Foreign Policy Rant (40 years late)

“What happened?”

It’s been a couple of months now since Sara and I met at Starbuck’s, when she mentioned she had a friend who was going to Saudi Arabia to work. Sara asked me what I thought might be different about the Kingdom since I had left it.

Isn’t it strange how people sometimes think you’re an expert on a place just because you were born there?

If you were to ask me what Death’s Head moths look like fluttering around the lights at midnight at the tennis courts, or what it feels like to roll down a sand dune, I might be able to gurgle out a few words. But as for the meanings of Historical Events, or why Things Happen, well…

My family left Arabia in 1969. I was seventeen years old and I had spent most of the previous three years in a boarding school in Beirut, Lebanon, which I found a lot more stimulating and interesting than life in an oil compound. Thanks to the hospitality of a good friend and his family, I was able to go back to Dhahran for a few weeks in 1975. Things looked the same. The compound still felt eerily empty, the weather was oppressive, and the desert, well, the desert sort of looked like this:

What I didn’t know in 1975, what I imagine no one except for a very few thoughtful individuals knew, was that everything had already changed. We were already behind the times. Dhahran, which had 7,000 people when I was born, and which didn’t even exist before 1938, has in a few decades become a mega-city of some 4 million people. (That is if you put the cities of Damman, Al-Kobar, and Dhahran together.)

A picture of the Dhahran camp around 1948, three years before I was born:

Sara’s question — “What’s the difference between now and then?” — rattled around in my head until I decided that I had to come up with an answer. What follows is only one interpretation, but it’s mine, and having written it I’m hoping the rattling sounds go away.

To put it melodramatically: on a single day in December 1973, everything changed. Everything, everywhere. I don’t remember what I was doing on that particular day in 1973. I was probably listening to a Spooky Tooth album and wondering if I should hop into my VW van and drive to Utah. I had heard that Zion National Park was beautiful.

It might be helpful to remember that in 1973 the United States of America treated Saudi Arabia the way we still treat Panama and Finland: it was a dinky country that doubtlessly wanted to be like us: rich, powerful, democratic, and well-fed. We had won World War II (some credit should be given to the Russians, of course); we were the world’s breadbasket; we had aircraft carriers; we were landing men on the moon and bringing them home. Whatever your point of view, the USA was the big dog. We had more military and political and economic influence than any country in history; in fact more than all other nations in history combined.

In 1973 Saudi Arabia was part of what used to be called the Near East (a term now considered dated, I understand). Mention the Middle East back then and you got a shrug. So what? In 1973 my having been born in Saudi Arabia generated absolutely zero interest in anyone, because no one had heard of the place. And after you had described it they wished you hadn’t bothered. Imagine telling someone today that you grew up working for Georgia Power.


Occasionally someone would ask, without really wanting an answer, “How come they’re always fighting over there?”

Not that I knew the answer to that one.

I read on the internet that between 1945 and 2001 there have been 194 Wars — and about 3,000 lesser “conflicts.” That’s a lot of fighting. I wonder how many wars and “conflicts”  have taken place between 2001 and today?

Anyway, on October 6th of 1973 another war broke out in the Middle East. This one is called the Yom Kippur War. Unlike the Six Day war of June 1967, the Yom Kippur War would go on for 19 days, which for a small country like Israel must have felt like what ten years of fighting in Vietnam felt to Americans.

Probably no informed person expected Egypt to win in 1973. You don’t start a war with Israel thinking you’re going to win. A better argument is that the Egyptians were fighting to erase some of the humiliation Egypt and the Arab world had endured from the Six Day War. Sadat must have been astonished to find Egypt still fighting three days after he started the war, maybe as astonished as he was that the sneak attack across the Suez Canal had actually worked. Sadat was hoping to do enough damage to Israel to make it come to terms and grant concessions that would reduce some of the sting of 1967. And in any case, he certainly knew that America wasn’t going to let Israel vanish off the face of the earth, no matter what the excitable young Egyptians playing dominoes and smoking hookahs were hearing on the state radio.

Americans, if they thought about the war at all beyond the thirty second news clips of tanks in the desert, expected everything to conclude satisfactorily as always. In 1973, just as in 1967, 1956, and 1948, not many Americans even knew where Israel was, much less where Jordan, Egypt (pyramids, right?), Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia were.

I wasn’t so sure myself and I had been born there.

Besides, the war wasn’t even on the front page. Spiro Agnew was. On October 10 the Vice President of the United States resigned his office to plead guilty on tax-evasion charges. How crazy is that?

Over in the Middle East, Israel had begun to stabilize its fronts and even conduct counterattacks. Israeli artillery was shelling Damascus, Israeli forces were crossing the Sinai, whole Egyptian armies were becoming entrapped. But what was America reading about? Not the war. On October 12 Nixon was ordered by the courts to give up the Watergate tapes. What was on those tapes? What did Nixon know about the Watergate break in? That same day Gerald Ford became Vice President. Who the hell was Gerald Ford?

Meanwhile Israel is kicking butt. It’s costing them though. But everyone knows that America will provide Israel with aid of some kind. The United Nations gets the belligerents to agree to a cease fire on October 22. This promptly falls apart and the fighting intensifies.

When the Yom Kippur War does end for good, on October 25, Israel is 25 miles from Damascus and 63 miles away from Cairo.

The news in America is the magic disappearing act of the Nixon presidency. The country is addicted to Watergate. There has been so much coverage of the story that even apolitical dolts like yours truly are starting to think they understand some of it. Burglaries, political dirty tricks, someone named McGovern, the presidential election of 1972, which Nixon won in a landslide. (He promised to bring us closer to ending the Vietnam War. Yes, that was still going on.)

Then on October 20, 1973 there appears another mind-blowing headline: the Attorney General and the Deputy Attorney General of the United States have resigned. Nixon had ordered them to fire the Watergate Special Prosecutor. Taking the high road, the Attorneys General refused to fire Cox and instead quit. What is going on in the White House?

Then on October 22 — the same day the UN proposes a cease fire in the war — Nixon surrenders the White House Tapes. Now at last we will know what is on those tapes … the smoking gun!

All this while, watching along with the rest of us is King Faisal of Arabia. King Faisal had a close relationship with America and shared with Nixon a thorough distrust of all things communist. (Faisal was also — I did not know this until I read it on Wikipedia — a Grateful Dead fan.)

Faisal had been watching Nixon carefully since 1972 when Anwar Sadat had kicked his Russian advisors out of Egypt. This was important because Faisal thought that now the Arab world would see America stepping into the breach and dealing seriously with the problems of the Arab world, especially the Palestinians.

But Nixon did nothing.

Now, in October of 1973, King Faisal was again watching Nixon. How would he respond to the Arab world now? What would he do?


A quick note. It may help to remember that in the 1960’s the world’s oil industry wasn’t exactly going great guns. The price of a barrel of oil (42 gallons) had stayed below $2 throughout the decade. There was a reason people like my father were retiring: the jobs weren’t there and the Company was cutting back wherever it could. There was no real money in oil. Until 1973 no one cared much about the stuff, where it came from, what it did to sea birds, or the politics involved in it. Oil was plentiful and gasoline was cheap. A gallon of regular gas cost 36 cents in 1972 in the States. In Arabia you could fill your whole gas tank for about 16 cents.

The oil in Saudi Arabia came courtesy of Aramco, which was owned by Socal, Texaco, Esso/Exxon, and Mobil. The American oil companies had discovered the first wells in Arabia in the 1930’s. They controlled the shipment of the oil (paying royalties to the Saud family for the rights). By 1973 Aramco was the largest and richest privately owned company on earth. Aramco called all the shots, just as Aramco had created the myth of the wonder-working benevolent company that brought roads and schools and hospitals to a backward, isolated country stuck in the 13th century. (We children of Aramco bought this fairy tale lock, stock and barrel, not unlike the way children of the towns of the coal mining industry in the 1930s bragged about how the Company was bringing prosperity to Appalachia even as it was busy removing the mountains.)


So here we are. It’s the end of October 1973. We have Israel at war with Egypt and Syria. We have Nixon fighting to preserve his presidency. We have an American public watching in fascination as the Nixon presidency unravels. (Just how crooked is this guy?) Watergate is on everyone’s lips. And we have, very far away and unnoticed by anyone, King Faisal of Saudi Arabia.

Nixon wasn’t paying King Faisal much attention.

In fact, Nixon wasn’t even paying attention to the Yom Kippur War.

That was being left up to Henry Kissinger.

It’s not difficult to imagine how little mental energy Nixon was giving to foreign policy those days.

But then it happened — the one thing guaranteed to get Nixon’s attention no matter how many six-inch Watergate headlines are being splashed about.

Remember the Cold War? The Iron Curtain. Capitalism vs Communism. Stalin vs. Truman. Korea. Vietnam. The Berlin Wall. The Berlin Airlift. Today the Cold War has been over for a generation, but in 1973 it was still a very big deal. And a central tenant of American foreign policy during the Cold War was a very simple one: whenever possible, freeze Russia out of whatever is going on.

In 1973 Brezhnev was unhappy with both Egypt and Israel, the former for reasons already mentioned, and the latter for shelling the Soviet Cultural Center in Damascus and, on October 11, sinking a Soviet merchant ship. Most of all Brezhnev was unhappy because no one was paying Russia any attention that October. It’s no fun to be a superpower and be relegated to the sidelines during the big game.

So Brezhnev, understandingly miffed at rejection, seems to have decided that Israel was having things entirely too much her way. He decides he will make some tentative gestures of intervening militarily on the side of the Egyptians. This, he figures, will frighten the Israelis and encourage them to enforce the ceasefire, thereby bringing peace to the Middle East and enhancing Russian prestige.

When Kissinger is told that it appears a few Russian cargo planes on Cyprus are carrying arms to resupply the Egyptians, and that a few Russian warships have been turned so that their pointy ends are aimed at Israel, he goes crazy. Nixon is informed of what the Russians are doing. Nixon, already crazy, reacts with horror, shock, and renewed determination to remind the world that he is the greatest Cold Warrior the West has ever known. This makes sense — sort of, and to me — only if you put events in the larger, all-encompassing frame of US/USSR politics. He decides — in national interest — that at all costs the Russians must not be allowed to interfere in the Yom Kippur War.

Of course once Brezhnev’s intentions go public every American politician is recorded shouting, “We have to help poor defenseless Israel!” Nixon recognizes an opportunity to (a) distract the American public from this Watergate nonsense, and (b) score some major points by putting the Russians in their place.

Meanwhile, King Faisal watches. What about the Palestinians? What about the one billion Muslims who live on earth too?

Nixon decides to do something dramatic as well as perfect for polishing his image. He proposes an arms airlift to Israel. Your everyday citizen like me thought this was pretty high tech stuff. It was certainly interesting. The United States Air Force was going to fly tanks and guns and missiles and ammunition from the US to Israel. I was too young to know anything about the Berlin Airlift back in 1948-1949. “That will be peanuts,” said Nixon, “compared to the airlift I have in mind!” Keep in mind that the Berlin Airlift lasted almost a year and involved over 200,000 cargo planes keeping alive a population of 2 million. No, Nixon was thinking big.

Everyone knows that Nixon will come to the aid of Israel. Everyone knows that as soon as the war is over America will resupply Israel, and with the latest models of everything. King Faisal knows this as well. The question on Faisal’s mind — and the decision Nixon is weighing — is how much military aid does he give Israel? The Israelis are dreaming big: they’re hoping it’s around $850 million worth of stuff. Golda Mieir would have swooned like a schoolgirl at that kind of assistance.

Faisal couldn’t have anticipated what actually happened. Not in a million years. Was Nixon by then a little unhinged from the never-ending Watergate nonsense? (In ten months he would resign the presidency, in what may be the single most insane incident in the entire history of American politics.)

Nixon decided that his airlift would the biggest airlift of all time. It would dwarf the Berlin Airlift. He would send Israel over 4 billion dollars of material. The kinds of equipment the Israelis received is incredible: F4 bombers, A-4 attack airplanes, surface-to-air missiles, 155 mm artillery pieces, the AGM-65 Maverick missile. Some of this weaponry was state of the art, some of it taken straight off the shelves of American bases. As an indication of how unprecedented this was, on October 13 and 15 Egyptian air defenses reported an aircraft flying over the Suez Canal at 80,000 feet. There is only one airplane that can do that. The SR-71 Blackbird, a super top secret spy plane developed to gather intelligence against America’s enemies, particularly the Soviets. The United States was now providing Israel the kind of intelligence only its best spy plane could collect. Was Egypt now America’s greatest enemy?

The SR-71:

4 billion dollars.

King Faisal was staggered. He had been waiting for Nixon to throw him a bone about the plight of the Palestinians and maybe mention the sacrifices Faisal himself had made for the US. (It’s not a recipe for popularity to be Guardian of Mecca and at the same time the infidel’s Best Friend.) A bedouin and a king, King Faisal was deeply insulted by Nixon’s decision. It was now clear to him where America’s loyalties in the Middle East lay.

On October 20, 1973 Faisal announced that all oil shipments to the United States would be halted. This was the famous Oil Embargo. In itself the embargo was a thoroughly insignificant event. The embargo did nothing to prevent Israel from winning the war or even slowing it down. The embargo did not change any boundaries in any country. At the time the US imported only 4% of its daily consumption of oil from Saudi Arabia. “The Arabs could go drink their oil,” someone in the White House is reputed to have said.

Back in America people weren’t thinking about the Oil Embargo. They weren’t thinking about the war. They weren’t even thinking about Watergate. They were thinking about what Nixon did on October 25th.

On October 25th President Nixon placed the military forces of the United States on nuclear alert. I’d like to pause for a moment to examine what this means.

For most people today nuclear war is only found in a Hollywood. But in 1973, at the height of the Cold War, for people who had grown up with bomb shelters in their backyard, or practiced crouching under school desks as defense against Russian ICBM’s, or lived through the Cuban missile crisis, what Nixon had done was terrifying.

Here’s how an intercontinental ballistic missile works. The President of the United States says, “Fire!” and about ten thousand gigantic missiles lift off from places like North Dakota and Wyoming. Within a few seconds the missiles are going at 6,000 mph; then they’re in the lower reaches of outer-space. On the other side of the North Pole they emerge into Russian air-space, The caps of the missiles fall off and out come eight or nine or ten warheads — each warhead carrying a hydrogen bomb capable of leveling New Jersey. What is more, these warheads are moving now moving at 10,000 mph. (“Dodge this!”)  And each warhead has been programmed to a target. Altogether it takes about 30 minutes from the moment the president says “Fire!” to the moment  Russia is obliterated.

In 1973 the United States had about 40,000 hydrogen bombs.

In 1973 the Russians had about 40,000 hydrogen bombs and their targeting was as sophisticated as ours. They could put a hydrogen bomb through a doorway if they wanted.

And if they launched their ICBMs from submarines floating off Florida, instead of 30 minutes, they could obliterate the Eastern Seaboard in 2 minutes.

Not much time to react, is there?

Here’s a picture of a hydrogen bomb doing what it does best.

(Everyone already knows this, but it’s worth repeating: the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was an atomic bomb. The A-bomb is used as a trigger to set off the Hydrogen bomb. If you use your fingernail as a model of the size of the Hiroshima blast, your whole hand would represent the size of the H-bomb. Try it. Put your fingertip at ground zero in the photograph.)

And here is a picture of a single American Peacemaker ICBM testing its multiple re-entry warheads. Each beam of light represents an individual hydrogen bomb.


So that’s what happened on October 25th that scared the crap out of everyone. The Russians were so shocked that Nixon would react so dramatically to some cargo planes that Brezhnev backed down. In what was perhaps the sanest moment of the whole crazy month, the Russians released a statement that they were “not prepared to unleash the Third World War.”  I suppose in Nixon’s mind, he had won — a personal Nixonian Cold War logic that doesn’t make sense to anyone today except maybe Vladimir Putin and a few congressmen.

In October everyone — Americans, Russians, Israelis, Egyptians, Syrians — agreed to the UN ceasefire. It’s amazing how persuasive a whiff of nuclear grapeshot can be. The Yom Kippur War was over. Nixon’s airlift would continue to mid-November, but no one paid much attention to that, just as not too many Americans paid much attention to King Faisal’s oil embargo.

Which was still going on, by the way.

Only a few old oil-hands in Aramco understood what King Faisal had done. There was genuine worry in those boardrooms that October. At a stroke Faisal had made Aramco, the State Department, Nixon, America’s power and prestige utterly irrelevant. Those oil-hands understood this. He had imposed an embargo, he had turned off the spigot.

Nixon and Kissinger might scoff at one old man’s embargo, but the rest of the world did not. Nor did the other oil-producing states of the world. They followed King Faisal’s lead. By November exports from the Middle East were down 70 percent. This only meant inconvenience at some gas stations for some Americans (I personally never had any trouble getting gas for my trip to Zion National Park), but in places like Holland and Japan the effect of the embargo was dramatic. World prices climbed.

[Ed: note to younger readers who’ve heard that there were lines at U.S. gas stations in the 70s — that was mainly later, during the next energy crisis that followed the 1979 Iranian Revolution.]

Shortages will do that.

Far more incredible is the fact that the West paid those higher prices.

We paid whatever the Arabs asked for a barrel of crude, and we have been paying ever since. This in 1973 was incomprehensible to the Western mind. I mean, what? Why pay? What kind of military does Saudi Arabia have? For cripe’s sake, they don’t even have a football team. They don’t have any ICBMs either, and even Israel (today) has ICBMs. Can we call ourselves a superpower when our vast power and wealth mean nothing?

It wasn’t the embargo that changed the world forever — and would lead to Aramco being bought out completely by the Saudi government by 1988 and renamed Saudi-Aramco. Rather, the world changed forever on December 16, 1973, when King Faisal quietly agreed to an immediate quadrupling of the price of a barrel of oil. There was no armed intervention to protect America’s interest. There was no saber-rattling. The only sound you heard was the soft whisper of hands reaching for wallets.

Some had written that on December 16, 1973 the 60s ended. Some had said on December 16, 1973 the American Dream gave up the ghost. The Good Old Days of cheap energy, of a better life for your children, of knowing that good jobs were out there and that America and all it represented were as permanent as US Steel and General Motors — those days were now gone forever. Not many of us understood then what had happened. We would only begin to get glimpses of it when we began to discover that we couldn’t buy a house as good as our parents, and that all the stuff we took for granted was now getting expensive.

How expensive? What does that mean?

Here’s one answer.

Here’s another answer to the same question, what comes out of a barrel of oil?

The final question — and the kicker — is what are the “Other Products”? Well, some of the “products” other than jet fuel, gasoline, and diesel fuel that come from a barrel of oil include: telephones, cameras, footballs, house paint, surfboards, electrician’s tape, shoe polish, perfumes, insecticides, fishing lures, trash bags, roller skates, aspirin, sun glasses, parachutes, artificial limbs, CDs and DVDs, crayons, movie film, hand lotion, toilet seats, life jackets, tires, sweaters, floor wax, vitamin capsules, umbrellas, roofing, tennis rackets, antifreeze, combs, enamel, cold cream, anesthetics, clothes, guitar strings, mops, water pipes, shampoo, food preservatives, antihistamines, cortisone, linoleum, toothbrushes, pillows, boats, nail polish, golf bags, deodorant, fertilizer, ice cube trays, soft contact lenses, drinking cups, and ballpoint pens.

The list is endless.

The cost of a barrel of oil depends on almost as many factors as the number of products made from it, but one thing is clear. We’re a long way from the $2 a barrel days of the 1960s. King Faisal’s oil embargo of 1973 pushed the price to $11.50. The First Gulf War of 1990 pushed it up to $42. Hurricane Katrina pushed it to $68. The Israel-Lebanon War of 2006 pushed it to $78. On July 11, 2008 the price of a barrel of oil reached an amazing $147.

As of today — September 22, 2013 — the cost of a barrel of oil is between $104 and $109.

Energy & Oil Prices

Crude Oil & Natural Gas

Commodity Units Price Change % Change Contract Time(ET)
Crude Oil (WTI) USD/bbl. 104.75 -1.11 -1.05% Nov 13 17:15:00
Crude Oil (Brent) USD/bbl. 109.22 +0.46 +0.42% Nov 13 18:00:00
TOCOM Crude Oil JPY/kl 63,910.00 -50.00 -0.08% Feb 14 14:59:58
NYMEX Natural Gas USD/MMBtu 3.69 -0.03 -0.89% Oct 13 17:15:00


And that concludes my foreign policy rant. Oh, except for one thing. Here’s a picture of Zion National Park, in Utah. It really is a beautiful place.

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