Isaiah Berlin of the FO
For much of the Second World War, Isaiah Berlin worked at the British Embassy in Washington DC, where he carried out intelligence gathering for both the Ministry of Information and the Foreign Office. I recently came across a file in the archive of the Political and Secret Department of the India Office, now held at the British Library, which gives a fascinating glimpse into the nature of Berlin’s work in Washington, and into the history of US-Saudi relations.
In January 1944 (not 1943, as the date on the document mistakenly has it), Berlin wrote to his superiors at the Foreign Office that he had met with ‘an earnest anti-imperialist, concerned with the economic aspect of American relations in the Middle East’, who had given him an extract from a secret report written by a senior member of the US War Department, which outlined the three principal reasons for the United States’ strategic interest in Saudi Arabia: its ‘untapped and allegedly vast oil resources’; its strategic importance in the event of a future war with the Soviet Union; and the potential utility of the Persian Gulf as a host for the US Pacific Fleet, ‘whose duty it would be to implement American demands vis-à-vis the USSR, and more remotely the British Empire, should that ever be required’.
Given these considerations, the report argued that ‘no effort should be spared to develop close relations with King Ibn Saud.’ In the event of a disagreement between the king and anyone else, the US ‘should unhesitatingly align itself on his side’. The analysis was ‘bluntly expressed’, Berlin commented, ‘and did not mince matters in the slightest’.
The report was a prescient assessment of US intentions. British officials at the time, however, greeted it, and Berlin’s assessment of it, with extreme scepticism. William Hayter, the first secretary in Washington, forwarded Berlin’s note to the Eastern Department in London but downplayed its significance, arguing that it should by no means ‘be regarded as expressing the view of the United States government as a whole’. One British official said that ‘this alleged secret report … is a curious production’; another remarked that to see ‘Arabs as “genuinely reliable allies” strikes me as naif’.
In February 1945, King Ibn Saud and President Roosevelt met on board the USS Murphy to cement their countries’ increasingly close ties. Seventy years later, Donald Trump made Riyadh his first port of call on his first overseas trip as president of the United States.