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1945 Meeting of FDR and Saudi King Was Pivotal for Relations

August 09, 1990|RUDY ABRAMSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — As the United States hailed its new relationship with Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney took note of a little-remembered meeting that provided early stability to Washington's relations with the desert kingdom.

During his crisis meeting with King Fahd last weekend, Cheney recalled, the Saudi king had spoken of the two countries' historic relationship dating back to a meeting between his father, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The meeting quickly became lost in the mists of history because it took place in the immediate aftermath of the historic Yalta conference at which Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Josef Stalin agreed on the outlines of post-World War II Europe.

At the time, the United States and Britain were in significant disagreement over the future of the Middle East. Upon conclusion of the Yalta conference in February, 1945, Roosevelt surprised Churchill by announcing that, on his way home, he had scheduled meetings with King Saud, King Farouk of Egypt and Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

Flying from the Crimea to Malta, Roosevelt took the cruiser Quincy to Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal, where it remained for three days during the meetings.

Some members of the party thought Roosevelt was mainly interested in idle diversion--"taking in the colorful panoply of sovereigns of this part of the world who thought President Roosevelt of the United States could probably solve all their troubles," wrote presidential speechwriter Robert Sherwood.

In providing local color, the Saudi warrior-king did not disappoint, slaughtering a goat for his meals on the deck of the U.S. warship.

But Roosevelt's real interest was to engage King Saud on the issue of Palestine and the underlying animosities that divide the Middle East even now.

The king bluntly warned Roosevelt even then that Arabs would take up arms rather than see an expansion of Jewish settlements.

"The President seemed not to fully comprehend what Ibn Saud was saying to him," Sherwood later recalled, "for he brought the question up two or three times more, and each time Ibn Saud was more determined than before."

Three months later, Roosevelt was dead, and it was left to his successors to deal with the partition of Palestine and the consequences the Saudi king predicted.

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