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Men of God and the Genesis of the U.S.-Saudi Relationship

William Eddy was one of several devout Christians in the oil business who helped build a pivotal alliance in U.S. Middle East policy.

Ibn Saud sits with FDR, with William Eddy (left, standing) attending. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On February 14, 1945, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, his advisors, and United States Envoy William Eddy crossed the gangplank from the USS Murphy to the USS Quincy for the first ever meeting between a Saudi king and a U.S. president. Over lunch and the coffee that Ibn Saud personally served Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the two men struck an accord. Ibn Saud believed they were twins, close in age and burdened with similar responsibilities and infirmities (with the president paralyzed from the waist down by polio and the king hampered by war wounds). Their frailties bound them. Roosevelt gave Ibn Saud a wheelchair that matched his own. “This chair is my most precious possession,” Ibn Saud would later boast, “the gift of my great and good friend, President Roosevelt, on whom Allah has had mercy.”  

On the heels of the historic agreement he helped broker, Eddy, the son of a Presbyterian missionary, became the adjudicator of two nations’ postwar dreams of economic progress. In the years ahead, he and his handpicked lieutenants would stand at the center of a burgeoning Saudi-U.S. relationship, as well as an increasingly global oil industry—a vital chapter in over a century of faith-inspired oil activity that has shaped U.S. economic and foreign policy.

William Eddy was a product of the missionary Brahmins of Beirut. His grandparents and parents had been among those who sought to Christianize the Middle East through the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. After growing up in Syria, then attending Princeton University for a bachelor’s and PhD, interrupted only by World War I, Eddy accepted a faculty position at the American University in Cairo (AUC), where he reacquainted himself with the Islamic world. In the 1930s, struggling to raise a family in Cairo, he returned to the United States, eventually accepting the presidency of Hobart and William Smith Colleges, an Episcopalian school in upstate New York. As specters of war collected over Europe, behind closed doors, Eddy met with Francis Sayre, U.S. assistant secretary of state, and others to “discuss frankly with each other,” in Sayre’s words, “whether any plan seems feasible and practicable to make our Christianity more virile and dominant in the world today”—a shared goal of fighting totalitarianism with religious values.                                                            

After serving as U.S. envoy to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia under Roosevelt, during which time he helped arrange the fateful meeting on the USS Quincy, Eddy spent two years as special assistant to the secretary of state for research and intelligence, before resigning to return to Saudi Arabia as an adviser to the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco). Frustration with the White House’s growing support of a Jewish state had much to do with his decision. But the chance to reconnect with Ibn Saud’s kingdom was the ultimate lure.     

At the time Aramco hired Eddy, its goal was to carry out a massive, $500 million expansion of its operations. At this juncture it employed roughly 20,000 workers, 4,000 of whom were American—drillers, engineers, and managers who helped oversee 13,000 Saudi laborers and an additional 3,000 employees from India and other corners of the Middle East. Needing ambassadors like Eddy to bind this increasingly sprawling empire together with a shared sense of mission, Aramco assembled a legion of visionaries. Eddy and his peers were charged not only with wrapping Aramco in a myth of enlightened capitalism but also animating ground-level operations with a tenor of intercultural and ecumenical exchange.

The institution that Eddy and his men created within Aramco to carry out these tasks would soon become enormous, the likes of which global oil had never before witnessed. Aramco called it the Government Relations Organization. Designed as a multitiered agency, with a central base in the Saudi Arabian oil patch and channels of communication reaching all the way to Washington, the organization immediately turned into a haven for impassioned experts on Arab culture who saw the oil company as the best outlet for their aspirations. David Dodge, who joined Aramco in 1949, was a son of American University of Beirut President Bayard Dodge, with graduate training in Princeton University’s Oriental studies. Fluent in Arabic and regional customs, committed to a spirit of internationalism that stemmed from their own faith, and eager to trade a career in Washington for a less certain (but more lucrative) assignment, Eddy, Dodge, and those who joined them in the Government Relations Organization saw Aramco as the vehicle through which they could transform their adopted homeland. In short order, they filled all the critical posts that the organization devised for its separate divisions in research and translation, as well as government and local affairs.

Three of David Dodge’s colleagues bore the heaviest burden of bridge building: Tom Barger, who dealt with ongoing negotiations between the company and local leaders; George Rentz at the Arabian Affairs Division, which Aramco envisioned as a think tank that could generate research and provide guidance and translation services; and Rentz’s right-hand man William Mulligan. All three had university and wartime experience in the region. All three were also dedicated Christians. While Rentz was a mainline Protestant, Mulligan and Barger were Catholics who seemed to grow more devout as their days in Saudi Arabia played out. Already core to their personal lives, religion became their professional preoccupation in Dhahran as they took up the task of binding together Islam and Christianity, the Muslim peoples of the Middle East with the “civilizing” mission of the Western oil company.                                                          

At the highest level of corporate exposure, they sought to cloak Aramco’s entire operation in mutual respect for the holy. They worked tirelessly as academic specialists in Islamic studies, publishing and presenting original scholarship and building curricula vitae that would be attractive to major universities around the world—all in an effort to augment Aramco’s reputation as a site of intellectual and theological exchange. 

They served as deacons of goodwill to the Saudi king. Their most urgent task was to moderate the pressures placed on Aramco by a Muslim theocracy whose moral imperatives for daily life—enforced by a “religious police”—were unbending. While some freedom for Western behavior (imbibing homebrews, for instance) was allowed within Aramco’s compounds, in general Aramco’s expats had little choice but to behave as their Muslim peers behaved. Why not do so with a respectful—even inviting—mindset? That was the message Mulligan and Rentz passed on by way of the educational materials they helped produce, to which Aramco employees were exposed prior to departure for the Middle East.

Members of Eddy’s team also did all they could to prop up the king’s political standing. To help him fend off criticism from fundamentalists who opposed Ibn Saud’s allowances for a Western company, Aramco’s ambassadors used their pens to herald him as an anointed leader who could vault his society into wealth and well-being without sacrificing tradition or faith.                                                

Aramco’s government relations men proved highly adept at promoting the compelling but distorted stories that William Eddy sold to powerbrokers in Washington and places farther afield. Not only did they obscure the exploitative dimensions of Aramco’s invasion of Saudi society, but they also brushed over cracks in the system that began to surface in company operations at this very same time. These underlying frictions, coupled with Ibn Saud’s primary worry—the status of Israel—tested Eddy and his associates’ exuberance for Aramco’s constructive role in the Middle East.

By 1953, amid the rise of tensions over Israel, the geopolitics of the Middle East hung in the balance. At the start of that year, Dwight Eisenhower assumed the U.S. presidency, promising a freshening of U.S. policy in the region. In November, Ibn Saud’s death marked the end of an era of oil discoveries and political diplomacy that Eddy helped oversee.

Eddy responded to the situation with renewed lobbying. In a speech at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island, Eddy warned against allowing a rift to develop between American and Muslim peoples. He saw the real possibility of a religious uprising in Palestine, led by the Ikhwan Al Muslimin (or Muslim Brotherhood), which Eddy had helped the CIA profile. A last gasp of potential remained, he said, for “three hundred million Muslims, not yet militarized, [to] offer to the U.S.A. a potent friend or a dangerous enemy. The choice is still ours.... If we choose wrong, then may God have mercy on our souls.”

Eddy stressed the good that could come out of continued commitment to Muslim Arabs and the type of ecumenism practiced at Aramco. The Aramco kingdom was a microcosm, he suggested, for how the United States and Saudi Arabia, and by extension the entire Middle East, could bond by way of a shared commitment to monotheistic religion. On that bedrock of belief in the enduring power of faith amid changing times, Americans and their brothers in the Middle East could draw close. In a speech to the Middle East Institute in Washington, he called on Americans to “recognize a moral alliance of Christianity and Islam.” 

Soon after ascending to the White House, Dwight Eisenhower would seek to construct a political consensus based on shared Judeo-Christian values. His would be a call for all American Protestants, Catholics, and Jews to create “one nation under God”—a republic populated by “people of the book” (the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran) and buttressed by monotheism that could spread religious freedom and democratic values worldwide and roll back the encroaching influences of atheistic communism. With Arabists like Eddy and Aramco’s government relations men urging him on, the president would attempt a bolder progression—to turn his tri-faith America into a quadrilateral. Alongside Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, Eisenhower hoped Muslims at home and abroad would join in a coalition of the faithful to fight the Red Menace and transform the globe. Although it would fall short of the “moral alliance” that Eddy and his Aramco colleagues idealized, and soon falter in the face of growing U.S. support for Israel, it was a strategy that would fortify the link between Washington and Riyadh, playing no small part in the alliance structure that exists today. It was a strategy that would persist, even if not quite in the form Eddy had envisioned, for decades, playing no small part in the alliance structure that exists today.

Adapted from Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America, by Darren Dochuk. Copyright © 2019 by Darren Dochuk. Reprinted by permission of Basic Books, New York, NY. All rights reserved.