SAUDI ARABIA: Fish to Jidda

The juiciest overseas plum secured byYankee traders since inauguration of the Good Neighbor Policy is a60-year concession to exploit oil lands throughout the whole of SaudiArabia. This plum fell to Standard Oil Co. of California last summer—almost unnoticed, since U. S. citizens were then so busy watching the European volcano burp. What soft-collared, spatless Standardbusinessmen had achieved was signal defeat of top-hatted Japanese, German and British diplomats who had been struggling for years to win thisNear East prize.

During the struggle Adolf Hitler feted at Berchtesgaden with lavishhonors swarthy envoys of King Ibn Saud, the potent super-Sheik who inthe last generation has carved out in Arabia a kingdom roughlyone-quarter as large as the U. S. After high German and British bidsfor Saudi Arabia’s oil were in, Japan bid frantically still higher.Standard bid low but kept reminding the King of what German orJapanese—or even British—agents might soon be doing to disrupt hisrealm if let in on the ground floor. When he finally closed withStandard, His Majesty exclaimed: “Gentlemen, the Japanese offeredme twice as much for one-third of what you now obtain!”

WhatStandard had won the State Department could not ignore, although Washington had hitherto not thought it necessary to have diplomaticrelations with the Near East’s largest State. On July 26 orders weregiven to accredit His Excellency Bert Fish, already U. S. Minister toEgypt, additionally to Saudi Arabia, and last week down the Red Sea atlast sailed Bert Fish.

Jidda, chief port of Saudi Arabia, is too scorching hot for tourists,and death is traditionally the penalty for any non-Mohammedan whoshould venture inland from it to Holy Mecca, birthplace of Mohammed.Jidda harbor is protected by two miles of treacherous reefs, andgingerly last week the chugging little steamer bearing Bert Fish wentthreading in through the narrow, twisty channel called “Jidda Gate.”The blinding white and torrid town, where every window is latticedagainst the sun, is a maze of narrow streets into which tall stuccohouses jut at crazy angles. All but one of the city gates are generallykept locked, and a Christian in Jidda is acutely conscious of thehostile glances of the purely Arab citizens, all of whom carry knives.Christian prospectors for Standard Oil were careful to grow beards andassume native dress. Jidda, however, had no terrors last week forsmooth-shaven, cosmopolitan Bert Fish, a wealthy Florida real-estateoperator who several times circled the globe before he became financedirector of the Democratic National Committee, thence broke intodiplomacy. To meet him King Ibn Saud went down from Mecca for a day andPrince Feisal, second of His Majesty’s 20-odd sons, offered a sumptuousbanquet.

Although His Majesty has had some 150 wives, he belongs to a mostascetic Moslem sect, the Wahabis,and his courtiers explain: “Our Kinghas never had more than four wives at any one time.” Bert Fish lastweek voiced hopes “for the personal happiness of Your Majesty and theprosperity of your people,” presented Ibn Saud with a silver-framedphotograph of President Roosevelt. Before returning to Cairo, the U. S.Minister will travel narrowly in Saudi Arabia, widely in the Sudan andUpper Egypt.

Gossiping with Saudi Arabians, members of the U. S. delegation learnedthat Ibn Saud was having electric light installed in Holy Mecca and inMedina, where Mohammed is buried, that His Majesty now owns some 30expensive pleasure cars. Ford agent in Jidda is the eminent BritishOrientalist St. John Philby, B. A., C. I. E., F. R. G. S. About 150,000Moslem pilgrims yearly visit Mecca (pop. 80,000), and nearly all now goby motor bus, so that the once-famed camel pasturage outside the HolyCity has been turned into a vast bus park. Latest innovation by HisMajesty is a modern plant at which the Holy Zam-zam Water from anancient Mecca well is sterilized, squirted into bottles, capped,labeled and sold like soda pop to pious Moslems.

Standard paid Ibn Saud $1,156,400 when he granted the concession andagreed to pay $165,000 yearly rental until commercial discovery in thenew areas or until surrender of rights. Last year His Majestyinaugurated Standard’s newly constructed Persian Gulf oil port RasTaruna, turned a valve opening the new 43-mile pipe line from Dammam.Average oil production leaped from 243 barrels daily for all SaudiArabia in 1938 to 10,210 barrels daily last year, is steadily spurtinghigher.

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