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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Pakistan’s Security Inertia and the legacy of CENTRO

The son of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto has called for decisive action against the militants operating within Pakistan’s borders, particularly the Taliban. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari claims that attempts to negotiate a peaceful compromise with the militants have been exhausted.

Pakistan’s internal security has been an important global issue in the 21st century. Having sheltered Osama Bin Laden (knowingly or not) and continued to provide a safe haven for a variety of anti-Western militants and terrorists that operate across the Afghan border, the South Asian nation remains under constant scrutiny.

Pakistan is home to a variety of militant and terrorist groups
Pakistan is home to a variety of militant and terrorist groups

Many Pakistanis have, in recent months, decried American drone strikes against militants within their borders and national politicians continue to insist that Pakistan can take care of its own security without its sovereignty being violated. This, however, has proven impossible. Pakistani officials and military leaders are either unwilling or unable to secure their country and, by extension, help securitise the region.

The wariness felt by many Pakistanis towards the West partly has its roots in the Cold War era. In 1955, the Turco-Iraqi Pact (later the Baghdad Pact) was signed as a form of mutual protection in the Middle East, the main threat being perceived as from the Soviets. Britain and Iran also signed the deal and were keen for Pakistan to do likewise.

Even at this early stage of its country’s existence, Pakistan’s government showed hesitancy at involving themselves in a multilateral security arrangement with ‘outsiders’. Before signing the pact they insisted it contain a Letter of Reservation outlining two conditions:

1) The military liabilities of signatory states may be invoked under the Pact only in the event of unprovoked attack on any of the signatory countries of the Middle East

2) The extent of military assistance to be invoked in an eventuality invisaged in the foregoing clause shall insofar as Pakistan is concerned depend on:

a) the size of armed forces and other military logistic resources available to Pakistan at that time

b) the general military and international situation which may be existing at that time and after taking into consideration the forces required for the security of Pakistan in regard to any possible threats of aggression which may result from conditions then prevailing.

This vague reticence testified to the Pakistani government’s concern over committing to a pact that, in theory, would benefit the security of its country. Britain, for one, could not understand the hesitation in Karachi signing the deal yet recognised the strategic importance of Pakistan with regards to Middle Eastern security during the Cold War. They acquiesced to the reservations.

Britain recognised the important role Pakistan could play in creating a bulwark against Soviet incursion into the Middle East
Britain recognised the important role Pakistan could play in creating a bulwark against Soviet incursion into the Middle East

When Iraq left the pact in 1958, it became known as the Central Treaty Organization (CENTRO) and it was effectively useless, ultimately realising Pakistani misgivings.

CENTRO failed to prevent its own signatories facing off by proxy during the Arab-Israeli conflicts, stood by as Turkey invaded Cyprus and steered clear of the warring between India and Pakistan. Despite claiming to be a mutual protection pact if the threat wasn’t Soviet, it seemingly didn’t matter.

CENTRO was worthless when it came to Pakistani concerns over India
CENTRO was worthless when it came to Pakistani concerns over India

The Iranian Revolution and the Shah’s overthrow proved the final straw and CENTRO formally capitulated.

It would be no surprise if CENTRO’s failure fuelled Pakistani mistrust towards the West. Furthermore, it perhaps reinforced the worrying reality that, despite delusional claims that they could secure their own borders, the Pakistan government was sadly reliant on the dubious and unpredictable intervention capabilities of foreign powers for its security.

Caught between forging a strong multilateral alliance with its Western security partners and the desire to show a fortified indigenous stance against vicious militant groups, Pakistan is stuck. It craves and fears abandonment by the West.

It has created a dangerous inertia that is being exploited by the Taliban and others; an inertia the young Bhutto demands an end to.