STEVE INSKEEP, host:
When President Obama took office, one of his first phone calls was to the king of Saudi Arabia. He was calling a nation that remains a vital U.S. ally, even though relations were strained after most 9/11 hijackers turned out to be Saudis. As a new administration shapes a new foreign policy, we're going back to the beginnings of the U.S. friendship with the leading oil producer. Journalist Thomas Lippman wrote of the first president to meet a Saudi king, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Mr. THOMAS LIPPMAN (Middle East Institute): Roosevelt had a vision that was way out in front of where anybody else in this country was. And he had flown over Saudi Arabia on his way home from a conference in Tehran. He had this idea that Saudi Arabia could be developed agriculturally. And because Americans were already there extracting oil, he decided to create a partnership with Saudi Arabia.
INSKEEP: Thomas Lippman is author of the book, "Arabian Night," and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He writes about how President Roosevelt decided to meet with the Saudi king Abdul Aziz during World War II, on the deck of a U.S. Navy cruiser.
Mr. LIPPMAN: The king being a king, expected to travel like a king. He was going to bring some of his wives, and he was going to bring 200 sheep. All of this had to be negotiated without in any way insulting the king.
The king was a man who had sword-fighting scars on his body. He was a warrior, and it was a remarkable feat of diplomacy that the president and the king came together as equals when their countries could not have been less equal.
Saudi Arabia at that time had none of the apparatus of modern life: electricity, roads, indoor plumbing, running water. Franklin Roosevelt, Groton and Harvard, was meeting Abdul Aziz, whose book learning came from the Quran, and who had come to power not in New York electoral politics, but in sword fights.
INSKEEP: Although New York electoral politics really…
Mr. LIPPMAN: Well, that's true, knife fight maybe. And so that's really what happened here.
INSKEEP: You said something about Roosevelt treating this Arab leader as an equal. What were the little signs of that and the meeting on the deck of this U.S. Navy warship at the end of World War II?
Mr. LIPPMAN: Roosevelt, for example, refrained from smoking in the king's presence. But even before they reached that point, the king, by this time, was a man getting on. He must have been about 70, and he didn't walk very well. His legs were infirm. And so Roosevelt, who himself used a wheelchair, spotted that right away and gave the king an impromptu gift: his backup wheelchair. And it sort of struck a chord.
INSKEEP: So you describe these two leaders who did the little things right. The two countries also had common interests they were willing to pursue.
And there's another detail here that I feel might still be relevant today and that is, when you describe the situation of King Abdul Aziz in Saudi Arabia, you have this man who seems to be repeatedly saying, I like America. I like American money. I like American technology. There's lots of things I can do for my people. But I have to be really careful because my people are very conservative and very suspicious of foreigners.
Mr. LIPPMAN: That's very much the case. He had no choice, really, if he wanted to build up his country, but to import foreign technology and capital, which meant infidel personnel. And everything that the king did amounted to trying to find the balance between establishing a foreign presence necessary to get the work done, and isolating or insulating those foreigners from the cultural and religious and in effect, such as it was, political life of Saudi Arabia. And this is a principle that Roosevelt accepted and has prevailed in American relationships with Saudi Arabia ever since.
INSKEEP: Meaning, we Americans will not worry too much about your internal situation and in fact, try to stay isolated from it.
Mr. LIPPMAN: That is correct. And if you want to cut people's hands off for stealing money at a convenience store, that's not our business.
INSKEEP: So, has this relationship that started in 1945 aboard this U.S. Navy vessel survived all of the disputes and trouble and tragedies of the last few years?
Mr. LIPPMAN: Absolutely. And the two people most responsible for that are Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, now the king.
INSKEEP: Descendant of that first Saudi…
Mr. LIPPMAN: The son of that first Saudi king. And President George W. Bush, because he understood that this relationship was in trouble after 9/11 - for obvious reasons. And I went down to Texas, I guess it was in 2005, when Abdullah went down to visit President Bush at his ranch. You may recall, that was the meeting where they were photographed holding hands in the Arab style.
And by the end of the Bush administration, the president himself, and all the senior officials of his administration, were telling Congress and the public that on terrorism, the Saudis were by then part of the solution and not part of the problem.
INSKEEP: Are the Saudis part of the solution for a new administration now that wants to change its policy in Iraq, change its policy in Afghanistan, and if possible, change its stance towards Iraq?
Mr. LIPPMAN: If they're not, they will be because there's no choice. The Saudis are enormously influential. They spend huge amounts of money on Muslim causes around the world. They are indispensable allies in this campaign. We need their help.
INSKEEP: Do they need us?
Mr. LIPPMAN: Less than they used to. There's a joke that you'll hear that says that ever since 1945, Saudi Arabia has wanted to be on very good terms with a country that has these characteristics: permanent seat on the Security Council, no history of colonialism in the Middle East, big importer of oil, and a nuclear power. It sounds like China to me.
INSKEEP: Is that joke coming true?
Mr. LIPPMAN: Absol - yes. The Chinese will never be the security partner in the Gulf that Americans are. The Chinese don't want that role. But economically, China is everywhere. The Chinese just got the contract to build a monorail in Mecca for the pilgrims. In the past, all of those contracts would have gone to Americans.
INSKEEP: Thomas W. Lippman is a longtime journalist and author of "Arabian Night." Thanks very much.
Mr. LIPPMAN: My pleasure.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: From NPR News, it's MORNING EDITION.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.