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The US the UK and Saudi Arabia in World War II

The US, the UK and Saudi Arabia in World War II: The Middle East and the Origins of a Special Relationship

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 The Us The Uk And Saudi Arabia In World War Ii
  • Book Author:
Matthew Fallon Hinds
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  1. Oasis: Anglo-American Relations and Ibn Saud prior to 1941 20
  2. Storm: Anglo-American Relations in Saudi Arabia, 1941 37
  3. The Empty Quarter: Anglo-American Relations in
  4. Saudi Arabia and Wartime Strategy, 1942 60
  5. Nahal: Anglo-American Relations and Ibn Saud outside
  6. Saudi Arabia, 1943 80
  7. Shifting Sands: Anglo-American Relations inside Saudi
  8. Arabia, 1943-4 94
  9. Mirage: Anglo-American Relations in Saudi Arabia and the
  10. Limits and Advantages of Co-operation, 1944-5 121
  11. Wadi: Anglo-American Relations in Saudi Arabia in
  12. 1945 and the Postwar World 146



The origins of Anglo-American relations in Saudi Arabia can be best found when charting the pathways through which British and American influence took hold in the Kingdom preceding 1941. Before Britain and the US began their collaborative involvement in Saudi Arabia during World War II, their experiences in the country had largely existed independently from one another, with the British more heavily engaged than their American counterparts. In many respects, their attitudes toward Saudi Arabia matched the priority that each country had placed on the Middle Eastern region in general.

For policy makers in London, the Middle East was one of the most important dimensions of British foreign relations. Throughout the region, Britain’s unrivalled network of military installations, diplomatic posts, and commercial holdings effectively amounted to an ‘informal’ empire that secured London’s imperial link to India, Southeast Asia and the Antipodes. Britain, in turn, took a keen interest in the rise of Saudi power, which was sweeping the Arabian Peninsula. Occasional political differences aside, the Anglo-Saudi relationship, dating back to the beginning of the twentieth century, was one of the foundations upon which the established order was built.

Paling in comparison, the US government in the years prior to World War II had little to do with Middle Eastern affairs, or for that matter, Saudi Arabia. Instead, non-governmental actors worked as the main conduits that fostered a viable American presence in the region.

In this respect, the success of personal diplomacy, philanthropy and private commercial ventures were indirect, yet powerful areas of American influence, which helped formalise nascent Saudi-American relations. Oddly enough, the lack of experience coming from the US government actually stood it in good stead. Though no match compared with the influence of their British counterparts, J\merican standing in Saudi Arabia gained parity principally as a result of the fact that Washington was still new and a great unknown to Riyadh unlike the more familiar European imperial powers.

Looking at the assorted nature of their experiences in dealing with Saudi Arabia, British and American interests there were bound inextricably less to a country, but more specifıcally to a person, the founder of the Kingdom, Ibn Saud. As a result, another objective of this chapter is to explore the Saudi king’s reputation as a skilled statesman, his position within the context of the international crisis leading up to 1941, and what this meant for Britain and the US. Both countries were acutely aware of Ibn Saud’s regional role, a role also realised by the Axis powers.

From the perspective of the Axis powers, particularly Germany and Italy, Saudi Arabia was one of the few Arab states not to be under the offıcial sway of either the British ar French Empires. In this respect, the Kingdom was an open opportunity for the Axis countries ta demonstrate their respective influence in the Middle East; a region where their influence was stil! only marginally felt. As Seth Arsenian, the scholar who worked in the Offıce of War Information (OWI) during the war, makes clear: ‘to Germany, Italy and Japan, the destruction of British and Allied Power in the Middle East, or the winning of their side of any of the Middle Eastern state would have immeasurably increased their chances far success.’ 1

 Therefore, this chapter argues that Anglo-American co-operation in Saudi Arabia was in part a reaction ta block the revisionist powers from further forging· diplomatic links with the Kingdom. Providing much-needed stability in a region beset by turmoil, Ibn Saud’s rule in Saudi Arabia, teamed with his status as an independent Arab ruler, made him an ideal candidate for combating the flood of Axis propaganda that targeted an Arab population already sceptical of British and American motives.

Britain, the Middle East and Saudi Arabia: Pre-World War II

From the perspectives of British and American offıcial thinking, each was prone to believe chac it was held in greater favour when compared with other nations, especially as it pertained  to the Middle East, where this prevailing sentiment of national ‘exceptionalism’ tended torun especially high. Looking fırst at Britain, the Pax Britannica long-established in the Arab World came affıxed with a popular mythology that generations of Britons had relished. Reflecting on the belief that Britain enjoyed an intrinsic connection with the region and its people, the historian Geoffrey Moorhouse writes:

Though it had never been part of her Empire, no other European country had ever had the same patronizing connection with the Arab countries of the Middle East. No one else’s history has produced such a long string of fıgures to compare wieh Burton, Doughty, Seanhope, Lawrence, Thomas, Seark, Philby or Thesiger: men and women with a mystical and romantic feeling of kinship with the Bedouin and ehe desert.2

Similarly, in political terms, British influence in the Middle East predominaced. Nominally independent, Egypt was stil! essentially a holding of the British Empire, under the thumb of a large contingent of British troops stationed in the Suez Canal zone.3 Similarly, Palestine, the Hashemiee K.ingdoms of Transjordan, and Iraq were League of Nations mandates that had been eransformed into key pillars of Brieain’s imperial defence strategy4. Lastly, arcing ehe Arabian periphery, the Crown Colony of Aden, the Trucial Coast and Kuwaie had been bound by ereaty to the British government since 1839, 1853 and 1899 respectively.5

Given Saudi Arabia’s location in the heare of Britain’s ‘informal’ Middle Eastern empire, Britain’s close relationship with Ibn Saud leading up to World War II was an established fact. Speaking to ehe Brieish minister in 1939, Ibn Saud claimed that there were two kinds of relationships between countries. At one end, there was the  ‘the relationship of fear, fear of subjugation for the conquered’, and at the other end of the spectrum, there were associations like the one between Britain and Saudi Arabia, ‘based on mutual ı.nterest and co-operatı.on ,.6

The inicial British response had been mixed when Ibn Saud scarced to consolidate his power in ehe Nejd in 1902. Those Bricish offıcials who dealc with Ibn Saud direccly viewed him favourably, but ehe opinions of Percy Cox, policical resident of ehe Persian Gulf, and later Captain William Shakespear, political resident of Kuwait, ultimately pertained to Bricish security in lndia rather than the wider Middle Easc.

For chose back in Whicehall at the Foreign Offıce, Ibn Saud continued to be observed as a peripheral fıgure in Arabian politics, a signifıcant step below his rival, ehe Hashemice SharifHussein of Mecca.7 Famed Arabist D.G. Hogarth, while working at ehe Arab Bureau, expressed the widespread view at the time of World War I: ‘le should not be forgoccen that of ehe two, ehe Sharif and Ibn Saud; Ibn Saud is [… ] ehe less powerful potentate and far less able to influence the present general Eastern situation in our favour.’8 The British government fınally ended up backing Hussein to lead ehe Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire, but it is worth remembering that concurrently Bricain also saw ehe potential strategic dividends of improving relacions with Ibn Saud.

Under the cerms of ehe Anglo-Saudi Treacy of 1915, London recognised Ibn Saud’s auchoricy in ehe Nejd and promised to protect him from foreign chreats, while also offering a yearly subsidy and deliveries of modern weaponry.9 in return for British assistance, Ibn Saud would exploic those Arab vi/ayets under Ottoman authority by waging batcle againsc his Eastern Arabian rival, ehe House of Rashid, a tribe in alliance wich ehe Porte. Years later, a reminiscent quid pro quo would be patterned into effect during World War II, which saw Bricish largesse exchanged for Ibn Saud’s support of Allied interests.

in ehe long run, the effort to court Ibn Saud during World War I proved co be a more valuable strategy than London’s well-known alliance with the Sharif.ıo As relations wich the erratic Hussein deteriorated in the early 1920s, Ibn Saud began to emerge as the more reliable regional ally. in this respect, ehe decision made in Sepcember 1924 not to interced in the war between ehe Sharif and Ibn Saud was evidence of Britain’s cacit approval of ehe Al Saud gaining control over ehe Hed jaz.1 Almost chree years lacer in May 1927, Britain concluded the Treaty of Jeddah wich Ibn Saud, a benchmark moment in Anglo-Saudi relations, which was characterised by relacive political equality.1 2 Under ehe treaty’s terms and conditions, Britain recognised ehe complete independence of the Kingdom of Hedjaz, Nejd and ehe Dependencies hoping to eliminace any colonial resentment, which with their inequalities, had marred


London’s diplomatic relations with surrounding Arab states.13 In this way, Ibn Saud’s political independence distinguished him as a willing associate to British paramountcy rather than a vassal subjugated by it. This emphasis on the issue of sovereignty as ouclined in the Treaty of Jeddah would become a recurrent theme in British policy making for Saudi Arabia during World War II.

After the treaty was signed, Ibn Saud’s close co-operation with the ‘infıdel’ British sparked internal unrest among his most hardcore Wahabbi followers, the Ikhwan.14 In 1929, Britain’s timely military support – armoured cars and planes courtesy of the Royal Air Force – allowed Ibn Saud to crush an Ikhwan-orchestrated coup, which had up to that point posed the most serious threat to his regime.15 Nonetheless, amid the vexed world of Middle Eastern politics, Britain and Ibn Saud naturally ran into conflicts of interests in the interwar period. Issues such as Britain’s relationship with the Hashemite kingdoms, Palestine and contested territorial claims in the Arabian Peninsula in the 1930s were at times areas of contention. These examples do not however diminish the reality that Anglo-Saudi relations throughout the decade stayed active and close.16

Given that the US involvement in the Middle East up to World War II remained meagre, the historicaL narrative to some degree has been cast in quixotic fashion; much of it’ based on what one scholar has called a shibboleth of ‘power, faith and fantasy’.17 Wartime officials like William Donovan, founder of the Offıce of Strategic Services (OSS), valued a certain paradox in which American influence arose from a policy of non­ interference. The US, according to this viewpoint, was distinct from other countries such as Britain thanks to the fact that its avowed aims in the region ranged beyond the thirst for power.18 In full self-congratulatory mode, Donovan confıdently told the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) in 1942:

American prestige and influence in the Near East is still probably as high as ever. This results from a realization by the peoples of ehe Near East that the US has no territorial·or vested economic interests in ehe area. Furthermore, since aceions speak louder than words, this widespread goodwill toward the US has become what might be described as a deep-seated conviction on the part of the peoples in chis area, due mainly co a century of American Missionary educacional and philanchropic efforcs that have not been carnished by material motive or interest. No other member of ehe United Nations is in such a position.19

The historian Fawaz Gerges perfectly captures the belief of American offıcials from Donovan’s generation who took it for ehe granted that ehe US ‘established dynamic and cordial relations with Arabs and Muslims, who viewed America as a progressive island amid European reaction.•20 If the US having this sort of altruistic interest in the region was indeed the case, it is stili diffıcult to pinpoinc a specifıc and coherent American foreign policy in the Middle East before World War II. Overall, in ehe 1930s the diplomatic apparatus of ehe US functioned on a far more insular hasis, grouped with other nations that, according to B.J.C. McKercher, were ‘regional powers with regional interests’. 21

 The US possessed nothing akin to the network of military bases or diplomatic stations in the Middle East that Britain controlled. The paucity of ehe official American presence can be judged by the fact that ehe State Department, as late as 1944, had only three offıcers who specialised in Middle Eastern languages. 22 Against this backdrop, the few mainstays of interwar American policy that did exist in the region, cencred largely on commercial trade, monitoring the Arab-Jewish conflict in Palestine and fostering what was then referred to as ‘Arab goodwill ‘.23

Looking at the origins of the Saudi-American relationship, when the US government was considering whether to formally recognise the Kingdom, Wallace Murray, the chief of ehe Near East Division of ehe Stace Department, was told by the well-known Arab-American intellectual Ahman Rihani that: ‘Ibn Saud might be regarded as the greatest Arab since Mohammed himself.’24

Highlighting the interdependent ties between the US and Britain, before extending diplomatic recognition to ‘the Government of King Ibn Saud’ in February 1931, it is noteworthy that Washington fırst asked permission from London to do so.25 Understood to be a sphere of British sphere of influence, early American interest in Ibn Saud and the Kingdom derived little from ehe Staee Departmene, but had rather been foseered by ehe ‘personal diplomacy’ of an American cieizen named Charles Crane.26

A former diplomat during ehe Taft and Wilson administrations, as well as one of America’s premier philanthropists, Crane had been closely involved with Arab affairs for decades.27 In the Arab world, he had a well-known public profile owing to his work on the Crane-King commission in 1919, an American commission that had been highly critical ofBritish and French policies towards the Arab territories of the former Üttoman Empire.28

Crane emerged as a de facto representative of the US, despite visiting Saudi Arabia on his own initiative. The role that Crane took on was a success in that he managed to forge a close personal bond with Ibn Saud. ünce given an audience with Ibn Saud, the two men discussed ways in which Saudi Arabia’s natura! resources could be developed and put to commercial use. üne of Crane’s engineers, Karl Twitchell, who years later would be one of the key individuals to help initiate Anglo-American co­ operation in Saudi Arabia during World War II, was given the task of surveying the Hedjaz for water and mining deposits.29 Based on the work of his geological surveys, Twitchell was later hired by the California­ Arabian Standard üil Company (CASüC) to assist Lloyd Hamilton, the president of the company, in negotiating the purchase of oil concessions with Ibn Saud in 1933. Scholars led by Robert Vitalis are however sceptical of Crane’s motives, believing that his philanthropy was a means by which to gain the rights to explore oil deposits in Saudi Arabia.30

 Thomas W. Lippman takes the opposite point of view, contending that Crane’s offer showed Ibn Saud that Americans were ‘willing to help him and asked nothing in retu rn’.31 In reality, Charles Crane’s motives probably fell somewhere in-between these diametrically opposed interpretations. Undoubtedly however, Crane played a crucial role in creating an American identity in Saudi Arabia, raising the US’s profile asa distant and neutral benefactor…

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