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The Return of the King — Saud Visits the U.S.

Visits by dignitaries of other countries can be quite productive and even pleasant or, depending on the state of bilateral relations and the scale of faux pas, tetchy and awkward.

Such was the case with King Saud, who ruled over Saudi Arabia from 1953-1964 and visited the United States two times during his reign— an official visit in 1957 and an informal visit in 1962. The first visit had more than its share of tensions — a three-day visit stretched out to nine, an excessively large coterie with some Saudis sleeping in tents across from the White House.

But it was the second, when Saud was in the U.S. for medical care, which really threatened to set relations back, as President Kennedy had to be dragged to see the King, while the White House insisted on serving alcohol during the dinner — during Ramadan no less.

David Newsom served in the Office of Arabian Peninsular Affairs at the State Department from 1955-1959. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning June 1991. Norman V. Schute served in the State Department’s Office of Security in the Physical Security Section from 1956-1958 and gave ADST his interview in July 1995. Talcott W. Seelye served as the Desk Officer for Arabian Peninsular Affairs from 1960-1964. He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning September 1993.

Read how one ambassador inadvertently crossed King Fahd. Read about the Art of Protocol. Go here for more on the Middle East and the Saudis.


“The Royal party was expected to stay in Washington three days; it stayed nine days.”

David D. Newsom, Office of Arabian Peninsular Affairs, 1955-1959

NEWSOM: Abdul Aziz died in 1953. He was succeeded by his son, Saud bin Abdul Aziz, who was a great hulk of a man with poor eyesight. He made a memorable visit to the United States in 1957. [George] Wadsworth was still our Ambassador to Saudi at the time.

The rule then, as it is still now, was that the head of state could have 12 persons with him for whom the U.S. government would pay expenses in Washington. Wadsworth protested that 12 was not enough for a king. We finally agreed that His Majesty could bring 40 people, but would only pay for some of them.

We sent [Protocol officer] Victor Purse out to ensure that no more than 40 boarded the ship that would bring the party to the United States. We did not realize that the ship would dock at Cannes where another 40 Saudis boarded. The Saudi party, by the time it reached New York was over 80 people. We had to pare that down. Blair House was occupied by the King and his immediate entourage.

The rest were put in the Shoreham [Hotel], except for the King’s bodyguards who were bedded down in tents pitched in Lafayette Square [across from the White House]. The Royal party was expected to stay in Washington three days; it stayed nine days.

During those nine days, we negotiated an extension on our use of the Dhahran airport. Robert Murphy, then Under Secretary of State, was supposed to be our chief negotiator; Yussuf Yassin was the Saudi negotiator — the same man who handled the Oasis tribunal.
After one session, Murphy decided that he didn’t want any more and therefore established a drafting committee and made me the chairman. It is we who had to meet with Yassin thereafter.

So I negotiated with that wily Syrian for four days and nights and managed to squeeze out another five-year extension. That was the last extension. That experience was useful because I learned a lot about negotiating in those four days.

“They seemed to prefer blondes, brunettes and red heads”

Norman V. Schute, State Department Office of Security, 1956-1958

SCHUTE: The King Saud thing was really an Arabian Knights affair. I was assigned to escort the little Prince, the Royal Protector and the Royal Nurse. I met them at the ship and took them to their hotel. I’d get them up in the morning and put them to bed at night. Later on, from New York we went to Washington and Blair House which is the official residence for official visitors, was completely occupied by King Saud and his entourage. (Photo: AP)

As I recall, in addition to the little Prince, King Saud had so many wives and of course, many children. I believe he brought over four or five adult Princes and each night one of my colleagues would carry a large packet of money and one of them particularly would go to Baltimore and visit the ladies of the evening. They seemed to prefer blondes, brunettes and red heads.

My assignment was, I believe, much more interesting and fascinating. The little Prince apparently had a muscular ailment in his left or right ankle so we made a number of visits to Walter Reed hospital where he was given hydrotherapy and then, of course, visits to the Zoo and I have a few pictures of it which are nice memories tucked away. Finally things were drawing to a close.

My colleagues and I, individually, were directed to report to a room where assistants of the King gave presents of money and watches. At that point they had run out of the official watches which were gold Longines watches with the King Saud’s crest, crossed swords and a palm, in a presentation box. So they went downtown and picked up a lot of Gruens and Hamiltons.

I showed the little Prince my watch and he sort of shook his head and ran back into the bedroom.

On return he gave me one of the Longines. I also received four $100 bills. Well, of course, no government employee is supposed to accept any gifts so I promptly prepared a memo and turned in the four $100 bills and I listed them by serial number. My chief, then Tomlin Bailey, wasn’t too happy that I’d put this all in writing, but it was a matter of personal protection, I felt, and it just would hold the next person accountable for receiving it.

Of course, I turned in the watch but sometime later the Chief of Protocol, Wiley Buchanan, said that these “Mickey Mouse” watches, as he called them, should be returned and that’s how I’ve got this very nice watch.

“The President wouldn’t take time out to do this”

Talcott W. Seelye, Desk Officer for Arabian Peninsular Affairs, 1960-1964

SEELYE: Saudi Arabia was the pivotal country in the Peninsula and the country we focused most of our time on. At that point there was an uneasy period in Saudi Arabia because the successor to the great Abdul Aziz was King Saud the prodigal son. Saud was not very intelligent and administered the treasury haphazardly. I remember how, during some crisis in the Middle East, he offered the Syrians $2 million as a political bribe.

It was recognized that his continued tenure would lead to an erosion of the situation in Saudi Arabia. We were worried. In 1961 he fell ill, and he came to the Peter Bent Brigham hospital in Boston for treatment. He suffered from very serious ailments including galloping syphilis. Despite Saud’s flaws we of course realized that we had to pay some attention to him while in the U.S….

I was dealing with the Saudi Ambassador, Abdullah Khaggal, concerning the King’s presence here. The King was of the view that being head of state, who happened to be in the United States for medical reasons, the president of the country in which he was being treated medically should call on him first. At that point our President was Jack Kennedy.

The plan was that once the King got out of the hospital he would have a period of recuperation in this country. They had first planned on sending him out West some place. Wanting to satisfy Saudi protocol, I investigated at the White House whether it would be possible for the President — who was going to Hyannis Port for weekends at the time — to swing by the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital (pictured). I was told that this was impossible. The President wouldn’t take time out to do this.

So the next question was how could we create a situation whereby with a minimum of effort the President could call on the King. This would salve the King’s pride and enable the King to accept a Presidential invitation to have a meal with him at the White House.
It was agreed that Saudi Arabia was important enough to us that the President should meet with him at the White House. But the King would not go to the White House until the President called upon him. That was the problem.

“Kennedy kept saying, ‘What am I doing calling on this guy?’”

As the weeks went by I noted that Kennedy was now going to Palm Beach and maybe we could persuade the Saudis to induce the King to recuperate in Palm Beach rather than out West. They thought that was a good idea and they were able to find a house belonging to Merriweather Post, which they rented for a month. The King went down to Palm Beach.

Then I talked to Angier Biddle Duke, who was head of Protocol and a close friend of Kennedy’s. I noted that it was only fifteen minutes from the President’s house to the Post house. A fifteen-minute visit by Kennedy was all that was necessary and then a dinner at the White House could be set up. As it turned out the White House reluctantly agreed.

When the King got down there it was agreed that Kennedy would call on him. I took a White House back-up plane to Palm Beach to be present during this meeting.

A day or so before that meeting I had dinner with the King. The meeting the next day was set up. Angier Biddle Duke went to pick up Kennedy and as he told me later, Kennedy kept saying, “What am I doing calling on this guy?”

Duke, who was a pretty good man said, “Well, I understand that this is very important to the Saudis from a protocol standpoint, it is part of their cultural requirements and we have to be sensitive to that.” So they arrived and Kennedy came into the living room and the King, who was a big man, about 6’4″, wore dark glasses that were very narrow. He was very somber looking.

Normally when the President is meeting with a foreign dignitary there is a State Department interpreter. In those days it was Camille Nowfal. But since this was just a courtesy call, with no substance to be discussed, there seemed no point in sending a special interpreter down from the State Department.

So an aide to the King, who was a very distinguished Palestinian with Saudi nationality, was to do the interpreting. His name was Jamal Husseini from the famous Husseini family from Jerusalem.

The exchange of conversation starts. The President says, “Your Majesty I am looking forward to seeing you in Washington next week. It will be a great pleasure for me.”

And the King responds, “Inshallah.” The interpreter translated the Arabic word literally and said, “God willing.” You should have seen the President’s startled face. You could see what was going through his mind.

“I am going out of my way to meet this SOB and I am saying how nice it is to meet him and all he says is `God willing'”.

So that didn’t start the meeting off too well. It was a lesson that most professional interpreters understand. They try to translate the cultural context of what a person says. What the interpreter should have said was, “I am looking forward with great pleasure to meeting you at the White House Mr. President, God willing,” which is supposedly what the King meant.

Anyway, they had about a fifteen-minute exchange and that was that. Okay, the King comes to Washington later.

He was to meet the President at the White House for a luncheon. The White House didn’t want to bother having a dinner for him. The Saudi Ambassador, however, was very stubborn and said to me that it could not be a lunch because this was Ramadan, which was the month of fasting. And as you know, you cannot eat during the month of fasting.

I said, “Mr. Ambassador, there are two exceptions to the fasting requirement: one is if you are ill, and the King is ill. Two, if you are in travel status, and the King is in travel status. So both of these exceptions would enable the King, it seems to me, to accept a luncheon invitation.”

“No,” said the Saudi Ambassador, “not at all.” So I had to go back to the White House and tell them that a lunch was impossible….Well, they finally agreed to have a dinner.…

“I assumed that no liquor would be served”

So a dinner was planned. I pointed out to the White House that, of course, the Saudis do not consume liquor because it is against their religion. I assumed, therefore, that no liquor would be served.

A couple of people who were invited to the dinner party were American businessmen who were concerned with the Middle East. One was Terry Duce, who used to be a big figure with ARAMCO [the Arab-American Oil Company] and the other was Kermit Roosevelt [grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt who served in the Office of Strategic Services, and went on to found Arabist organizations].

They both called me to see if liquor was going to be served and I said, “No.” So they tanked up.

We arrive at the White House and here are these trays with big tumblers full of pure Scotch on the rocks. Later on I was told by the White House that since Saudis insisted on a dinner, it would entertain its way. Okay.

Terry Duce and Kermit Roosevelt ended up in their cups [inebriated]. On leaving the White House I had to help both of them out.

That obviously is not the main point of the story. Liquor was being served and the Saudi Ambassador was absolutely irate.
He took me aside and said, “How can you do this to us?”

I said, “Mr. Ambassador, when we are in your country we always try to be very sensitive to your culture, your habits and your rituals. We may not agree with them, but we honor them. And I hope you will be generous and sensitive enough to honor our customs.”
But he was still upset.

The table arrangement at the dinner was sort of a horseshoe design with tables at right angles. I was down at one end and sitting next to me was Angier Biddle Duke, head of Protocol.

There were a few Foreign Service officers who knew Arabic sitting behind the guests to help interpret if necessary. At one point the President was not speaking with the King. The King was talking to the person on his right, who was [Secretary of State] Dean Rusk. Lyndon Johnson, the Vice President, was sitting somewhere else. Between courses, Duke would nudge me and say, “The President can’t talk to Prince so-and-so on his left. Why don’t you go up and help him a bit.”

So I got up and stood behind and between the President and a very dour prince. I introduced myself to the President and said, “Can I help interpret for you with this gentleman?”

The President looked at me and said, “Who are you?”

I said, “Well, I happen to be the desk officer for Arabian Peninsula Affairs.”

“Oh,” he said, “Tell me about the background of the King and Saudi Arabia.” I told him a little bit about how his father had united all these tribes and the country.

He said, “That is very interesting. Tomorrow call my secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, and give her the name of a good book I can read on Saudi Arabia on this period.”

I said, “I have a couple in mind and I will call her.”

At that point the next course came so I sat down. There was another break and this time Dean Rusk was left alone, so I went up to him and said, “Can I help you with your partner?” He looked interested and so I helped interpret. Then I sat down.

“The President made a crack to the effect that never had so much milk been consumed at a state affair”

Between the final courses I noticed Lyndon Johnson over in a corner. He had a Saudi next to him and there was no conversation going on because the Saudi didn’t speak any English. I went to the Vice President and asked, “Mr. Vice President, may I help you interpret with this gentleman here?”

The Vice President gave me a look as if to say, “Who the hell do you think you are? and turned away. He obviously didn’t want any help; he didn’t want to speak to the guy anyway.

During the dinner, milk was served to the Saudi entourage and during his remarks the President made a crack to the effect that never had so much milk been consumed at a state affair.

Again, after the dinner was over, the Saudi Ambassador buttonholed me once more and I said, “Look, you have to consider that this is what the White House wanted to do and they did it.

As far as I can see, Mr. Ambassador, everything went off very well.

The Saudi officials seemed to be very pleased. Then I discovered, shortly thereafter, from a very reliable source, that the King, himself, was polishing off a bottle of brandy a day. It had all started a year or two before when he was seriously ill and his private aide, a man named Id bin Salem, had prescribed a shot of what the King thought was medicine.

He took it and liked it and it made him feel better. So he took more and more. As a result he used to keep a bottle of brandy under his mattress in the hospital while he was in Boston.

So I thought that was a supreme irony: the Saudi Ambassador’s insisting that no liquor could be served and the King is sitting there at the dinner wishing that he could have some of that whiskey or brandy, I am sure.