Saudi, U.S ties: Roosevelt’s grandson speaks with ‘ancestral authority’



Policy experts have debated for 75 years about the underlying motive for the historic meeting in 1945 between US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and Saudi King Abdul Aziz on board the USS Quincy. Was it about oil? Was it about Palestine? Was it about sales of defence equipment?

But Hall Delano Roosevelt speaks with an ancestral authority on the subject, at least from the American side. “It was about creating a relationship and a friendship with this new King, who had just spent quite some time, and resources, and blood, and effort to unite the Arabian Peninsula for the purpose of being a productive part of the world,” he told Arab News.

As FDR’s grandson, he should know. “Del,” as he is called in Washington DC, has devoted a significant part of his career to promoting US-Saudi partnerships, in business, commerce and finance, and spent many years in the Kingdom and the Arabian Gulf with his wife Jan.

Since last year he has been chief executive of the US-Saudi Arabian Business Council, the not-for-profit organization which aims to promote commercial ties between the two countries.

Roosevelt family folklore has an interesting tale about how the Quincy meeting came about. “We were told that His Majesty had met several Americans, but was still curious about their leader. Does he want to colonize us? Does he believe in God? So, he wanted to meet with my grandfather for himself, before he met with Winston Churchill, and FDR jumped at that opportunity,” Roosevelt said.

The rendezvous left an abiding impression. “In my humble opinion, what endures now between the US and was really just a natural growth from the conversation that took place that day. Sure they spoke about oil, but they also talked about agriculture, and about industry and manufacturing,” he said.

Another tangible legacy of the meeting was the Saudi aviation industry, Roosevelt pointed out, after FDR gifted a DC-3 aircraft to the King — the first plane of the fleet that later became Saudia. “FDR was always trying to expedite processes and to keep government out of the way, so he had the aircraft boxed up in huge crates marked ‘agricultural machinery.’

“What endures today is the legacy of a bridge built between the two men, based on friendship, that resulted in business. FDR realized that here was a culture based on relationships, not strictly on numbers and commerce. If you build it on trust, commerce will follow,” he said. ARAB NEWS

The commercial imperative is still in place today, he believes, keeping things stable while governments try to deal with the political differences that may occasionally arise. “I’m a firm believer in peace through commerce. It’s the initial trust that allows for the friendship to grow. Even when one of them behaves poorly, the other one understands it and they work through it, just like you would in a marriage,” Roosevelt said.

Some analysts believe that the changing dynamics of the oil industry have fundamentally altered the US-Saudi relationship. In 1945, the US was the pre-eminent oil producer in the world, while the Kingdom had not yet fully tapped its vast reserves.

That situation reversed towards the end of the last century, when Riyadh became the leading exporter, only to flip back again in the past decade as the US shale revolution made America effectively self-sufficient in oil once more.

Roosevelt takes a long-term, market-oriented view. The new situation allows to sell its product to other markets, he said, and in any case it could all change again very quickly. “We’re feeling 10-feet tall now, but every four years we have a presidential election, and everything can change with a simple pen stroke. I just hope the people in the Beltway (Washington DC) get it right in 2020,” he said.

Roosevelt also hopes that another business proposition — the possible listing of shares in Saudi Aramco on a US stock exchange — does not fall prey to political chicanery. “This is an incredibly volatile year, tensions are running high, and things like this (a US listing for Aramco) can get caught up in the maelstrom of US politics,” he said. Arab News