The historic meeting between king Abdul Aziz and President Roosevelt in 1945.
The centennial of the recapture of Riyadh by King Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdul Rahman Al-Saud is being observed with special activities held both inside and outside the Kingdom throughout the year that started on January 22, 1999, which corresponds to Shawwal 5 of the Hijrah year 1419. This date is the one hundredth anniversary of that momentous event, which led to the establishment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932. Exhibitions, symposia, conferences and celebrations have been organized across the Kingdom to highlight various aspects of Saudi history, culture and development. Two such observances recently took place in Riyadh and Washington, DC.
In Riyadh on April 14, 1999, the "Gift of Friendship" exhibition was opened by Riyadh Province Governor Prince Salman Ibn Abdul Aziz, using the opportunity provided by the centennial to highlight the special relationship that has existed between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. for more than 60 years.
In Washington, the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia organized a series of events from April 26 to 29, 1999, that brought a large number of specialists together in conferences, seminars and receptions at the Embassy, the Middle East Institute, Georgetown University, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, the Library of Congress and Capitol Hill (See Story, Centennial of a Historic Event).
A historic meeting between a Saudi King and an American President set the tone for the future of the diplomatic relationship between their two countries, each of them blessed with strong people and diverse natural resources. Marking that meeting is "The Gift of Friendship" exhibit currently being sponsored by the United States Embassy in Riyadh as its official contribution to the centennial celebrations.
The first time that King Abdul Aziz Ibn Abdul Rahman Al-Saud left his country after successfully bringing together the people of Arabia into one Kingdom, it was to meet with U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the Great Bitter Lake in the Suez Canal on February 14, 1945. The result was a catalytic recognition of a common friendship.
In his book "FDR Meets Ibn Saud", Colonel William Eddy, at the time U.S. Minister Plenipotentiary to Saudi Arabia, and official interpreter for the meeting, suggests that their instant connection stemmed from shared experiences. Roosevelt indeed recognized his meeting with Ibn Saud as "an outstanding success," and assured the United States Congress: "I learned more by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in the exchange of two or three dozen letters."
Engineered by Colonel Eddy, the meeting was conducted under a cloak of secrecy. The USS Murphy, the first U.S. warship ever to do so, entered the port of Jeddah, and was made ready to accommodate the King on the journey by sea to rendezvous with the USS Quincy on the Great Bitter Lake where President Roosevelt was waiting for him.
The American sailors learned that King Abdul Aziz would not be comfortable sleeping in a small cramped ship stateroom, since he was used to sleeping in the open or in a tent. They therefore constructed a tent over the bow of the ship. When the USS Murphy steamed back into the Suez Canal for the meeting, the deck of the warship had become a majlis complete with a decorative chair for the King, and rugs and cushions for others to sit on.
On board, King Abdul Aziz gave an invitation to the ships' officers and crew to partake of a typical meal of lamb with rice and vegetables. Individuals from both countries had crossed cultural barriers to make friends, share food and laughter, and work together. Captain John S. Keating, commander of the USS Murphy, remembers how at that dinner the King quoted often from the Holy Qur'an, and acknowledged: "First I am a warrior: only then am I a King."Over fifty years later, historic photographs of the meeting (Pages 2 and 3), together with some of the gifts that were exchanged, have been brought to Riyadh under the auspices of U.S. Ambassador Wyche Fowler. In order to set the scene in time and place, enlarged photographs of the historic meeting, selected from the National Archives files, were hung on the walls of the exhibit room at the museum dedicated to the Kingdom's founder, the Darat Al-Malik Abdul Aziz in Riyadh.
In specially-made display cases, and with the assistance of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Library, the gifts given to the President by King Abdul Aziz have been exhibited, tokens of friendship that have been treasured for many years in the library's museum. Among them are a man's bisht, woven from camel hair and heavily embroidered with gold thread, just like King Abdul Aziz's own, and the delicate fabric of the silk-embroidered ladies' thobe presented to Roosevelt's daughter. These sparkle richly in the dim lights of the display hall.
The hand-painted bottles of perfume on display at the exhibit still waft the aroma of Taif's famous attar of roses as their casket is opened. The gleaming sword and dagger, fashioned by jewelers and weapon-makers in Hofuf, and presented by King Abdul Aziz to President Roosevelt, testify to the excellence of Saudi Arabian craftsmen.
These presents were tokens of the personal esteem in which the two leaders held each other. Forging personal relationships between leaders has been a hallmark of the Saudi-U.S. diplomatic experience. Over the years, each succeeding King and President have met.
Recognizing the importance of personal contact and friendship, the U.S. Embassy, in cooperation with Saudi Arabian Airlines, brought to Saudi Arabia for the exhibit's opening ceremony descendents of the Roosevelt and Eddy families, who forged new friendships with members of the Saudi royal family.
Leader to leader, nation to nation, grandchild to grandchild: one moment in history ripples outward, marking families and countries. When King Abdul Aziz and Roosevelt met, they were intent on healing the wounds of World War II and establishing the roles of their countries in the modern world. Little did they realize, as they discussed the goals and friendship of their nations, that generations later their grandchildren would meet, shake hands and exchange gifts once again.
It is my pleasure on this happy occasion while the Kingdom is celebrating its centennial, to recall that historic meeting which took place between King Abdul Aziz and the United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, considered by politicians and historians as one of the meetings that laid the basis for friendship between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America.
These leaders are considered heroes by their people, especially as this friendship has continued from their age to ours and grown as well as flourished.
This outstanding exhibit is a fruit of this historic friendship and one that is enduring. At the same time, it shows clearly to all the solidity of our relationship. Preparations for this exhibition have been underway for some time, with the participation of the Embassy of the United States of America, the Darat Al-Malik Abdul Aziz and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library.
On this occasion, I thank all those who participated in preparing this exhibit, with the hope that it benefits and pleases our visitors and helps them to learn about the history and culture of our two countries.
The devastation of that war changed relationships among the regions of the world. Astute political leaders, concerned with their countries' futures in the aftermath of war, recognized that the map of the world would change. New alliances would be built, new friendships firmly fashioned. The modern world would catalyze fresh economic and political associations that would move the locus of initiative and development to areas of the world just on the verge of industrialization.
In succeeding years, the Kingdom and the United States built a strong and successful relationship. American oil companies worked as partners in establishing Saudi Aramco. Saudi students and professors studied at American universities. Consultative relationships such as the U.S.-Saudi Joint Economic Commission, were set up.
The meeting of the King and the President took place in secret, due to the exigencies of war. Fifty-four years later, their descendents met openly in Riyadh, to celebrate the friendship they had sealed, and the gifts they had exchanged.
For both the Roosevelt and Eddy families, their visit to Saudi Arabia continued a family voyage of discovery and rediscovery. One grandson of President Roosevelt, Haven Roosevelt, remembers his grandmother Eleanor reading aloud to her grandchildren. The books she chose shaped their lives and careers. One of them was Colonel Eddy's reminiscence of the historic meeting between King Abdul Aziz and President Roosevelt that is now being celebrated at the exhibit.
What he remembers most vividly from the story was the firm agreement between King Abdul Aziz and President Roosevelt, leader to leader, that decisions on the Middle East would be made only after discussion between the two nations. Saudi Arabia and the United States were committed to work together in a consultative relationship, and they have done so ever since.
While at the exhibit, another grandson of President Roosevelt, Christopher Roosevelt was struck by two photographs of King Abdul Aziz. In the first, he is consulting with friends in the desert; in the second, taken shortly before his death, he is alone, sitting quietly in a grove of trees, lost in contemplation. Christopher remarked that these photographs showed King Abdul Aziz's love of nature and moments of solitude. These qualities were shared by the two leaders.
Trying to explain the electric moment when King Abdul Aziz and Roosevelt met and felt like kindred spirits, Christopher pointed out: "Ibn Saud referred to himself and FDR as farmers. I think he meant that both men were rooted in the land. They revered the natural environment, they cared for their countries, their roots dug deep into the soil of their country and the national character."
The journey of the Roosevelt and Eddy families to Riyadh to attend the opening of the "The Gift of Friendship" exhibit is a reminder, in this centennial year, that the friendship between the Kingdom and the United States lives on in the personal relationships forged by the cooperation of individuals from both nations. As U.S. Ambassador Fowler commented in Riyadh: "President Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz established a tradition of consultation and friendship which has continued to characterize the relationship between our two countries ever since."