The Myth of Bitter Lake: Did the British Empire foist Saudi Arabia on the United States?

Founding political myths provide reassuring points of reference but they do not provide the full, or even, real reason on why major historical moments occurred. As is popularly known the American Revolution was triggered specifically by the Boston Tea Party in defiance of the British Parliament’s Tea Act of 1773. Yet in a recent article in the New York Review of Books, historian Professor Steve Pincus argues it was a series of economic policies, enforced by the British parliament from the 1760’s onwards that made no small contribution to the colonialist’s rebellion against King George’s tyranny.

Recently in the United Kingdom a commemoration was held to mark hundred years since the Gallipoli expedition during World War One. The British Empire had intended to defeat the Ottoman Empire’s forces by sailing through the straits of Dardanelles and then move on to occupy Istanbul for the latter than to be parcelled out to its ally, Imperial Russia.

The ‘Asia Minor Agreement’ between the Entente Powers of the British Empire, France and Imperial Russia divided the Ottoman Empire amongst themselves but after the Russian revolution (and the subsequent withdrawal of Russia from the war) this agreement became popularly known as Sykes-Picot. The British Empire’s failure to breach the Ottoman Empire’s positions at Dardanelles compelled it to fish around amongst the latter’s suzerainty in search of disgruntled groups who would be tricked into executing Great Britain’s dirty work of defeating the Ottomans and breaking up their Empire. Hence we today have the legend of the “Arab Revolt” as championed and jointly led by the British agent T.E.Lawrence aka “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Similarly when one attempts to ascertain the origins of the United States and the Saudi Arabian decades old alliance, the meeting held between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Kingdom’s founder, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud on board the USS Quincy on 14th February 1945 at Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal is widely regarded as the symbolic starting point. Hitherto, Ibn Saud had been the British Empire’s most reliable and favoured ally or desert stooge.

Since capturing Riyadh, what is now Saudi Arabia’s capital, with British weapons in 1902 Ibn Saud had dutifully and faithfully done the Empire’s bidding. Whether it was attacking the Ottoman’s Empire’s representative’s in the Arabian desert or dispatching the recalcitrant Hussain Ibn Ali from the Hijaz, (the western part of today’s Saudi Arabia) in the mid-1920’s after he had refused to accept the Britain’s Zionist colonial project in Palestine; the Empire knew it had a loyal servant in Ibn Saud.

But with the Empire’s resources stretched during World War Two, some British diplomats as early as 1941 were attempting to encourage American involvement in Saudi Arabia. Th Empire believed it could no longer afford to subsidise Ibn Saud as well as soundly account for its own domestic and other imperial undertakings. According to two British biographers of the Saudi clan, David Holden and Richard Johns, British diplomats “had attempted in the dark days of 1941 to interest the United States Government in taking on some of their financial burden in Saudi Arabia” to no avail.[1]

Two academic studies by Dr. Barry Rubin also confirm it was the British who made the initial approaches to the United States.  In the summer of 1941 the Minister-Counsellor in the British embassy in the United States, Neville Butler was attempting to encourage the State Department’s head of Near East Affairs, Wallace Murray to purchase more oil from Saudi Arabia. In a meeting in late July 1941, Butler suggested to Murray that it was “most important” that Ibn Saud knew he had friends in the United States to which he can rely on for assistance.[2]

Several weeks later on August 21st the Americans rebuffed British approaches to subsidise Ibn Saud. Yet this did not stop the British from trying to work out a way of enticing the Americans to take some responsibility in the Middle East. The British remained adamant that the Americans should and must be involved in the Arab World, as the “Foreign Office was trying to work out some division of economic opportunity and political responsibility to avoid being overwhelmed by the United States.”[3]

In other words, for the British, the issue was how to financially cut the Americans into the Middle East. As such, if the Americans were to be appropriately cut in, they would, it was thought, inevitably burden more imperial responsibility for policing the Middle East without threatening other British interests.

But why choose Ibn Saud? Why didn’t the British stealthily offer Iran, Iraq or any other oil wells which the British had carved countries out from i.e. Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, etc?

It appears that Saudi Arabia was the nation chosen by British imperialists to ingratiate the Americans with largely because the British clearly felt that they had enough oil in Iran and Iraq to satisfy their needs and therefore could afford to portion out Saudi Arabia to the Americans. Moreso, with the Empire’s oil needs met in Iran and Iraq there was no need to develop Saudi Arabian oil fields. This was noted by American officials who reported that the British “blessed with ample oil supplies from Iran and Iraq” had no interest in developing Saudi reserves.[4]

Furthermore, In Rubin’s book on American-British rivalry in the early 1940’s in the Middle East he observed that:

“The British, far from seeking to exclude American interests from the region, were attempting to work out a method for providing America with some responsibilities in the Middle East in order to make it a reliable partner in helping to shore up existing British interests.”[5]This responsibility ultimately culminated in transmuting Ibn Saud from a British puppet into an American puppet.

In other words if existing British interests were to be given a second American guard in the region then the Americans too needed something real or “ample” to defend. As Butler argued “Americans are not likely to accept responsibilities in the Middle East unless they first have increasing material interests there.”[6]The historian John Keay states that the “the British were to be seen simply as inviting US collaboration in the face of a new global peril.”[7] The peril was later identified as communism.

After the Americans acquiesced in accepting British invitations to embrace and subsidise Ibn Saud with a lend-lease package other narratives began to be concocted to explain the new geo-political alliance between the USA and Saudi Arabia. One narrative recently advocated by the BBC’s legendry Adam Curtis in his documentary on the meeting at Bitter Lake, is that a quid pro quo was agreed between Roosevelt and Ibn Saud, whereby the former would provide military security in exchange for ‘controlling’ the latter’s oil. But the United States’s oil needs have always largely been met by trade with western hemisphere nations.

Another narrative peddled mainly by British historians bestowed Ibn Saud with the vision, foresight and indeed the ability of reading the desert runes in that he “sensed a coming change in the regional balance of power”[8] or Ibn Saud possessed the “familiar bedouin eye to the main chance which dictated a prompt accommodation to the new facts of life”[9] and this therefore was why he struck a deal with the United States rather than the British Empire. Obviously, Ibn Saud’s sublime intuitions dovetailed neatly with British strategies.

When Roosevelt finally met Ibn Saud in 1945 at Great Bitter Lake it was on the back of almost four years of diplomatic shenanigans between British and American diplomats. When a British diplomat did complain in 1945 of the United States usurping UK’s long established alliance with Ibn Saud he was rebuffed by central government because “London ‘was glad to see the Americans with a substantial stake in the Middle East.’”[10]

The meeting at Bitter Lake has now come to symbolise the founding of American and Saudi Arabia geo-political relationship when it most likely represented the ceremonial handover and makeover of a pliable British stooge into an ever more pliable American stooge. In many respects the meeting can also be seen as a belated, decades-old, addendum to the Sykes-Picot carve up: American power was allowed to wiggle into the Middle East alongside the British with its own piece of Saudi booty.

[1] David Holden and Richard Johns, “The House of Saud” (London : Pan Books, 1982), pg.127

[2] Barry Rubin, “Anglo American Relations in Saudi Arabia, 1941-1945”, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 14 (1979), pg.254

[3] ibid., pg.255-6

[4] ibid., pg.262

[5] Barry Rubin, “The Great Powers in the Middle East 1941-1947” (London: Frank Cass, 1980), pg. 38-39.

[6] ibid., pg. 39

[7] John Keay, “Sowing the Wind: The mismanagement of the Middle East 1900-1960” (London: John Murray, 2003) pg. 334

[8] Lawrence James, “Churchill and Empire: Portrait of an Imperialist” (London: Pheonix, 2013) pg.326

[9] Holden & Johns, op., cit. Pg. 135

[10] Rubin, “The Great Powers in the Middle East 1941-1947”, op., cit., pg. 64

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