Washington, Riyadh and the legend of the Quincy Pact

Washington, Riyadh and the legend of the Quincy Pact
Comment: A meeting between US and Saudi leaders aboard an American warship in the Red Sea gave birth to a legend that a clandestine agreement was hatched.
9 min read
01 Mar, 2016
Saudi Arabia remains one of the US' closest allies in the region [Getty]
Among the stories that might be considered urban legends - shared by many but unverified, based partly on fact and providing an explanation of contemporary events in the Middle East - there is the Quincy Pact, named after the US warship where President Franklin Roosevelt met with Saudi Arabia's King Abdul Aziz al-Saud on 14 February 1945 after the Yalta Conference.

This pact, guaranteeing the Saudi monarchy's military protection in exchange for access to oil, is said to have covered five main points: 

- Ibn Saud would not transfer any part of the territory, and concessionary companies would only be tenants on the land;

- the length of concessions was set at 60 years. On expiry of the contract (in 2005) the wells, installations and equipment would be entirely returned to the monarchy. The contract could be renewed for a similar length of time;

- by extension, the stability of the Arabian peninsula constituted part of the vital interests of the United States;

- US support involved securing not just its role as a supplier of cheap oil, but also as the hegemonic presence in the Arabian peninsula;

- Washington guaranteed the stability of the peninsula and that of the Gulf region, in the form of legal and military assistance in litigation pitting the al-Sauds against the other Emirates in the Gulf.

Author after author (some of whom are very well respected) have recounted this version of events, and it can also found on various websites.

We might talk of a "Google effect" here, where truth is founded on repetition rather than the verification of original documents. That said, the content of the Quincy conversation was published very early on, for the first time in 1948 in a fragmented form, and for a second time in 1954 by the person serving as the interpreter at the meeting - the US envoy in Jeddah, William A Eddy.

His minutes from the meeting were authenticated by both parties and were officially published in 1969.

What they really talked about

These three texts essentially give the same information.

The first issue discussed was the Jews of Palestine. The two heads of state mostly agree on the question of refugee Jews in Europe: they could be resettled in countries forming the Axis [Nazi Germany, Italy, Japan etc], which had oppressed them, or in Poland.

Ibn Saud pointed out that the Arabs would be willing to give their lives before they would cede Palestine. It is at this moment that Roosevelt makes the only promise of that meeting, assuring the king that he will do nothing to help the Jews against the Arabs, and that he will lead no hostile action against the Arab people.

This pledge was not about the debates which were sure to ensue in the press and in Congress, over which he had little control, rather his own policy as the executive head of the US government.

Next they talked about Syria and Lebanon. The United States agreed, by contrast, to do everything possible to ensure France fulfilled its commitment to grant them independence.

Finally, the two men agreed on the need to develop agriculture. Discussion here of the Quincy Pact is clearly altogether absent.

[Roosevelt] had simply discovered what everyone already knew: that the Arabs did not want to see any more Jews enter Palestine

In terms of Palestine, Roosevelt had indeed imagined a kind of "Saudi solution" during the war, which, however, failed to materialise. On board the Quincy, the president became aware of Arab resolve on the subject.

On his return, he would state that he had learned more about Palestine in five minutes with Ibn Saud than he had in his lifetime. His loyal right hand man, Harry Hopkins, said that he had simply discovered what everyone already knew: that the Arabs did not want to see any more Jews enter Palestine.

Harry S Truman did not respect the commitment made by his predecessor, although the United States did back the independence of Syria and Lebanon in the crisis of June 1945 in Damascus.

If the two figures did not broach the question of oil, this was because the deal had already been brokered. In 1933, Saudi Arabia granted oil concessions to Standard Oil of California (Socal) which founded the California Arabian Standard Oil Company (Casoc).

In 1936, Socal joined forces with Texaco in the Middle East to form Caltex. Casoc found oil in 1938 and built an oil terminal in Ras Tanura and a small town in Dhahran.

The Persian corridor - and oil

In 1939, the United States established diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia. During the Second World War, Washington became aware of the geopolitical importance of the Arabian peninsula.

It was from the Gulf that the "Persian corridor" ran, supplying the Soviet Union with US weapons from 1942. Political stability in Saudi Arabia became strategically important, which explains why the kingdom benefitted directly from the "Lend-Lease" law from February 1943 (previously US aid had arrived via the British).

In March 1942, a permanent legation was opened in Jeddah, and in April 1944, Eddy took the helm. In September 1944, it became independent from Cairo.

The US became progressively more aware of the importance of Saudi oil reserves that would allow them to preserve those on the American continent after the war. At one point, Washington mooted the idea of a direct majority stake in Casoc's capital, based on the model of British shares in the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (British Petroleum, now know as BP).

The other leading oil companies ("the majors") opposed this, however, just as they resisted the 1944 attempt to establish an oil cartel in the Middle East controlled by the United States and Britain.

By contrast, Casoc began to gain independence from its parent companies, Socal and Texaco. The decisive step came with its change of name in January 1944 and with the creation of the Arab American Oil Company (Aramco).

It is significant that priority was given to the word "Arab", unlike the reverse formulation used by the British. Given the need to attract considerable investment, the other US majors purchased shares in Aramco after the Second World War.

There is not a trace of written evidence of any discussion about oil aboard the Quincy, though there was no reason for them to have brought it up, as it may well have been seen as a done deal.

The Saudis had a clear understanding of the importance that they had acquired for the US

A new geopolitical reality

Implicit in February 1945 was the Anglo-American competition that the old and cunning King Ibn Saud knew how to agitate.

He had led the Americans to believe that the British wanted to take control of the oil concessions, and had led the British to believe the Americans wanted to chase them out of the region.

In fact, at the beginning of 1945, the fundamental question was the transformation of Dhahran into a US military base, thereby creating a permanent military presence in Saudi Arabia. This would end the British military monopoly that had begun with the Persian corridor.

At the time of Yalta, long-term concern over Saudi oil production seemed secondary to the fundamental geopolitical question of the times that everyone has since forgotten: the transfer from Europe of the US army towards the Pacific once Germany had capitulated.

Millions of men and their equipment had to cross the Middle East to participate in the decisive battle against Japan. The explosion of the first nuclear bomb on 16 July 1945 would change that situation.

The Saudis had a clear understanding of the importance that they had acquired for the US. The Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs (and future king) Emir Faisal made his first visit to the US in November 1943, and insisted on the threat posed by Hashemite projects for Arab unity from Transjordan to Iraq to the Saudi kingdom.

The US politely informed him that they did not wish to get involved in Arab affairs - and that it was up to the Arabs to freely decide their future.

In the months that followed the meeting on the Quincy, Saudi diplomacy continued to play on Anglo-American rivalry, which insisted on the Hashemite danger and showed concern over Palestine.

It obtained an explicit commitment from the US that Washington would not meddle in the domestic affairs of Saudi Arabia - in return for the supremacy granted to the USA in exchanges between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the (non-Arab and non-Muslim) world.

The Cold War made Saudi Arabia a reliable ally for the US, with Washington sure that the Saudi monarchy was unlikely to harbour any sympathies for the Soviet Union. Here again, the geopolitical factor counted for as much as the question of oil.

In 1950, Riyadh obtained Truman's word that the US was interested in preserving the independence and territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia. No threat to the kingdom could emerge without also being of concern to Washington.

In clearer terms, it was this statement guaranteeing US security that would be put to the test during the war in Yemen in the 1960s and then in 1990.

A contract up for renewal

The discussion on the Quincy became the symbol of US-Saudi relations and is wheeled out on any occasion at which the two countries meet.

The meeting between George W Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah on 25 April 2005 in Crawford, Texas, is likely to be behind the revitalisation of this urban legend.

The joint statement began by revisiting the meeting on the Quincy 60 years earlier: "In six hours, the predecessor of President Bush and the father of the Crown Prince had established a strong personal link which set the tone for decades of strong relations between the two nations."

This was probably at the origin of the idea for a kind of contract that could be renewed every 60 years.

The Quincy Pact is an urban legend, which in a one-off vignette sums up many decades of Arab-Saudi relations that are much more complex than they appear from the outside. 

While it may set out the foundation of relations with the US with the Arabian peninsula, it omits the context of February 1945, with the end of the war in Europe, the continuation of the war in the Pacific and the Anglo-American squabbling - all at a time when the Cold War was not yet an issue.

Henry Laurens is a French historian, Professor of History and is qualified in literary Arabic from the French National Institute for Eastern Languages and Civilizations (INALCO). He has been a Professor at the Collège de France  since 2004 where he is the Head of Contemporary History of the Arab World.

This article was first published by our partners at Orient XXI.

Opinions expressed within this article remain thos eof the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.