I went to Saudi Arabia's national museum, and it's clear how proud the kingdom is of its longstanding, controversial alliance with the US

  • I spent several hours in Saudi Arabia's national museum and cultural center while visiting Riyadh in January 2020.
  • It's full of evidence of the kingdom's long, fraternal relationship with the US, which started a year after the formation of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
  • A desk gifted to King Abdulaziz by President Harry Truman, and a letter from a US magnate praising the king to President Franklin D. Roosevelt took pride of place in one section.
  • It's clear from the museum that Saudi Arabia is proud of its consistent amity with the US despite areas of conflict in the US.
  • Congress repeatedly tried to pressure President Donald Trump to distance the US from Saudi Arabia after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a terrorist attack at Naval Air Station Pensacola by a Saudi service member, and the war in Yemen.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The US is Saudi Arabia's closest western ally. Their relationship has weathered several storms, from the September 11 attacks, to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, to a deadly terrorist attack at a US Navy air station last year.

All this was made clear to me when I visited the kingdom's National Museum in central Riyadh last month. I was struck by abundance of US paraphernalia there, which suggested to me that Saudi Arabia deeply cherishes its relationship so much that it borders on reverence.

The US-Saudi alliance started with Americans drilling for oil in the kingdom in 1933, which at the time had just been one year old.

Business interests came before political relations, with the Standard Oil of California — now Chevron — and Texas Oil Company — or Texaco — cashing in when they discovered oil in 1938.

Diplomatic relations were only established in February 1940, and their leaders at the time, King Abdulaziz and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, met for the first time in 1945.

Seventy-five years on, President Donald Trump has shown himself to be been resolutely committed to the US-Saudi alliance. In July 2019, Trump vetoed three bills limiting weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, and sent 1,800 troops to the country after an attack on two oil facilities belonging to the state's Saudi Aramco company last September.

In December 2019, the US Embassy in Riyadh also launched the hashtag #Together2020 to commemorate 75 years of the two countries' partnership.

Here's what I saw at Saudi's national museum:

The first two exhibits at the King Abdulaziz Historic Center are the most striking. In a display of the former king's personal effects is a handsome table given to him by President Harry Truman in 1950.

The desk given to King Abdulaziz by President Harry Truman in 1950.
Bill Bostock/Business Insider

"His Majesty King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, as an expression of friendship and goodwill from Harry Truman President of the United States of America October 1950," the brass placard reads.

The second item, just a few feet to the desk's right, is a 1939 letter from US businessman and arabophile Charles R. Crane to Roosevelt extolling the virtues of King Abdulaziz, also known as Ibn Saud.

A letter in praise of King Abdulaziz from Charles R. Crane in 1939.
Bill Bostock/Business Insider

"He is the most important man who has appeared in Arabia since the time of Mohammed," Crane wrote, referring to the founder of Islam. Crane also said the time he spent with King Abdulaziz was "my richest experience."

In the main exhibition of the National Museum, the long arm of the US is felt again — this time in the form of a vintage 1940s Dodge Power Wagon, used in the early years of Aramco drilling in eastern Saudi Arabia. 

A Dodge Power Wagon used in eastern Saudi Arabia, in the 1930s, pictured in the Saudi National Museum.
Bill Bostock/Business Insider

Here it is in Dammam, eastern Saudi Arabia, which is the center of Saudi Aramco's drilling program:

A Dodge Power Wagon pictured in Dammam, eastern Saudi Arabia, in the 1930s.
Saudi National Museum/Bill Bostock/Business Insider

The museum is also plastered with images of King Abdulaziz and Roosevelt's first meeting, which took place on the of USS Quincy as Roosevelt was returning from the Yalta conference, where he and other world leaders discussed post-World War II logistics for Germany and Europe.

The pair hit it off, finding common ground in "oil, God, and real estate," according to nuclear expert Rachel Bronson's book, "Thicker Than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia."

King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud of Saudi Arabia (center) meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt aboard the USS Quincy in Great Bitter Lake, Egypt on February 14, 1945.
AP Images

Ellen R. Wald, an energy historian who wrote a book on Saudi oil, wrote in The Washington Post this week that these very photographs are "used frequently in propaganda within Saudi Arabia and in messages aimed at American audiences."

(Incidentally, the US Embassy in Riyadh used this exact same photo in a promotional video for the hashtag last month.)

Wald said, however, that the Saudi-US relationship is not as symbolic and pure as either side would have us believe either. She said it was "a simply transactional relationship" focused on oil, and later, military co-dependence.

"While powerful forces have mythologized it for their own reasons, the United States and Saudi Arabia are not and never have been allies," Wald wrote.

The Saudi national museum's curators would likely refute that, as their message seemed to be clearly about genuine friendship, respect, and loyalty between the Saudis and Americans.

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