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The King And I

June 2024
5min read

Explaining Watergate to Khalid Ibn Abdul Aziz

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been ruled since 1932 by Abdul Aziz al Saud, who founded the dynasty after conquering assorted tribes of the Arabian desert, and by 5 of his more than 50 sons. Before the 1970s only a handful of Americans knew that U.S. geologists had found oil there and that a conflation of oil companies called Aramco (now Saudi Aramco) was busy turning sand into gold.

King Khalid and the author converse sideways at the Royal Palace, Riyadh, in 1976.
author’s collection2005_5_78

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been ruled since 1932 by Abdul Aziz al Saud, who founded the dynasty after conquering assorted tribes of the Arabian desert, and by 5 of his more than 50 sons. Before the 1970s only a handful of Americans knew that U.S. geologists had found oil there and that a conflation of oil companies called Aramco (now Saudi Aramco) was busy turning sand into gold. But by 1976, when I had the following adventure, the majority of Americans vividly recalled long lines of angry people at the gas station a couple of years earlier, when the Arab members of OPEC tried to cut off America’s automotive fix.

Abdul Aziz al Saud died in 1953. His successor, his son Saud, was dumped by the royal family in 1964 after almost bankrupting the kingdom. Next came the modernizer Faisal, who was assassinated by his nephew, followed by the industrializer Khalid and the cosmopolitan Fahd, and most recently Abdullah. Khalid ibn Abdul Aziz was known as a self-effacing and conciliatory ruler. He was the king I got to meet.

He wasn’t actually on my schedule. I was touring the Middle East as what the U.S. Information Agency called a STAG, standing for Short Term American Grantee, later morphed into AMPART (American Participant). That could mean a ballet company, jazz musician, scientist, or, in my case, foreign policy wonk (I taught political science at MIT)—“cultural packages” all, produced by Washington and staged by U.S. embassies around the globe in the hope of improving America’s sometimes tarnished image.

I sang for my supper on Uncle Sam’s nickel in some 35 countries during the 1970s and ’80s: lectures, news conferences, one-on-ones with officialdom, television interviews, receptions, you name it. When I sat down with King Khalid, I had already sung in Jidda and Riyadh for my shashlik, tabouleh, and sludgy Turkish coffee.

It was a fascinating time to be in Saudi Arabia, somewhere between distant past and onrushing future. In 1976 the country was being torn up in a monumental effort to substitute the twentieth century for whatever had come before. Everything was under construction, everywhere was dust and rubble. Modern cranes vied with donkey power, expensive Swiss watches were peddled alongside fretful goats. It was a unique three-class society: Saudis; foreigners imported to run the technical systems; and a working class of a million or so Yemenis plus some Pakistanis and Egyptians.

The overloaded leadership had what looked like the worst of both worlds. On one hand they were buying into the evils of industrialization (automobiles, for instance, came in tagged “for export only,” meaning no emission control and a smog-drenched atmosphere). On the other hand, the royals were finding it progressively harder to preserve the rigid socioreligious traditions of the ascetic Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam to which they belonged. In Riyadh, where the religious police were everywhere, “blue cinemas” were showing porno flicks, in exchange for which the movie houses agreed not to advertise their presence.

When I headed for the Royal Palace in Riyadh in late May, it was to pay my respects to the father of one of my longtime MIT students. Minister of Court Ibrahim al Sowayal had been the Saudi ambassador in Washington for 12 years and, despite not being a member of the royal family, had served as foreign minister and agricultural minister (he said that King Faisal gave him the latter job because he had the best garden in Jidda).

After some chitchat punctuated by infusions of sweet coffee, my host left the room. When he returned, he seemed a bit revved up and asked me if I would like to meet the king. The answer was obvious, and my pulse quickened as he marched me through rather simple chambers and corridors to the high-ceilinged audience room. Despite the unexpected arrival of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany, not to mention an influx of Swiss wanting to do some high-level business, both of which threw the royal apparatus into a tizzy, I was accorded a private audience.

The king thought Nixon’s problems were caused by Zionists who wanted to make trouble for him.

The king and I sat in adjacent deep armchairs, an ornately carved gilt table bearing a telephone between us. We looked sideways at each other, which doubtless accounts for what appear to be painfully stiff necks in people pictured in that unnatural posture. King Khalid toyed with a ring on his pinkie finger as we spoke. The plain white ghutra on his head was held in place with a black wool band, and he wore the customary thawb gown, except that the edging was gold. Standing in front of us was the royal interpreter, a tall, annoyingly good-looking guy with cold eyes named Khalid Anani. Sitting silently off to the side was my embassy minder, John Rock. A row of courtiers sat or stood at the far end of the huge chamber, about 70 feet away.

I explained to His Majesty that I was there to learn about his country because I thought it important that U.S.-Saudi relations improve, better understanding be achieved, et cetera. He remained courteously impassive until I offered to explain some American views of things if that would help contribute to the cause of peace and so on.

H.M.: “Excellency, why does the U.S. permit Congress to interfere in American foreign policy? For example, with respect to Turkey, your domestic Greek lobby has forced the U.S. to turn its back on its faithful Turkish ally, who fought so well alongside you in Korea.” Score one for the king.

I responded that the American system was temporarily out of balance as a result of recent “scandals,” with which I was sure the king was familiar (Nixon had resigned in disgrace two years earlier), and Congress was temporarily in a position of ascendency.

H.M.: “Excellency, we think Nixon’s troubles were caused by a plot on the part of a minority of Americans, obviously Zionists, who wished to make trouble for him.” Uh-oh, back to start for that one. (It was nothing short of bizarre that a few months later in Moscow some Central Committee apparatchiks explained to me that their hero Nixon had been brought down by the enemies of détente.) There just wasn’t time to straighten that out, but before I could work up a short answer, the king asked me how the American primaries were likely to come out. To me it looked as though the election would come down to a race between President Ford and the governor of Georgia. I asked the king if he would like my advice, and when he said yes, I recommended that he write a pair of identical letters, addressing one to President Ford and the other to President Carter, saying everything he wantedthem to do, and filing the letters awayuntil November 3. He said he would.

The king asked me why we didn’t improve our system by making the terms of members of Congress shorter, and of the Chief Executive longer, so that everyone could get to know and trust the President. He explained that in his country when a new hospital was built or a new airplane designed, people wanted someone else to try it first, and surely it was the same with Presidents (he forbore to mention royal tasters, who I imagined presampled the royal cuisine). I said that some Americans wanted it the other way around: longer terms for members of Congress so they didn’t have to run a campaign full-time, and no more than a six-year term for the President, who then could concentrate solely on his job. His Majesty looked suitably baffled at such a ridiculous constraint on someone who had succeeded in taking power.

About midway in our conversation the king pushed a small button lying on the table, which soon produced a servant with a pot of tea. When the latter bent over, it was easy to spot a holster containing a small revolver. (The characteristic Arab djellaba was originally designed to fall open at the front so weapons could be quickly drawn.) What I couldn’t understand was that the royal bodyguards—big, fierce-looking guys wearing great curved swords—were all sitting in the outer chamber at least a hundred feet away.

When the king agreed that John Rock could take some photographs, Rock stood up, moved in front of the king, unzipped his flight bag, and pulled out … a camera. It could as easily have been a submachine gun, and I didn’t see how anyone could have done a thing about it. This seemed surprising after the assassination of big brother Faisal. Why didn’t they remember the old Arab saying? A Bedouin asks the Prophet, “Should I let my camel loose in the desert and trust in Allah?” After due consideration the Prophet replies, “No, first tie up your camel; then trust in Allah.”

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