A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Churchill's Turn: Meeting "Ibn Saud," Fayyoum, February 1945

Yesterday I (belatedly) noted the 70th anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt's meeting with King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz Al Sa‘ud (usually referred to by Westerners at the time as "Ibn Saud") aboard the USS Quincy in February 1946. After meeting the King on February 14, FDR departed for Alexandria and there, on February 15, met Winston Churchill, who was also returning from Yalta. Then FDR departed for home. It was the last time Churchill and FDR met; Roosevelt died in April.

Auberge du Lac in the 1940s
Churchill proceeded from Alexandria to the Fayyoum Oasis, while the King's party was driven from the Suez Canal. Churchill hosted a lunch at the Auberge du Lac Hotel, a former hunting lodge of King Farouq converted to a hotel with views of Lake Qarun. (The hotel in 1945 was not the present one, built in 1954 on the same site.)

As is often the case with Churchill, the best storyteller in this case is himself, The story is told in Volume VI of The Second World War, Triumph and Tragedy, pp. 397-398 of the US edition:

After the departure of our American friends I had arranged  meeting with Ibn Saud. He had been transported to the conference with the President in he American destroyer Murphy, and travelled with all the splendour of an Eastern potentate, with an entourage of some fifty persons, including two sons, his Prime Minister, his Astrologer, and flocks of sheep to be killed according to Moslem rites. On February 17 his reception was organised at the Hôtel du Lac at Fayum oasis, from which we had temporarily removed all residents.
 Churchill then relates an anecdote his biographers frequently cite:
A number of social problems arose. I had been told that neither smoking nor alcoholic beverages were allowed in the Royal Presence. As I was the host at luncheon I raised the matter at once, and said to the interpreter that if it was the religion of His Majesty to deprive himself of smoking and alcohol I must point out that my rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after, and if need be during all meals and in the intervals between them. The King graciously accepted the position. His own cup-bearer from Mecca offered me a glass of water from its sacred well, the most delicious I had ever tasted. 
And there were other issues:
It had been indicated to me beforehand that here would be an interchange of presents during the course of our meeting. I had therefore made what I thought were adequate arrangements. "Tommy" Thompson [Churchill's aide] had bought for me in Cairo for about a hundred pounds, at the Government's expense, a little case of very choice perfumes which I presented. We were all given jewelled swords, diamond-hilted, and other splendid gifts. Sarah [Churchill's daughter] had an enormous portmanteau which Ibn Saud had provided for "your womenfolk." I appeared that we were rather outclassed in gifts, so I told the King, "What we bring are but tokens. His Majesty's Government have decided to present you with the finest motor-car in the world, with every comfort for peace and every security against hostile action." This was later done.
I assume it was a Rolls-Royce.
King Ibn Saud made a striking impression. My admiration for him was deep, because of his unfailing loyalty to us. He was always at his best in the darkest hours. He was now over seventy, but had lost none of his warrior vigour. He still lived he existence of a patriarchal King of the Arabian desert, with his forty living sons and the seventy ladies of his harem, and three of the four legal wives, as prescribed by the Prophet, one vacancy being left.
Churchill omits the awkward fact that one key topic of conversation was Palestine, where Churchill hoped to extricate Britain from its Palestine Mandate through peaceful partition and hoped for Saudi support. That was not forthcoming.

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