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Review by Hermann Fr. Eilts


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.)


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.

In 1962, Saudi-Egyptian relations worsened further after Nasser sent troops to bolster the newly-established Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), which much to Saud’s surprise, Washington recognized. In response, Saudi Arabia (and Jordan) gave covert aid to the Yemeni royalists. Nasser, in the context of his efforts to portray Egypt as the champion of progessivism in the Arab world, excoriated Saudi Arabia (and Jordan) as “reactionary,” and worthy of being overthrown like the deposed Yemeni imamate.

Subsequent Egyptian air attacks on Saudi border towns and villages in the Najran and Jizan areas, which the Saudis lacked the military capability to defend, prompted urgent Saudi calls for U.S. assistance. As Hart recounts, President John F. Kennedy became personally engaged with both Crown Prince (and later King) Faisal and Egyptian President Nasser in an effort to resolve the dispute.Washington worried that Saudi Arabia faced a Nasserist-inspired internal insurrection, which in Kennedy’s view could only be avoided if the Saudis engaged in internal economic and political reform and ended all aid to the Yemeni royalists.

In return for such Saudi reforms and restraints, Kennedy promised American help to protect Saudi Arabia and to mediate the volatile Egyptian-Saudi tensions. Though indignantly rejecting U.S. innuendoes about possible internal instability, a vexed but concerned Prince Faisal nevertheless recognized his need for tangible American support. On the diplomatic level, Kennedy dispatched Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, a distinguished former diplomat and businessman, first to Saudi Arabia and later to Egypt, to mediate between the two parties.

Hart’s account of Bunker’s several talks with Faisal (in which he participated), especially the lexicographical nuances of the evolving Bunker mediation, demonstrate the difficulty of the task. Bunker first proposed termination, later changed to suspension and still later back to termination, of Saudi aid to the Yemeni royalists in return for what he hoped would be an Egyptian agreement to withdraw its military forces from Yemen. Bunker (and Hart) eventually reached an agreement whereby Faisal promised to stop Saudi aid to the royalists in return for the expeditious withdrawal of Egyptian troops from Yemen and the cessation of Egyptian air attacks on Saudi border areas. Nominally at least, Nasser undertook a phased withdrawal of his troops from Yemen, though it became increasingly evident that much of what he was doing was rotation. The net Egyptian troop draw down was small.

Hart lauds the Bunker effort, but observes that Nasser failed to honor his commitment on troop withdrawal. The YAR, Egyptian commanders in Yemen openly admitted, was insufficiently strong enough to survive on its own; hence, continuing Egyptian military help was essential. In fact, not until Egypt’s humiliating defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war did Nasser finally withdraw all of his troops from Yemen. Paradoxically, at a subsequent Arab summit in Khartoum, Faisal shrewdly spearheaded a program of Arab financial assistance to Egypt to overcome the economic effects of the 1967 loss. Yet Faisal, as he told Hart (and later this reviewer), never trusted Nasser, even after their apparent post-1967 reconciliation.

As the Bunker mission was underway, and in an effort to placate the worried Saudi leadership, the United States, also at Kennedy’s orders, deployed a squadron of U.S.A.F. F-4s to the kingdom as a visible demonstration of U.S. security support for Saudi Arabia. U.S. naval visits to Saudi Red Sea ports were also increased, and U.S. training of the Saudi military was stepped up.

The Air Force mission, known as Operation Hard Surface, was opposed by the then-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Nathan Twining, who sought to limit its duration. Twining professed incomprehension as to why the United States could not simply tell the Saudis what they ought to be doing! Hard Surface aircraft were positioned mainly in Riyadh, far from the Saudi-Yemeni border, the Saudis pointed out, and in part in Jidda.

In deploying such a U.S.A.F. unit, the United States ran into an immediate problem. Saudi policy forbade persons of the Jewish faith from entering the kingdom. The United States declined a Saudi request to give assurances that no Jewish personnel would be included in the mission. After much argument, Hart managed to resolve this by reminding Faisal that the United States, by law, could not seek to ascertain the religious faith of its military or other personnel. He ultimately obtained royal agreement for a blanket visa for all members of Hard Surface.

The U.S.A.F. planes were prohibited by Washington to fly closer than 20 kilometers from the Yemeni border, and Kennedy never did clarify their rules of engagement should they encounter Egyptian aircraft over Saudi airspace. If first fired upon, U.S.A.F. pilots could defend themselves; beyond that everything remained murky. He clearly hoped that the very presence of the U.S. aircraft would be a deterrent to Nasser, with whom Kennedy was also simultaneously trying to improve relations. That proved to be illusory. Egyptian aircraft continued to bomb Saudi positions, albeit less frequently, despite the nearby presence of the U.S.A.F. planes. In justification, Egypt contended that Saudi aid to the royalists covertly continued. In fact, a trickle of what the Saudis called “private” aid to the royalists persisted.

The Hard Surface U.S.A.F. personnel also engaged in training Saudi pilots. It was one such pilot, flying with a Saudi trainee, Hart recalls, who first observed unattended bundles on the ground in the area between Yanbu and Jidda. These, it was ascertained, had been dropped by the Egyptians. They were found to contain arms for use by Saudi dissidents. Over a hundred such packages were discovered by the Saudi authorities.

As these U.S. efforts were underway, Washington also sought to engage the United Nations in its peacemaking efforts. Despite Secretary General U Thant’s reluctance, a small U.N. peacekeeping force was deployed to Yemen and to southern Saudi Arabia, nominally to insure compliance with the U.S.-brokered disengagement agreement. Its commander, veteran U.N. peace keeper General Carl Van Horn, quickly concluded that in the vast area and difficult terrain to be covered his small force was inadequate for the mission. He subsequently resigned, due to constant disagreements with U Thant. These problems, together with Egyptian-imposed constraints (especially in preventing observation of Egyptian troop withdrawals and arrivals in Hudaidah), hamstrung the U.N. monitoring function. It ultimately petered into a symbolic but utterly impotent U.N. civilian observer mission.

Hart’s study is replete with revealing glimpses of the kingdom during the years that he knew it. These include the first U.S. agricultural mission al-Kharj in 1944, the Saud-Faisal rivalry, and the eventual deposition in 1964 by a Saud family collegium of King Saud in favor of Faisal, and the Saudi response to Iraqi Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim’s abortive military threat to newly independent Kuwait in 1961. A small Saudi military contingent was at once deployed to Kuwait and served first with the British and then with the Arab League deterrent force. Hart’s narration of his many, sometimes contentious, talks with Faisal on Yemen and related issues sharply etch the strong character of that remarkable Saudi leader.

Hart’s own role in dealing with the Saudi government on these many issues deserves high commendation. Whatever their divergent views and Faisal’s frequent unhappiness with U.S. policy in the Middle East, the Saudi leader clearly respected Hart’s integrity, knowledge, and friendship for Saudi Arabia. That mutual trust enabled the ambassador to overcome numerous difficulties. Characteristically, too, Hart gives full credit to his subordinates, especially to Isa Sabbagh, the Palestinian American, whose mellifluous Arabic charmed us all — even the cantankerous Imam Ahmad of Yemen — and who so ably assisted the ambassador in his endeavors. In sum, Hart’s study is a significant contribution to our understanding of the first two decades of the U.S.-Saudi bond.

A postscript might be added to Ambassador Hart’s sterling account. King Faisal, whatever his initial appreciation of the Bunker mission and Kennedy’s concern for the security of Saudi Arabia, became disenchanted with what he increasingly considered to be the ambivalence of U.S. efforts to resolve the Yemeni problem. Even after the 1967 Egyptian withdrawal from Yemen and the aforementioned Khartoum conference, which Faisal had made a success, he delayed in recognizing the YAR. Not until August 1970 did he finally do so.

Faisal was likewise annoyed at repeated U.S. warnings of a possible Nasser-inspired Saudi military coup, particularly because the United States steadfastly refused to identify its informants. To be sure, a number of Saudi military officers were eventually arrested on the charge of having conspired with the Egyptians, and several others were cashiered.

In connection with Kennedy’s repeated pressure for internal reforms in Saudi Arabia, Faisal once expostulated to this reviewer, who succeed Hart as ambassador to the kingdom, “Does the U.S. want Saudi Arabia to become another Berkeley campus!?” Not until the Johnson administration did then-secretary of state Dean Rusk wisely discontinue all such exhortations for reform, which by then had become almost rote and counterproductive. The Saudi leadership, Rusk believed, was best qualified to judge its own best interests.

Over the years Saudi leaders have perennially carped about U.S. policy in the Middle East. Fortunately, through the efforts of Hart and his successors, much of the edge has been taken out of such disagreements. Putative external threats to Saudi Arabia remain a major factor in the Saudi leadership’s regional thinking. And there continues to be a Saudi recognition, however reluctant, that only the United States has the capability and the willingness to help the kingdom retain its independence in any such contingency. Ambassador Hart’s legacy in forging and nurturing that early U.S.-Saudi Arabian “partnership” endures.  

Herman F. Eilts enjoyed a distinguished 32-year career in the Foreign Service. He served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia (1965-70) and Egypt (1973-79) and retired as Professor Emeritus at Boston University.

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