Less than a month before President Richard Nixon’s resignation on August 9, 1974, he took a presidential tour of the Middle East. The trip was meant to strengthen U.S. relations with the region as well as provide the president with a respite from the onslaught of bad press at home due to the infamous Watergate scandal. The following took place at a state dinner in June 1974, most likely the 14th, about a year before the assassination of King Faisal, the monarch of Saudi Arabia, at the hands of his own royal nephew. Hume Horan served as the Deputy Chief of Mission in Saudi Arabia from 1972 to 1977. Photo by AFP.
Q: You mentioned Richard Nixon making a visit there. Was that of any interest particularly, or was that just Nixon’s last hurrah, tour of the Middle East to get the hell away from Watergate?
HORAN: That’s right. It was just in his closing days. The Saudis loved him because they thought he was more objective than the Democrats on the Israeli question….
Nixon arrived with the usual overwhelming number of people. There were maybe 500 in his delegation and 20 aircraft from the U.S. government there on the hardtop. A sort of U.S. pilgrimage to Arabia! We thought the Peninsula might slip below the Red Sea under the weight of this American armada!
Then before the state dinner Ambassador Jim Akins asked the president if he wanted any texts or talking points for his speech. Nixon replied, “No, I write my own.” So he got up there and began talking about King Faisal, and how wonderful it was that his father had cooperated with Lawrence of Arabia, the great role he had played in the Arab revolt, and how in his early days Faisal had been to France for the Paris Peace Conference with Woodrow Wilson, etc. Excellent.
But Nixon was speaking of the wrong Faisal! He was praising the late King of Iraq, not the Saudi Faisal, whose father had driven the Hashemites from Arabia! Jim’s blood ran cold.
But help was at hand. In Jeddah we had an extraordinary Public Affairs Officer, Isa Sabbagh…. I don’t know of anyone with a similar grasp of the nuances of English and Arabic and their respective cultures. He was also a wise and perceptive counselor. I learned always to seek his advice, and usually follow it. And, especially, he was a patriotic American who did not back down when attacked by Arabs for seeming inconsistencies in U.S. policy toward the Middle East.…
Anyway, Isa was at the state dinner and had just had this hot potato dropped in his lap. He freely translated Nixon’s remarks, skillfully conflating similarities in the two Faisal stories.
Afterwards someone remarked to Jim, “I never quite understood when President Nixon was speaking what he was referring to, but your Minister for Information, Mr. Sabbagh, made it all very clear for me.”