In 1932, the fierce warrior Ibn Saud united the lands he conquered as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. To refute rumors that he’d been made impotent in battle, Ibn Saud would pick a village virgin, marry her on the spot and take her into the royal tent.
The royal family eventually had more than 200 wives, 125 daughters and at least 45 sons. It was not a rich kingdom, producing dates, wheat, barley and livestock, supplemented by revenue from pilgrims who journeyed to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Envious of the oil boom in Iran, Kuwait and Iraq, the king hired American mining engineer Karl Twitchell and Standard Oil of California to explore his lands. They found commercial quantities of the black gold in 1938, and by the following year the Saudis were earning more than $1 million in fees and royalties.
One royal adviser exclaimed, “The oil story was a veritable romance, surpassing the most improbable tales of the Arabian Nights!”
It had taken Americans nearly 100 years to find 30 billion barrels in the U.S., while the Saudis found more than that in a decade. The discovery of massive oil reserves was just the beginning of a close American-Saudi relationship.
I spoke with Geoffrey Wawro, author of “Quicksand: America’s Pursuit of Power in the Middle East” (Penguin), on the following topics:
1. Birth of Israel
2. Cheap Oil Bonanza
3. Bush’s Freedom Agenda
4. Caught in the Snare
5. Strategy vs. Expediency
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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)