Commodore, Royal Saudi Navy (Retired)
ALKHOBAR, Saudi Arabia — It has been 80 years since oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia – a discovery that changed the face of Saudi Arabia and the area forever. What’s more, this oil discovery came at a very critical time when the Kingdom was in need of continuous and solid cash flow, which most certainly saved the 8-year-old desert Kingdom from breaking apart, because the oil discovery happened the same year World War II broke out, and no industrial country would risk spending money against heavy odds.
The story of the most important oil discovery in the world, and later on, the Saudi-American unique relationship was not initiated by power-hungry politicians or top brass generals. It all started by an ambitious Saudi monarch, King Abdulaziz Al-Saud, who wanted prosperity and comfort for his people, and young Americans pioneers who were seeking an adventure who left the comforts of life in the U.S. in the 1930s and came to work 8000 miles away from home, in one of the harshest environments in the world at the time.
In later years, the young American pioneers were able to form a company that was considered by many as the best thing that ever happened to the Saudi people and the American taxpayers. The company and its people made two countries from opposite sides of the world come together in one of the most special, strategic and unique relationships in modern history – one that started with a foreign company helping an inexperienced country access its natural resources, and eventually relinquishing that control to the Saudis – a history that can be traced through nomenclature, from Standard Oil of California and its subsidiary, the California Arabian Standard Oil Company which drilled for oil while sharing profits with the Kingdom in the 1930s, to the Arabian American Oil Company in 1944 and finally, the Saudi government’s purchase of Aramco in 1980, and the establishment of Saudi Aramco in 1988. Oil discovery in Saudi Arabia in 1938 didn’t only change life for all Saudis. It also changed the geopolitics of the area if not the world.
But what if the founder of modern-day Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Al-Saud didn’t sign the go-ahead agreement to look for oil? Or, let us say that the monarch’s interest wasn’t oil, but he was more interested in finding the badly needed water in the driest country in the world? What if the young American pioneers who were mostly geologists were just few days late before they struck oil in well number 7?
To make a long story short, oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia, and on one day later on March 4, a 1938 Western Union telegram brought the news back to the American company headquarters in San Francisco that oil was not only discovered, but it turned out that the Saudis were sitting on one quarter of the world’s oil reserves.
After that, the Saudis started to see American men, women and children moving to their country. With the arrival of the Americans, Saudis started to see not only drilling equipment, but also saw miniature small-town USAs being built in the middle of the desert, with baseball fields, movies theaters, American-style homes with TV antennas and many other American trademarks.
As time passed, Saudi Aramco became the driving mechanism behind building the most modern infrastructure systems and many social changes in the Kingdom. The Kingdom saw the giant company initiate building roads, health care system, aviation, railroad network, refineries, desalination plant, pipelines, electric power and many more modern days comforts that were never seen in the Kingdom before. Aramco even launched its own Arabic-language TV station for the Kingdom in 1957, plus they launched an anti-malaria campaign that eradicated the disease, opened industrial schools for Saudi engineers, and even opened a school for girls in 1964. Americans were seen as finders of wealth for a newly established country and thus Americans were looked at with admiration and respect for what they have done for the Kingdom.
In the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, Americans became part of the society. There was a time when there were tens of thousands Americans working in Saudi Arabia mainly in or for Saudi Aramco. In the 1950s, there were more American children born at Dhahran hospital than Saudis. And Americans were not only seen in cities like Dhahran, Abqaiq and Ras Tanura, which were seen as replicas of small town USA, but all over the place.
In short, the Americans didn’t only teach Saudis how to drill for oil, but also introduced them to the cheeseburger and the apple pie. By the 1980s, Saudis became addicted to everything that is American. If didn’t say “Made in USA,” then Saudis were not impressed.
So, where did the Americans we knew for many decades go when Saudi Arabia for decades had been and still is the number one America’s trading partner in the area? U.S. officials say there are some 100,000 Americans living in the Kingdom, but with that rate of trade, one would expect the numbers to be much higher.
Is their absence due to strained Saudi- American relations? Is it just because oil lost its global influence, or is it because Saudis and Americans don’t share the political common interest?
Saudi Crown Prince HRH Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is on a very important official visit to the United States lasting about 2 weeks and including several major American cities, at a time when the Saudi-U.S. relationship is very important for world peace, economic prosperity, security and stability. The warmth between the leaders of the two countries needs to extend to the two peoples.
As for the Saudis, every family in Saudi Arabia – I mean literally every family in Saudi Arabia –have or had a son or a daughter who is educated in the United States. For many decades, there were tens of thousands of Saudi young men and women attending the best American schools with full scholarship and monthly salaries from the Saudi government.
The world saw the two countries fight as one force during the 1991 liberation of Kuwait in Desert Storm and the two countries have worked together to fight al-Qaida, and continue to work behind the scenes to stabilize the Middle East.
But two issues have continued to sour U.S.-Saudi relations: the Palestinian problem and the 9/11 terrorist attack.
On the continuing Palestinian confrontation with Israel, Saudi Arabia has many times clashed with Washington, because of U.S. support for Israel, which Saudi Arabia does not recognize as a country. Saudi Arabia even imposed an oil embargo against the U.S. in 1973 over the dispute, in support of the Palestinians.
Now, the Palestinians meet with Israel on a near-daily basis, but Saudi Arabia has still never officially recognized Israel. (Though if the two powerhouse Mideast countries did work together, they might well be able to solve the problem.)
The Palestinian dispute is no longer the dominant problem facing the Arab world, which is still convulsed by the aftermath of the Arab Spring. The words “Israeli enemy” have all but disappeared from the Arab media. But the problem continues to complicate U.S. and Saudi Arabia relations, with Saudi officials insisting a final agreement include more rights for the Palestinians and East Jerusalem as their capital – though Trump has declared the issue resolved by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It’s not.
Second, we have the 9/11 terrorist attacks that caused the most damage to Saudi-American relations. In reality, the horrible al-Qaida terrorist attack on America was intended to harm Saudi Arabia more than the United Sates. Recruiting 15 young Saudis was meant to put the Saudis and American on a collision course. And the attack wasn’t the first attempt. U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia were attacked by al-Qaida several times in the 1990s.
But when al-Qaida failed to damage Saudi-American relations with its operations in the Kingdom, they targeted the U.S. mainland instead. Saudi and American leaders were able to remain united, but the peoples less so – with American families of the victims of 9/11 blaming the Saudi government and winning the right to sue them in U.S. courts, and Saudi citizens resentful of being labeled as potential terrorists because of al-Qaida’s origins.
Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is trying to mend that, and bring the two peoples back together. His ambitious Saudi Vision 2030 includes a plan to welcome more American investment in the Kingdom – to echo the partnership of 80 years ago, when an American company discovered oil and helped turn Saudi Arabia into the number one economic power in the Middle East.
Saudis remain impressed by the American way of doing business. The Crown Prince wants to bring them back.
— Written by Abdulateef Al-Mulhim, a retired Commodore of the Royal Saudi Navy, and now writes as a political analyst for the Saudi Daily Alyaum Newspaper. Follow him on Twitter @mulhim12.