Saudi-Western Relations Since WWII: a modern foundation for a modern alliance?

Saudi Arabia has for some time been the crucial ally of the West in the Middle East. This despite its autocratic and illiberal monarchy, flagrant human rights abuses and covert sponsorship of Sunni fundamentalism in the region. Indeed, US-Saudi diplomatic relations date back to 1933, just a year after the Middle Eastern state’s official unification. British-Saudi relations can be traced back even earlier to the 1915 Treaty of Darin, in which Ibn Saud agreed to his lands being held as a British Protectorate in return for recognition of a fledgling Saudi state.

Ibn Saud - Saudi Arabia's founder and early ally of the West
Ibn Saud – Saudi Arabia’s founder and early ally of the West

Today, Saudi Arabia is taking part in the US-led coalition against the Islamic State (IS), which is trying to perpetuate an extremist version of Islam anathema to even the Saudis. Both Britain and the US have strong economic and commercial ties with the Kingdom, and have done so since the early exploitation of Saudi oil post-WWII.

It was the post-WWII period, in particular, that solidified Saudi Arabia’s strong relations with the West. The House of Saud was vehemently anti-communist and predominantly concerned with ensuring regional security so that its oil exports would remain stable. It opposed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait that precipitated the Gulf War. Furthermore, it has remained a key military and security ally for recent Western engagement in the Middle East.

How supportive Ibn Saud was of the Allied cause during WWII, however, is open to conjecture. It is generally believed that despite officially remaining neutral (despite a token declaration of war in 1945), he was more sympathetic to the Allies than the Axis powers. Whether this translated into significant material support is not so clear. A British War Cabinet document from January 1942 is intriguing in this respect. Hoping to coax the Saudis into the war on the Allied side, a British diplomat in the Middle East put forward three proposals:

A) Negotiate a treaty of alliance between Britain and Saudi Arabia;

B) Encourage Ibn Saud to make an official declaration of war against the Axis powers;

C) ‘A simple declaration by Ibn Saud that he has reached the conclusion that every good Muslim should be on the side of the Allies against the powers of evil and that he is himself prepared to offer the Allies every assistance in his power’.

The Middle Eastern theatre was relatively quiet during WWII, most of the fighting concentrated to the west in North Africa and the Mediterranean. A strong, and pro-Allied, Saudi state may have helped define these operations
The Middle Eastern theatre was relatively quiet during WWII, most of the fighting concentrated to the west in North Africa and the Mediterranean. A strong, and pro-Allied, Saudi state may have helped define these operations

Unsurprisingly, the diplomat recommended Proposal C as the most likely to achieve success. It would provide both sides with the comfort they required in that ‘the facilities to be granted by him [Ibn Saud] need not be publicly defined, nor need any public statement be made regarding assistance which we were rendering to Saudi Arabia in return’.

Ibn Saud, therefore, would not be prey to domestic criticism and complaints amongst the Arab nationalists that their country was fighting on the side of the imperialists. Britain, on the other hand, could conceal the amount of money it was providing Saudi Arabia from its cautious and war-weary public, which had already endured many government-imposed hardships.

Ibn Saud with President Roosevelt towards the end of WWII
Ibn Saud with President Roosevelt towards the end of WWII

It is possible, then, that Ibn Saud accepted proposal C, providing local support for Allied operations that helped them claim victory in the Middle Eastern theatre. Perhaps it was this very modern-seeming piece of diplomacy that helped set the foundations for a lasting and pivotal global relationship. Either way, it is a relationship worth maintaining.

National Archives Reference

CAB 80/33

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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