The Tyranny Of Oil

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But Ickes could be stubborn too. Top geologists sent by the government to the Persian Gulf reported to him that the “center of gravity” of world oil production was shifting to the Middle East, and Ickes seized upon a navy recommendation that the government build a pipeline to transport the oil across the deserts from the producing fields to the Mediterranean. When he proposed that the Petroleum Reserves Corporation should build a $160-million pipeline for the companies in return for a billion barrels of oil for the armed forces at a 25 per cent discount, it raised a storm. Ickes’ Petroleum Industry War Council, which comprised a hundred top men in the industry, called the pipeline “unnecessary” for victory and demanded an end to PRC. The Independent Petroleum Association, voice of the smaller American producers, said the plan was “fascist”; Oklahoma Senator Edward Moore termed it an “imperialist adventure.” The Truman War Investigations Committee urged a policy stressing private enterprise. In 1944 Roosevelt simply allowed the PRC to go out of existence.

But United States interest and influence in Saudi Arabia intensified. Not only did the first resident United States minister, Colonel William A. Eddy, open a consulate alongside Aramco’s headquarters at Dhahran, but U.S. government-subsidized trucks, bulldozers, and all sorts of oil-field equipment showered on the country. The Department of Commerce granted an export license for Aramco to ship twenty thousand tons of scarce steel. And in 1945, on his way home from the Yalta conference, President Roosevelt stopped off for a personal meeting with King Ibn Saud.

“A boyish … note was in the President’s talk and nod … when it had to do with the Middle East,” said the State Department’s Feis. Roosevelt obviously thought he was stealing a march on Churchill. Not until the last day at Yalta had he told his British friend that he was going to make the visit. The prime minister, “thoroughly nettled” at this casual intrusion into Britain’s Middle East preserve, according to Colonel Eddy, “burned up the wires,” setting up a meeting of his own with the king three days later. Roosevelt welcomed Ibn Saud aboard the cruiser Quincy in the Suez Canal area. The king made the journey from Jidda to the rendezvous as a guest on the destroyer Murphy . A party of forty-eight retainers pitched the royal tent on the warship’s deck and slaughtered about a dozen sheep for the royal table during the voyage. To the President on the Quincy the king brought swords and daggers as gifts, and Roosevelt promised Ibn Saud an airplane. Having himself grown lame, the monarch looked with wonder at Roosevelt’s wheelchair—and was promptly given the Presidential “spare.” The two heads of state talked of United States-Arabian cooperation in the extraction and marketing of Arabian oil. On Palestine, which came up as a likely postwar problem, they ran into difficulties. The Jewish homeland promised by the British in the 1917 Balfour Declaration was still being delayed, though the United States favored it in principle. Roosevelt told the king that as President of the United States he would oppose any hostility to the Arabs, and that the United States government would never take a position on Palestine without full consultation with Arabs as well as Jews. Ibn Saud understood this as a promise binding on the American government and all F.D.R.’s successors. But only a few weeks later Roosevelt was dead.

As Truman moved into the White House significant changes took place in United States policy affecting both oil and the Middle East. First of all, his administration, while continuing to place the greatest importance on developing secure reserves in the Persian Gulf area under American control, decided to do so in what the oil-industry lobby called “the American way.” The management of American-controlled Middle East oil deposits was to be left in private-company hands. This decision ensured that the oil treaty negotiated between the United States and Britain in 1944 for regularizing the changed relationships —the vastly increased American involvement—in Middle East oil control never went into effect. Innocuously general though the pact was, its provisions for setting up an International Petroleum Commission sounded dangerously like government supervision to the industry and to the Senate, which twice refused to vote on it. Such a commission might have come in very handy in the crises of the 1970’s. But because the private sector had its way, the international companies that had formed the world oil cartel at Achnacarry in 1928 were left to resume their prerogative of allocating the world’s oil, for which the Middle East was now the major source of supply.