Brief, Tumultuous U.S. Relations With Arabs Reach Turning Point : Diplomacy: Their governments are cognizant of the need for good ties with Washington.


The deployment of U.S. forces to Saudi Arabia marks a watershed in the brief--and tumultuous--relationship between the United States and the Arab world.

Just 50 years ago, when White House aides suggested that Washington seek to build some influence in the desert wastelands of the Arabian Peninsula, then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt was unimpressed.

"Tell the British I hope they can take care of the king of Saudi Arabia," Roosevelt scribbled in a staff memo. "This is a little far afield for us."

Today, the United States stands on the threshold of war to protect the Saudi monarchy and its oil fields, and on the nation's TV screens and in its newspapers, Americans are haunted once again by the images they have come to associate with the Arab world:


Swirling crowds shouting, "Death to America!"

Calls for a holy war against the Western forces of evil.

What once was considered only saber-rattling now seems frighteningly real.

It may not be surprising that Americans have learned to think of the Arabs as their natural enemies--though the perception belies the intimate and longstanding relationship between the two peoples. With few exceptions, Arab governments have been visibly pro-American--in deed, if not in word--and cognizant of the need for good relations with Washington.

Morocco, in fact, was the first foreign country to recognize the United States, in 1777. The treaty of friendship that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams signed the next year with Sultan Mohammed ben Abdallah III--a forebear of Morocco's present ruler, King Hassan II--remains in effect today, the longest uninterrupted treaty in U.S. history.

Oman's Sultan Sayyid ibn Said--the great-great-grandfather of today's Sultan Kaboos--signed a treaty of amity and commerce with Washington in 1833, promising "perpetual peace" between the two countries.

And in 1957, a young American senator, John F. Kennedy, startled everyone--and won lasting admiration from the Arabs--by siding with Algeria in its war for independence against France.

The Arabs' aspirations for self-determination had been crushed in the aftermath of World War I, when the major European powers reneged on their pledges and divided up the Arab world among themselves.

From that wartime debacle, the Arabs found only one foreign hero--U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, whose Fourteen Points peace plan denounced secret treaties, proposed a League of Nations to prevent future wars and called for self-determination for all peoples.

To the Arabs, Wilson was the symbol of America's fairness and concern for the welfare of the common man.

It was not until the final days of World War II in 1945--a war that extended U.S. interests to every corner of the globe--that Washington finally decided to exert its influence in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula.

Roosevelt--urbane, worldly, the leader of mightiest nation on Earth--met in February of that year with Abdulaziz ibn Saud, a barely literate warrior-leader whose isolated kingdom mattered little except to the oil barons.

Roosevelt had hoped to gain Ibn Saud's support for increased Jewish immigration to Palestine, which he thought would help make the Arab-Jewish problem simply fade away. Ibn Saud was unswayed, but the two men got along well and Roosevelt promised that the United States would make no policy decision on the Palestinian issue without first consulting Saudi Arabia. It was the first of many promises that the United States would make to the Arabs in the postwar era. Few were ever kept.

Increasingly, U.S. policy in the Middle East was based on balancing Soviet influence and, after the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, on supporting Israel, whose birth as a nation in 1948 was made possible by U.S. assistance.

But that policy often ignored growing Arab nationalism, the xenophobia of some Arab nations and the Arabs' bitterness at being exploited by foreigners, from the Ottoman Turks to American oilmen who in the 1930s were paying the sheik of Jidda $1 per ton for Saudi oil that they then sold in the United States for 50 cents a barrel . Each ton of oil contains 7 1/3 barrels.

By the 1950s, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt had taken the leadership of the Arab world. Bombastic and truculent, he stood up to the West and would not be bullied by the superpowers, no matter how disastrous the economic consequences.

"Oh, America, may you choke on your fury!" Nasser shouted at a rally after American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles withdrew a U.S. offer to build the Aswan Dam because Nasser had recognized China and concluded a cotton-for-weapons deal with the Soviet Union.

As a result, Nasser turned to Moscow to construct the $1.5-billion dam that would harness the waters of the river Nile. After Dulles withdrew the offer, pro-Russian leaflets passed from hand to hand in the streets of Cairo, and screaming mobs in Jordan burned down an American technical-aid station and attacked the U.S. Consulate with stones. A new era had begun in the Arab world.

Seven days after Dulles made his announcement, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, whose shares were held by British and French interests. About 70% of Europe's oil passed through the 100-mile-long waterway connecting the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, and France and Britain, in collusion with Israel, went to war to thwart the takeover.

If the nationalization had succeeded, "each one of us would be at the mercy of one man for the supplies upon which we live," declared Britain's prime minister, Sir Anthony Eden.

Thirty-three years later, President Bush would echo much the same words in justifying the U.S. military buildup in Saudi Arabia to counter Iraq's annexation of Kuwait. (The Suez crisis ended when President Eisenhower arranged a cease-fire and a withdrawal of foreign forces, which restored Egyptian sovereignty.)

But the Arabs have never been a monolithic bloc, and while often condemning the United States in public, they knew they needed Washington--to provide leverage that could pressure Israel, to maintain economic stability, to supply them with the latest armaments and to fulfill if necessary the pledge made by three successive U.S. presidents to defend the oil fields of the Persian Gulf.

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