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Seraj Assi

When Franklin D Roosevelt met Ibn Saud

Ibn Saud's entourage aboard a US Navy ship after the historic meeting with FDR [Bettman/Getty]

Date of publication: 27 June, 2017

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Comment: FDR understood the strength of the Saudi king's opposition to Israel's creation, and these sentiments still dominate debate, despite warming relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, writes Seraj Assi.

There has been a delicious debate of late over the quiet rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Haaretz reported that the appointment of the new Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman was "good news" for Israel.

In what resembles a classic display of an unholy alliance, the two countries look as if they have buried their hatchet and old rivalry under the Iranian rug. What once seemed an eternal rivalry of biblical dimensions is now celebrated as the beginning of a wonderful partnership.

To King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, founder of Saudi Arabia, the good news might come as a tragic shock.

Perhaps more than any Arab or Muslim leader, certainly more than his Saudi successors, Ibn Saud's devotion to the Palestinian cause rested on solid moral ground. Fleshed out in his famous meeting and correspondences with US President Franklin D Roosevelt more than half a century ago, it would colour Arab and Muslim popular imagination of Israel and Palestine for decades to come.

In November 1938, at the peak of the Arab Revolt in Mandate Palestine, Ibn Saud wrote to Roosevelt: "The Jews have no right to Palestine and their claim is an act of injustice unprecedented in the history of the human race."

The king reminded the president that "Palestine has from the earliest history belonged to the Arabs and is situated in the midst of Arab countries".

In a strikingly apocalyptic tone, Ibn Saud warned that if the Jews of Europe ventured into Palestine, "the heavens will split, the earth will be rent asunder, and the mountains will tremble at what the Jews claim in Palestine, both materially and spiritually".

The king's words seemed to have cast their magic spell on Roosevelt

Five years later, in April 1943, Ibn Saud wrote another letter to Roosevelt, in which renewed his commitment to the Palestinian cause. Writing against the backdrop of the Second World War, he warned that the Allies should not allow in Palestine a people "who have no ties with this country except an imaginary claim which, from the point of view of right and justice, has no grounds except what they invent through fraud and deceit".

The king concluded his letter in the same apocalyptic tenor, meshed with a prophetic warning: "For if - God forbid! - the Jews were to be granted their desire, Palestine would forever remain a hotbed of troubles and disturbances."

The king's words seemed to have cast their magic spell on Roosevelt, who in May of that year wrote back to Ibn Saud assuring him that "no decision altering the basic situation of Palestine should be reached without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews".

Two years later, following his participation in the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Roosevelt traveled to the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal where he met Ibn Saud aboard the US cruiser Quincy. It was the first meeting of its kind. In his account of the meeting, FDR Meets Ibn Saud, Colonel William Eddy, who acted as an impresario of the meeting of the two leaders, recounts a pleasant conversation that snowballed into heated argument. 

After a lavish exchange of gifts, followed by a royal feast and sips of Arabian coffee, the two leaders rapidly diverged over the question of Palestine. Roosevelt conveyed to the king his support for the founding of a Jewish national home in Palestine following the imminent end of the British Mandate. The king reminded the president that the country belonged to the Arabs, remarking, that "Palestine would be drenched in blood."

The king reportedly declined generous American aid in return for his support of Jewish immigration to Palestine, warning that the United States had to choose between the Arabs and the Jews. "The Arabs would choose to die," Ibn Saud told FDR, "rather than yield their land to the Jews."

Returning home, Roosevelt was apparently still under Ibn Saud's spell when, on March 1, 1945, he told a joint session of Congress: "I learned more about the whole problem, the Moslem problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in an exchange of two or three dozen letters."

On April 5, he wrote a letter to Ibn Saud reassuring him that the United States would take no measures that "might prove hostile to the Arab people".

Ibn Saud, who spent his final years calling upon Muslims to wage a holy war against the Zionists in Palestine, lived long enough to see his prophecy come true

But what seemingly drifted Roosevelt toward Ibn Saud was not geopolitics per se, but the king's personal predicament: Presiding over the birthplace of Islam, Ibn Saud envisioned himself as custodian of the faith, and Palestine, home to the holiest city in Islam after Mecca and Medina, was at the heart of his vision. Muslims looked to him to fulfill this mission.  

Roosevelt seemed to show a genuine, if timid, sense of empathy for the king's quandary. In a rare confession, he intimated to the Zionist leader Rabbi Stephen Wise, referring to Ibn Saud: "He was an old man and he had swollen ankles and he wanted to live out his life in peace without leaving a memory of himself as a traitor to the Arab cause."

Two months after his meeting with Ibn Saud, and three years before the founding of Israel, Roosevelt died. Ibn Saud, who spent his final years calling upon Muslims to wage a holy war against the Zionists in Palestine, lived long enough to see his prophecy come true. By the time of his death, in 1953, the Arabs had lost Palestine, the Jews had taken over Jerusalem, and the United States had taken the side of Israel.

In Ibn Saud's apocalyptic terms: Heavens did split, the earth was rent asunder, and the mountains trembled.

A lot of water has passed under the region's bridges since that historic meeting. Israel has grown into an unparalleled military power, surrounded by powerless and impoverished Arab states. Saudi Arabia has amassed fabulous wealth, emerging on the global stage as a regional power, and branding itself custodian of Islam, Arab unity and the Palestinian cause.

And yet, Israelis and Saudis, somehow miraculously, have managed to forgo their holy enmity and forge an unholy alliance against a shared enemy, united by the old wisdom of "my enemy's enemy..."

Palestinians, meanwhile, have become a cog in Saudi Arabia's sectarian machine and Israel's geopolitical scheme. In a region dominated by shifting alliances and periodic rebalancing, no enmity seems too sacred to last, and no union too sacred to falter.

Yet the irony persists. In a chilling historical paradox that would make his father shudder, King Salman bin Abdulaziz, who is also "an old man who has swollen ankles and [who] wants to live out his life in peace without leaving a memory of himself as a traitor to the Arab cause", has found in Israel a natural and staunch ally for his revived "Arab" cause: Sunni Islam.

But images linger. For decades, Ibn Saud's vision of Palestine has furnished Arab and Muslim political imagination, serving as a guidebook for their views towards Israel. While Saudi and Israeli officials at the top quietly rejoice over their cozy rapprochement and anti-Iranian honeymoon, it is unlikely that these views will disappear overnight.


Seraj Assi holds a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies from Georgetown University, Washington DC, where he currently a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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