick to oatmeal.”
No challenge, however, environmental, or cultural, was as daunting as that of choosing one site in the barren vastness and boring through thousands of feet of sand and bedrock in search of a Jurassic Lake. From their Bahrain experience, the engineers knew to look for the mesa or hill—jabal, in Arabic—under which hydrocarbons sometimes collected. The most promising of these was a dome-shaped protrusion not far from Jubail, at Dammam. Starting in 1935, six wells were dug at the dome, and while some of them struck oil, none produced the hundreds of barrels a day necessary to register a profit. The executives of SOCOL, who, in their optimism, had changed their corporate name to CASOC (California Arabian Standard Oil Company, later Chevron), were growing panicky. Immense sums of money had been spent, at the height of the Depression, on a project that appeared to be stillborn. CASOC’s demise and the collapse of the inchoate relations between Saudi Arabia and the Americans seemed imminent.
Yet, almost in defiance of these dangers, one last well was dug—number 7. Drilling began at the end of December 1937 and three months later, at a depth of more than one-half mile, the bit at last touched oil. A bounteous 3,690 barrels were pumped out in a single day, March 4, and similar quantities were found at comparable depths at numbers 2 and 4. By the year’s end, Saudi wells were producing a phenomenal one-half million tons of oil—so much oil, in fact, that a new pipeline had to be laid to the coastal oasis of al-Khobar, where the crude could be pumped to American tankers offshore.
The honor of turning the valve at al-Khobar was reserved for ibn Saud, who arrived at the site together with his five-hundred-car, two-thousand-man retinue. Exceedingly pleased with the Americans’ achievements, he indicated his readiness to negotiate for the rights to survey the rest of the peninsula. Once again CASOC found itself competing against the IPC, as well as with the Fascist governments of Germany and Japan, which needed fuel for their expanding military machines. A combination of goodwill and gold—$900,000 in grants and “rental fees”—ultimately secured another victory for the Americans. They now possessed permission to scour an additional 120,000 square miles along Arabia’s southern and northern borders for a period of sixty years.5
Ebb and Flow
Saudi oil and Saudi contracts together infused fresh vitality into an American industry long wearied by massive unemployment and economic depression. The reaction of the U.S. government, however, remained stolid. “We should let matters stand as they now are until such a time as American interests in Saudi Arabia have made further developments,” the State Department, rejecting yet another proposal for establishing diplomatic ties with the kingdom, concluded in May 1937. Americans were still investing more in mission schools and churches (roughly $4.5 million per year) than in Middle Eastern rigs. The department continued to balk at the notion of impinging in an area it still considered a British bailiwick, and of opening a consulate solely to serve the employees of a single American corporation.
Yet not even the State Department’s obduracy could conceal the fact that the output of Persian Gulf wells had increased 900 percent since 1920 and that the United States now received 14 percent of its petroleum from the Middle East. Oil in economic quantities had also been discovered in Kuwait—a joint Anglo-American venture—and evidence pointed to the existence of plenteous reserves in another Persian Gulf emirate, Qatar. Oil company officials persistently reminded American policymakers of the immense economic potential of Arabia and the Gulf and stressed the many affinities, cultural as well as political, between the people of the region and those of the United States.
“Though outwardly autocratic in several respects,” Karl Twitchell submitted, “the [Saudi] government…shows certain aspects of democracy.” Twitchell was only one of the many Americans who, in the 1930s, returned from working stints in Saudi Arabia brimming with praise for its tolerant, freedom-loving, and inveterately pro-American king and his subjects. And few Americans were more admiring of these purported Saudi traits than Charles Crane. Now in the last years of his life—he died in 1939—and deeply enamored of the leader he called “the real bulwark of Christian culture,” Adolf Hitler, Crane also remained a fierce advocate for close ties between the United States and Saudi Arabia, and an unstinting devotee of its king. “Ibn Saud,” he assured President Roosevelt, “is the most important man who has appeared in Arabia since the time of Mohammed,” thirteen hundred years earlier.
Many of these glowing assessments of ibn Saud and his kingdom were, partly or wholly, mythic. There was no democracy in Saudi Arabia and only provisional tolerance for non-Muslims. “We Muslims have the one, true faith,” ibn Saud matter-of-factly informed one American diplomat. “We will use your iron, but leave our faith alone.” And while generally loyal to the United States, ibn Saud displayed no reservations about negotiating with Britain and France in order to extract higher contract fees from the Americans. Indeed, when asked by American negotiators why he favored the United States over the Europeans, ibn Saud candidly replied, “You are very far away!”
And yet, in spite of its less savory realities, Arabia continued to evoke wonder among many of the Americans who worked there. These included representatives of a new amalgamated type of missionary, businessman, and diplomat. In need of executives familiar with the Middle East and conversant in its languages, oil companies were keen to employ missionaries and their descendants. Louis Dame, for example, left his mission clinic to become the company doctor for CASOC. That led to a highly symbiotic relationship between the oil industry and evangelism. “Saudi Arabia is presumably the only country in the world whose development of oil and mining resulted from purely philanthropic sentiment,” wrote Twitchell, who, when not surveying, helped supply notebooks and footballs to the missionary schools. The State Department also sought to make missionaries into diplomats in the Middle East and the oil companies, in turn, recruited executives from the diplomatic corps. William Eddy, the scion of a missionary dynasty in Lebanon, served as America’s ambassador to Riyadh and later as an oil company consultant.
The melding of these three factors—romance, religion, and economics—in the making of America’s image of Saudi Arabia was lionized by the Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Wallace Stegner. Commissioned by the oil industry in 1955 to write a history of the search for Arabian crude, Stegner compared the Saudi desert to the chaparrals of the Old West and wildcats like Twitchell and Barger to the early American preachers and pioneers: “If utter faith in a way of life…constitute[d] the essential elements in missionary fervor,” he wrote, “these men were missionaries as surely as were Dr. Harrison’s Christians over on Bahrain.”6
By 1939, Saudi wells were spewing an impressive five million barrels per year and had become a tangible, indisputable American interest. That investment was suddenly jeopardized, however, in September of that year, with the outbreak of World War II. Though avowedly neutral in that conflict, the Saudi government was reported to be “appreciative” of “German ruthlessness” and sympathetic to the Axis. Nazi agents had allegedly contacted ibn Saud and were offering him competitive sums for his oil. American petroleum companies consequently grew anxious over the fate of their Saudi operations and redoubled their pressure on the State Department to formalize relations with Riyadh. The department relented, finally, and extended the responsibilities of its ambassador in Cairo, Bert Fish, to Saudi Arabia as well. Fish visited the country only once, but the experience impressed him indelibly. “It can easily be said that American economic interests in Saudi Arabia now surpass those of any [Middle Eastern] country,” he wrote.7
Nevertheless, neither the rumor of German blandishments to ibn Saud nor the enthusiasm of Fish’s report produced a change in official American policy toward Saudi Arabia. Reeling from economic setbacks caused by the war, ibn Saud in 1941 appealed to Washington for an emergency lend-lease loan of $10 million. Oil company executives warned that, without such support, the Saudi kingdom and perhaps the entire Arab world would be thrown into chaos and ultimately into the arms of the Axis. The Roosevelt administration, however, responded that lend-lease aid was specifically designed to bolster freedom from tyranny and that “extending financial assistance to a backward, corrupt and non-democratic society like Saudi Arabia” was not in the national interest. The State Department continued to view Arabia as a British, rather than an American, responsibility, and bankrolling the king as Britain’s exclusive obligation.
America’s rejection of ibn Saud’s request for financial assistance deeply offended the king. But monetary disagreements would not remain the principal source of Saudi-American tensions. Looming in the years ahead was the incendiary issue that would generate unprecedented friction between the White House and the king—and between the United States and Arab governments in general. “[The] Jews had been hostile to Arabs from time of Prophet Mohamed,” ibn Saud lectured the State Department. “[B]because of the vast wealth at their disposal and their influence in Britain and the United States, [the] Jews are steadily encroaching on the Arabs.” The alleged aggression took place in Palestine, a land for which the king, “as the leading Arab and Moslem,” claimed an eminent responsibility.8
Over the course of the past twenty years, since the end of the Paris Peace Conference, relations between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine, and between both communities and the ruling British authorities, had steadily deteriorated. The corrosion occurred as a result of a spiraling pattern in which Jewish immigration to the country sparked Arab antagonism and Arab resistance drove Britain from its pledges to the Jews. America’s attitude toward this roiling conflict was one of strict neutrality. But as Britain recoiled from its commitments in Palestine, the United States would find itself becoming irresistibly dragged, against its will and contrary to its stated policies, into the Arab-Jewish morass.