FDR-Ibn Saud

Today is the sixtieth anniversary of the 1945 meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Abd al-Aziz Ibn Saud, which took place on board the U.S.S. Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake, Egypt. The summit is regarded as the beginning of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. In this photo, the king is speaking to the interpreter, Colonel William A. Eddy, USMC (at the time, U.S. minister plenipotentiary to Saudi Arabia). Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, USN, the president’s aide and chief of staff, stands to the left. The anniversary will be marked today by surviving crew members of the ship, in an event in Florida, held under the auspices of the newly-formed “Friends of Saudi Arabia.” Grandsons of Roosevelt and the Saudi king will attend.

Eddy, a legendary Arabist, gave the canonical account of the meeting, in a pamphlet published in 1954. There he wrote:

The guardian of the holy places of Islam, and the nearest we have to a successor to the caliphs, the defender of the Muslim faith and of the holy cities of three hundred million people, cemented a friendship with the head of a great Western and Christian nation. The meeting marks the high point of Muslim alliance with the West.

I won’t even begin to unravel that. One of the low points came a couple of months later, with Project Switch, an OSS plan to steal the contents of Ibn Saud’s toilet (to get a read on his health). Eddy was an enthusiastic part of the scheme, but the records suggest it was scuttled. (Anthony Cave Brown told the story in his history of ARAMCO.)

We are awash in biographies of FDR and Ibn Saud, and Leahy too is the subject of a biography. (He opposed the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, which usually gets him a footnote.) But Eddy’s story has yet to be told in a comprehensive manner. Born in Lebanon to missionary parents, fluent in Arabic, he personified the Arabists of the old school. After a career in education, intelligence, and diplomacy, he joined ARAMCO (of course), and finally retired to Beirut. Here’s a short bio centered on his military exploits (with a very dashing photo of him). His papers are in Princeton, and I urge someone young and smart to pick up the thread.

More photos: Ibn Saud boards the Quincy, and chats with Roosevelt.

Update: Here’s a report of today’s commemoration. Participants also included the veterans of the U.S.S. Murphy, which brought Ibn Saud to Egypt.

Saudi Prince on Academic Shopping Spree

Last month, a newspaper in Exeter, England, carried a news item with this Thousand-and-One-Nights headline: “Rich Prince Shares Wealth with City’s University Students.” Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal had flown into Exeter to make a gift of one million euros to the local university’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies. The news item was absolutely breathless in its reportage. “Prince Alwaleed is almost certainly the richest person to have ever set foot in the city,” the paper gushed. And he was “not one to travel lightly”: “He originally planned to fly into Exeter Airport on his private A340 aircraft one of the longest planes in the world and what would have been the largest plane ever to land at the airport. But he decided to settle for a more modest jet for his large entourage.”

Remember Prince Alwaleed? He’s the nephew of Saudi King Fahd and Crown Prince Abdullah. Forbes pegs him as the fifth-richest man in the world, at $17.7 billion net worth (half of it in Citigroup shares, which made him his fortune). And who can forget his monumental faux pas? Alwaleed visited Ground Zero in New York with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani just after 9/11, and gave the city’s Twin Towers relief fund a check for $10 million. Giuliani promptly returned it after Alwaleed, in the media spotlight, pinned the blame for 9/11 on U.S. support for Israel.

Alwaleed received a media drubbing, but that hasn’t deterred him from his self-appointed mission to rescue the image of Islam and Saudi Arabia. He subsequently made a couple of small gifts half a million each to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), and to the President George Herbert Walker Bush Scholarship Fund at Andover, the prep school that graduated both Bushes. It’s the Saudi way. You give to legitimate causes (like the Twin Towers Fund and Andover), and exploit the gratitude to promote your political agenda (deflecting 9/11 responsibility or legitimizing CAIR-style advocacy). Pulling this off requires a deft touch, perfect timing, and the right amount of money. Alwaleed misread New York and Giuliani, and his timing was way off, but he usually gets it right, and he’s back in the giving business.

His present plan runs in the direction of academe. Universities generate ideas, and Alwaleed regards one idea the “clash of civilizations” as positively dangerous to Arabs and Muslims. So he has embarked on a grand giving spree, to create academic “bridges” between Islam and the West, and specifically between the Arab world and the United States.

Last January, Alwaleed made a gift of $10 million to the American University in Cairo for a center for American studies (and a new humanities and social sciences building). It was the largest single gift ever made to the university. Last month, he turned up in Beirut to inaugurate another center for American studies, this one at the American University of Beirut. The price tag: $5.2 million. I actually think this is a worthwhile cause, although it’s an obvious slap in the face to the indigenous universities. Their students are the ones who most desperately need lessons in America, but Egyptian or Saudi faculty would almost certainly turn such centers into “know-thine-enemy” hate factories.

But that’s only one half of the strategy. In Cairo, Alwaleed hinted at the broader plan, when he called his American studies centers “one pillar of a bridge connecting the divide between the United States and the rest of the Arab World.” He then added: “We now need to plant another [pillar] on the other side.” In Exeter, he provided still more detail:

This endowment represents one component of a major effort that I have embarked upon to bridge the gap that has arisen between Islamic and Western communities in recent years. To that end, I have recently established centers of American studies and research at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and the American University of Beirut (AUB). And I am in the process of establishing centers of Arab and Islamic studies at select universities in the United States.

Well! It’s possible that at this very moment, Prince Alwaleed’s scouts are scouring America for campuses to plant his “pillars,” and you can bet that academic higher-ups who know it are primping themselves. Will the prince prefer entirely new centers on virgin soil? (King Fahd gave about $20 million ten years ago, to create a Middle East center in his name at the University of Arkansas.) Or will Alwaleed prefer to embed programs within existing Middle East centers at top universities? (Prince Sultan did that at Berkeley for $5 million, and Khalid al-Turki did it at Harvard for $2 million.) The mind boggles at the possibilities, when you think of the purchasing power of the world’s fifth-richest man.

Of course, this is why we can’t ever expect to get the straight story on Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism, and oil from people who operate within Middle Eastern studies. If you want a fabulously wealthy Saudi royal to drop out of the sky in his private jet and leave a few million, you had better watch what you say—which means you had better say nothing. For example, look at the program of the upcoming Middle East Studies Association conference, scheduled for November. The conference panels will include over 300 presentations. There are, by my count, at least twenty-five presentations dealing with the Palestinians. There are zero—that’s right, zero—dealing with Saudi Arabia. Silence is golden.

Saudi money, as I’ve written before, has already compromised the research agenda in Middle Eastern studies. Prince Alwaleed’s buying binge is liable to reduce the entire field to a cargo cult, with profs and center directors dancing the ardha in the hope of attracting the flying prince. This is great for Saudi Arabia. It’s not at all great for the American public, which seeks objective assessments of the Saudi kingdom.

Can anything be done to mitigate creeping corruption? Here’s an idea. The U.S. government subsidizes Middle East centers through the Title VI program of the Department of Education. Beginning next year, there will be seventeen National Resource Centers for the Middle East, a record number. Instead of funding so many centers, wouldn’t it make more sense to concentrate taxpayers’ resources in centers willing to forgo all foreign funding? Say no to foreign money, get more U.S. funding, and tell some truths about places like Saudi Arabia.

As Congress reauthorizes the Higher Education Act, it should give thought to the effect of foreign funding on area studies, and especially Middle Eastern studies. But that evaluation will take time. In the near future, don’t be surprised to see grinning university presidents posing with Prince Alwaleed. They will say there are no strings attached. Puris omnia pura: To the pure all things are pure. Academics do flatter themselves.

Update: It’s more than two years since this posting, but Prince Alwaleed has finally acted, making gifts of $20 million each to Harvard and Georgetown. And who’s walked away with the money at Georgetown? None other than John Esposito. See my Sandbox posting, Georgetown Yankees in Prince Alwaleed’s Court.

Saudi Oil Lobby Puffs Middle East Centers

When my book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies appeared just after 9/11, the Middle Eastern studies crowd panicked. They feared that unfavorable publicity would damage them in Washington, and endanger the millions of dollars they receive in government subsidies. The then-president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) talked about hiring a “professional communicator.” But who could do the job, and how would MESA pay for it? I’m not sure how those questions were answered, but the magazine Saudi Aramco World has just published the biggest puff job ever done on Middle Eastern studies.

It’s a twelve-page cover story, lavishly produced, with big glossy photographs of noted professors and MESA officers in thoughtful poses (here is a text-only version) The author is a former staffer of the magazine, who now bills himself as a “corporate communications expert.” And the focus is very precise: it’s about the invaluable role of Middle East centers that receive U.S. government subsidies under Title VI, the Department of Education’s international education program. The centers are presented as loci of deep knowledge, as oases of wisdom in a desert of soundbites. Here are the real experts, and they deserve every penny they get.

I would guess that Saudi Aramco World is sent gratis to a lot of influential people, including congressmen. They’re clearly the target audience of this lobbying piece. One of them is even quoted: David Obey (D-Wis.), patron saint of Title VI funding, who helped the centers land a major increase in funding just after 9/11. Obey: “We need more understanding of the Middle East, its cultures and the issues facing the region. Area-studies centers… [are] critically important in resolving the immediate crisis and in developing long-term solutions.” More understanding obviously will cost more money, and if Obey is to be believed, there is no such thing as a wasted taxpayer dollar when it comes to Middle Eastern studies.

My book showed otherwise, and more evidence has accumulated since it appeared. But at no point is the reader told that Middle Eastern studies are controversial. Instead, the article makes the story of Middle Eastern studies in America sound like a march of linear progress. More programs, more funding, more enrollments—Middle Eastern studies are celebrated as a growth industry. In fact, the article reads like a promotional piece on oil exploration. So does its title: “The New Push for Middle Eastern Studies.” Let’s get in there with some investment, and develop and pump those reservoirs of expertise.

Yet despite the federal focus, this piece is an excellent reminder of how indebted Middle Eastern studies are to Saudi largesse. Because this is Saudi Aramco Magazine, it has to fuss over the recently-endowed Saudi programs at the centers. The article reports that Saudi businessman Khalid Alturki last year added $500,000 to the $1.5 million he’d already given to establish the Contemporary Arab Studies Program at Harvard. And the article reminds us of the biggest of the Saudi endowments at a major center: the Sultan Endowment for Arab Studies, established in 1998 with a $5 million gift from the Prince Sultan Charity Foundation. That’s the same Prince Sultan who is long-time defense minister of Saudi Arabia, and whose son is Prince Bandar, Saudi ambassador in Washington.

What does it mean for a place like Berkeley’s center to land this kind of gift? Well, start with accommodations, as described in this account from the San Francisco Chronicle:

In Stephens Hall at UC Berkeley, the Center for African Studies occupies a two-room office marked by cracked walls and scuffed linoleum floors.

Down the hall, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies operates out of a sumptuously appointed suite of offices with stained glass, gleaming copper paneling and a trickling fountain.

A few years ago, these centers were virtually the same. Both made do with modest budgets and tiny offices. They shared a copier.

Then Nezar AlSayyad, chairman of Middle Eastern Studies, took two trips to Saudi Arabia with UC Berkeley chancellors.

The rest is history. Prince Bandar showed up in person at Berkeley in November 1998 to deliver the check. Not only did the royal family buy an Arab studies program on prime academic real estate. The Sultan Foundation records that a million dollars of the Sultan Endowment at Berkeley is earmarked for “outreach”—that is, activities beyond the campus.

At this point you may be scratching your head, asking why the Saudis are putting their money and public relations clout at the service of left-leaning academics, whose sympathies are decidedly not with oil monarchies. Well, that’s the point, isn’t it? They may be left-leaning, but they’d all like sumptuous suites with trickling fountains. Needless to say, academics who dream of princes bearing gifts are not going to throw bolts of criticism at Saudi Arabia, or even tell you whether the Saudi monarchy might be in trouble.

Which is why it makes perfect sense for Saudi Aramco World to handle the public relations for Middle Eastern studies. It keeps the professors indebted. But it also makes the MESA crowd look good. On the pages of Saudi Aramco World, they don’t come across as flakey radicals, recently led by Joel Beinin and always enamored of Edward Said. Instead they seem like part of that great machine that assures the steady supply of oil at reasonable prices.

Hey, it’s America. Slick salesmanship is perfectly legitimate. And I have to hand it to these people. They think Washington is run by a “cabal” and that the Saudis sleep with the Bushes. Yet they regularly manage to extract generous subsidies from both. Pecunia non olet (money doesn’t smell) seems to be their motto. Of course, the same can’t always be said of academia.