The U.S. Strategy to Control Middle Eastern Oil: “One of the Greatest Material Prizes in World History
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
In the midst of World War II, Saudi Arabia secured a position of enormous significance to the rising world power, America. With its oil reserves essentially untapped, the House of Saud became a strategic ally of immense importance, “a matter of national security, nourishing U.S. military might and enhancing the potentiality of postwar American hegemony.” Saudi Arabia welcomed the American interest as it sought to distance itself from its former imperial master, Britain, which it viewed with suspicion as the British established Hashemite kingdoms in the Middle East – the old rivals of the Saudis – in Jordan and Iraq.
The Saudi monarch, Abdul Aziz bin Abdul Rahman al Saud had to contend not only with the reality of Arab nationalism spreading across the Arab world (something which he would have to rhetorically support to legitimate his rule, but strategically maneuver through in order to maintain his rule), but he would also play off the United States and Great Britain against one another to try to ensure a better deal for ‘the Kingdom’, and ensure that his rivals – the Hashemites – in Jordan and Iraq did not spread their influence across the region. Amir (King) Abdullah of Transjordan – the primary rival to the Saudi king – sought to establish a “Greater Syria” following World War II, which would include Transjordan, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, and not to mention, the Hejaz province in Saudi Arabia. The image and potential of a “Greater Syria” was central in the mind of King Abdul Aziz. The means through which the House of Saud would seek to prevent such a maneuver and protect the ‘Kingdom’ was to seek Western protection. As the United States had extensive oil interests in the Kingdom, it seemed a natural corollary that the United States government should become the ‘protector’ of Saudi Arabia, especially since the British, long the primary imperial hegemon of the region (with France a close second), had put in place the Hashemites in Transjordan and Iraq. For the Saudis, the British could not be trusted.
The Saudi King rose to power and established the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1927 and made formal ties with the United States in 1931. An oil concession was soon granted to the Rockefeller-owned Standard Oil of California, and thereafter, large quantities of oil were discovered in the Kingdom, thus increasing the importance of the Saudi monarch. This was especially true during World War II, when access to and control over petroleum reserves were of the utmost importance in determining the course of the war. In 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt acknowledged as much when he signed Executive Order 8926, which stated that, “the defense of Saudi Arabia [is] vital to the defense of the United States.” United States Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, several months earlier, suggested to President Roosevelt that the United States be more involved in organizing oil concessions in Saudi Arabia not only for the war effort, but “to counteract certain known activities of a foreign power which presently are jeopardizing American interests in Arabian oil reserves.” That “foreign power” was Great Britain. In fact, there was immense distrust of British intentions in the Middle East, and specifically in Saudi Arabia, on the part of the State Department’s Division of Near East Affairs (NEA). A great deal of this tension and antagonism, however, emerged from Saudi diplomacy which sought to play off the two great powers against one another in the hopes of securing for itself a better deal.
Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary (and later Prime Minister), wrote to Prime Minister Winston Churchill in September of 1943 that, “our difficulty is to keep the Americans in line,” in relation to Saudi Arabia. As Roosevelt’s Executive Order categorized Saudi Arabia as “vital to the defense of the United States,” this allowed Saudi Arabia to qualify for the Lend-Lease program during the war, reducing Saudi dependency upon the British, and which included arms sales to the Kingdom. Following this event, British Foreign Office officials lamented, “We would not dream of entertaining a direct application for arms from a South American country for example, without at once consulting the American arms representative in London and deferring to his views.” This, of course, was a reference to Latin America in the context of the Monroe Doctrine – America’s “backyard” – and thus, was implying, that the Middle East was Britain’s “backyard.”
Adolf A. Berle, Roosevelt’s Assistant Secretary of State explained to the British the objective of American designs for the Middle East. As Simon Davis summarized, European imperial “spheres of influence were to give way to open political and economic circumstances in which Americans interests were not to be demarcated by other great powers.” In short, it was to be the demise of formal imperialism for the rise of informal empire, led by the United States. The “open political and economic circumstances” desired by American officials were in no small part influenced by petroleum concerns. Technical studies had been undertaken which pointed to the Middle East as the most oil-rich region in the world. At the time, Saudi Arabia was the only country in which American oil interests had established themselves prior to World War II. The British had actually approached the United States on behalf of the House of Saud in the early 1940s to secure funds for the Saudi government, as the British were stretched thin by the war in Europe. The United States had at first rejected the proposals, suggesting that Saudi Arabia was British responsibility. The American Minister in Cairo, Alexander Kirk, complained that such a move suggested to the Arab world that the United States was “resigning to the British all initiative in the Near East generally and in Saudi Arabia particularly.” The Saudis then approached American oil companies for support in 1942, who in turn approached the State Department’s Division of Near East Affairs, raising fears that leaving “responsibility” for the Near East and Saudi Arabia to the British would eventually mean a loss of oil concessions in Saudi Arabia to British interests. At the same time, Saudi officials were also quietly approaching the British to increase their interest in the Kingdom, suggesting that the Americans were attempting to maneuver the British out of the Near East. The Saudi Foreign Minister told a British official in December of 1942 that, “although [King Ibn Saud’s] relations with United States are friendly both in themselves and because United States is Britain’s ally… yet his relations with United States could never be so close and friendly as with His Majesty’s Government with whom he has so many interests in common.”
A deceptive diplomatic game between the United States, Great Britain, and Saudi Arabia ensued. As the Americans shifted their interest in Saudi Arabia in 1943, Gordon Merriam, the assistant chief of the State Department’s Division of Near Eastern Affairs suggested in January of 1943 that the possibility of the British pushing their way into America’s oil concessions in the Kingdom after the war “has been very much on our minds.” Secretary of State Cordell Hull wrote that, “It should be kept clearly in mind that the expansion of British facilities serves to build up their post-war position in the Middle East at the expense of American interests there.”
Britain, however, was not trying to exclude the United States, but to include it in an Anglo-American approach to the region. British Foreign Office documents stressed that the British were “by no means prepared to sacrifice a century of hard-earned political influence in the Middle East to their upstart American cousins,” however, the British sought to “coopt rather than preempt US interests.” Churchill even wrote to Roosevelt to stress “the fullest assurance that we have no thought of trying to horn in upon your interests and property in Saudi Arabia.” The British even acknowledged in their internal correspondence that, “it seems probably that sooner or later the United States will become the foreign power most concerned with Saudi Arabian affairs.” The aim of the British, then, was not to expand their influence at the expense of the Americans, but to maintain their influence as the U.S. increased its own.
In July of 1944, British diplomat Lord Halifax wrote to the United States, “We have made it perfectly plain that we have no wish to oppose increased American influence in Saudi Arabia so long as it does not seek to crowd us out. But it would be helpful if the Americans would realize that they cannot hope to achieve overnight quite the same position that we have built up over long years.” The United States was pressuring Britain to replace their representative in Saudi Arabia, S.R. Jordan, over State Department fears that Jordan was the primary British antagonist of expanding American influence in the Kingdom. Jordan was ironically, at that time, writing in cables to the British that, “Strategically, it would appear that we have little to fear from the presence of increasing US participation in Saudi Arabian affairs.” What became most frustrating to the British, however, was not the expansion of American power, but rather the perspective of Americans at the State Department (with fears stoked by the oil companies and Saudis) that the British were trying to keep the US out of Middle Eastern affairs. As the British Minister of State in the Middle East, Lord Moyne, observed, “I am afraid it is another of the many cases we have had in the Middle East where the local American idea of cooperation is that we should do all the giving and they all the taking.” As the British realized the Saudi role in creating these fears among the Americans, Moyne wrote, “It has subsequently turned out that the Finance Minister and the King’s Syrian advisers have been furnishing misleading figures and exploiting their position for political ends.”
In 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt wrote a memo to the American Director of Economic Operations in the Middle East in which he made clear: “The Middle East is an area in which the United States has a vital interest.” That interest, of course, was oil. Roosevelt made assurances that Middle Eastern oil belonged to the Western imperialist nations and not the Middle East itself, as he wrote that “the objective of the United States” in the Middle East “is to make certain that all nations are accorded equality of opportunity,” and that “special privileges… should not be afforded to any country or its nationals.” This was, of course, indirectly referring to France and especially Great Britain, the imperial hegemons of the Middle East. The “equality of opportunity” to exploit the resources of the Middle East was simply referring to the expansion of America’s “vital interest” in the region.
In 1945, the British were increasingly frustrated with the American approach to Middle East relations. Some internal documents from the British Foreign Office reflected the varied positions of their diplomats:
The Americans are commercially on the offensive… we shall enter a period of commercial rivalry, and we should not make any concession that would assist American commercial penetration into a region which for generations has been an established British market.
For some years the United States have been showing an increasing interest in the Middle East. They worried us by an obstructive and disapproving attitude, the basis and reason of which remained obscure… On the American side there is the lively conviction that the USA have the right to go where they wish and to the extent that they wish… But we, on our side, feel that the Americans, irrespectively of any suspicion on their part that we are trying to exclude them, are trying by means that seem to us both aggressive and unfair to build up a position for themselves at our expense, or at any rate without regard to our established interests.
It seemed, then, that both the Americans and the British feared and suspected each other of attempting the same thing: to increase their own influence in the region and decrease that of the other power. The Saudis, in the middle, were playing a game between two great powers in the hopes of securing their own interests. And they had good leverage which allowed them to play such a game: oil.
There was continuous reference to Britain’s apparent ‘right’ to the Middle East, drawing the comparison to the United States Monroe Doctrine (of 1823) declaring a U.S. ‘right’ to Latin America. As one British official wrote, “The U.S. hasn’t invited us to share her influence in Panama… we are entitled to our Monroe Doctrine in the Arab countries.”
In 1945, President Roosevelt held a formal meeting with the Saudi King aboard the USS Quincy. The issue of Palestine was an important one in discussions, and was viewed as a major challenge to the cause and potential of Arab nationalism across the Middle East. Roosevelt informed Aziz that the U.S. would make “no decision altering the basic situation of Palestine… without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews,” and that, “he would do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs and would make no hostile move to the Arab people.” Aziz, in the meeting, also stressed the issue of Syrian and Lebanese sovereignty, seeking to ensure they kept separate from a potential Hashemite “Greater Syria,” to which Roosevelt ensured that if Saudi sovereignty were ever under threat, the United States would undertake “all possible support short of the use of force.”
King Ibn Saud asked Roosevelt, inquiring on the future of Saudi-US ties, “What am I to believe when the British tell me that my future is with them and not with America? They constantly say, or imply, that America’s principal interest in Saudi Arabia is a transitory war-interest… and that America, after the war, will return to her preoccupations in the Western Hemisphere… and that Britain alone will continue as my partner in the future as in the early years of my reign.” To this, Roosevelt assured the King that the United States would maintain an interest and added that the America wanted freedom and prosperity for all, while the British wanted “freedom and prosperity” which was marked: “Made in Britain.” The King replied, “Never have I heard the English so accurately described.”
American interest in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East more broadly did not die with Roosevelt. His successor, Harry Truman, was just as eager to “open the door” to the Middle East. A 1945 memorandum to President Truman written by the Chief of the Division of Near Eastern Affairs in the U.S. State Department, Gordon Merriam, stated:
In Saudi Arabia, where the oil resources constitute a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history, a concession covering this oil is nominally in American control.
Adolf A. Berle, one of Franklin Roosevelt’s closest advisers, particularly in relation to the construction of the post-War world, years later remarked that controlling the oil reserves of the Middle East would mean obtaining “substantial control of the world.”
For King Abdul Aziz, his main concerns continued to be focused on his rivals, the Hashemites, and the possibility of “Greater Syria.” This naturally increased his interest in promoting the Palestinian cause of self-determination, and thus also put him at odds with the United States on issues related to Palestine. Abdul Aziz had spoken out against policies in Palestine, and was increasingly framing himself as the leader of the Arab world. The rivalry between the Arab kingdoms of Transjordan and Iraq on one side, and Saudi Arabia on the other, prevented the Arabs from uniting on the issue of Palestine. The American Minister to Saudi Arabia, James Rives Childs, warned that, “Unless we proceed with the utmost circumspection in considering all phases of the possible repercussions of the Palestinian question… we may raise difficulties for ourselves in this most strategic area of vital national interest which will plague the United States constantly in years to come.” However, while King Abdul spoke out publicly against Western interference in Palestine, he privately informed American officials that he intended “never to let Palestine interfere with his relations with the United States… I’m talking big because everyone else is… it seems to be the most effective course.”
King Abdul was increasingly worried about the British possibly supporting Jordan’s King Abdullah in his plan for a “Greater Syria” as they sought to end the British Mandate in Palestine and find a new alternative to the “Palestinian question.” Between 1946 and 1947, Saudi princes relayed the King’s concern to President Truman that there existed a British conspiracy with the Hashemites to depose him and destroy the Saudi dynasty. The State Department informed the Saudis that the United States had no information “which would cause it to believe that the British government was giving support to any scheme for the extension of British influence in the Middle East through the establishment of a Greater Syria.” Abdul Aziz was not convinced, and felt “that the development of strong economic ties with the United States offers the greatest possible available insurance from invasion.” As the British handed the Palestine Mandate to the United Nations in 1947, the Saudi King relayed to the United States that the question of Palestine, and thus ‘Greater Syria,’ was “the only thorn in Saudi-American relations.” However, as the United Nations partitioned Palestine, despite Saudi protests against the United States on the issue, King Abdul Aziz wrote:
I occupy a position of preeminence in the Arab world. In the case of Palestine, I have to make a common cause with the other Arab states. Although the other Arab states may bring pressure to bear on me, I do not anticipate that a situation will arise whereby I shall be drawn into conflict with friendly western powers over this question.
In 1948, after a great deal of diplomatic back-and-forth on the Palestine issue, the Arab states invaded after months of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian population by militant Zionists in the British Mandate. Saudi Arabia, together with Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and even Jordan and Iraq, invaded Palestine immediately after the Zionists declared the State of Israel in May of 1948. However, as the Arabs were distrustful of one another, their incursion was doomed to failure, and they grossly underestimated the military strength of the Zionists, which was built up under the British Mandate.
The United States took a stated position of neutrality amid the conflict, in order to prevent upsetting its relations with the Arab world, which already were so damaged as a result of recognizing the state of Israel, an act which had created immense protest and condemnation from the State Department. In January of 1949, a cease-fire was signed between Israel and Egypt, and Israel emerged the obvious victor in the 1948-49 war. Thereafter, the United States lifted its arms embargo to the Middle East to provide the Saudis with military aid. The United States had emerged from the birth of Israel with a deeply scarred image in the Arab world, and with that, increased fear over Soviet expansion into the area led the U.S. to conclude that it had to support “strong men” in the region, such as Abdul Aziz. In 1949, a U.S. survey mission was sent to Saudi Arabia to examine the potential for building up a strong Saudi military force. King Abdul desired “a military force equal to or greater than the forces [of] Jordan and Iraq.” The U.S. mission recommended “the training and equipping of a Saudi defensive force totaling 43,000 officers and men, composed of 28,000 combat troops and 15,000 Air Force support and logistic personnel.” Thus, a strong Saudi-American relationship was established as one of the main outposts of U.S. influence in the Middle East, control over oil, and containment of the Soviet Union.
The aim, as articulated by State Department strategists, was to maintain “substantial control of the world” through control of Middle Eastern oil: “one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”
In a 1948 State Department Policy Planning Paper written by George Kennan – the architect of the ‘containment’ policy toward the USSR – it was explained that following World War II, America held 50% of the world’s wealth, yet had only 6.3% of the world’s population, a “disparity [which] is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia,” thus, destined to create “envy and resentment.” The real task for America, then, wrote Kennan:
is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.
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