Early in 1933, the Standard Oil Company of California (Socal), against stiff competition from the Iraq Petroleum Company, concluded a concession agreement with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that permitted it to explore for, produce and export oil and oil products. From today's perspective it may seem that Socal was betting on a sure thing, but in fact it was taking a considerable gamble. At the time the concession was granted, the world was in the throes of the Great Depression, the United States had just gone off the gold standard, and oil was selling for less than 50 cents a barrel. Saudi Arabia was an isolated and little-known desert country, and in its eastern province, where the concession area lay, the population had had few contacts with the outside world and had little or no familiarity with modern technology.
Forty-some years later, Saudi Arabia had become an international financial powerhouse, with the world's largest oil reserves and a well-educated and sophisticated population. The Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), holder of the concession originally granted to Socal, was the largest oil-producing company in the world and engaged in a wide variety of educational, medical and development activities in addition to its oil operations.
The story of these enormous changes and the sometimes colorful personalities involved in them, including the legendary Saudi King, Abd al-Aziz ("Ibn Saud"), is recounted by Anthony Cave Brown in Oil, God, and Gold. Reviewers have described the book as being based on "careful research" and as "faithful to the rules of history." It is certainly an interesting, even fascinating book, but it cannot be called a sound or accurate one. The author has apparently done a good deal of research, but he has no first-hand knowledge of his subject and has frequently misunderstood or mishandled the information he has had access to, distorting and embellishing it.
Oil, God, and Gold carries the subtitle The Story of Aramco and the Saudi Kings and purports to be a history of Aramco from beginning to end. One is surprised, therefore, to find that the author has omitted any mention of the profit-sharing or so-called 50-50 agreement of December 1950. The signing of this agreement was probably the major event between the granting of the original concession in 1933 and the final transfer of ownership to the Saudi government in 1980. The agreement not only enhanced the Saudis' income from Aramco but gave them for the first time an interest in the price at which the company sold its oil. This and similar agreements entered into by other oil companies led ten years later to the formation of OPEC.
Accuracy has not been one of Brown's main concerns. Colonel Bill Eddy was the first American minister to Saudi Arabia and after leaving the State Department was an important figure in Aramco's early years. An entire chapter of the book is entitled "Colonel Eddy," but Brown converts him from William A. to Wilfred. William L. Owen, Aramco's general counsel, is sometimes referred to as William F. The president of Aramco in the 1970s, R. W. Powers, is converted at one point to R. W. Brock. Majed Elass, a vice president and director of Aramco, is renamed Mahed Elas.
John Kelberer, the last American head of Aramco, fares no better. Brown describes him as having run Tapline (which carried Saudi oil to the Mediterranean)"almost since it was built in the 1950s" (p. 336). It was William R. Chandler who ran Tapline for 20 years, from its completion in 1950. Frank Jungers, who preceded Kelberer as head of Aramco, is stated to have "succeeded [Thomas] Barger as president of Aramco at the end of the 1960s, when Barger retired" (p.284). This is true in the same way that Teddy Roosevelt can be said to have succeeded Abraham Lincoln. There were others who came between, namely R. I. Brougham and L. F. Hills.
Nor are geography and geographical location among Brown's strong points. He describes the training program that the company ran for new employees in "a mansion owned by Aramco in Rhode Island" (p.167). The location of the training center was not Rhode Island but Long Island, and Brown's "mansion" was in fact old Army Air Corps barracks left over from World War II. On page 74 Brown takes the Saudi Government Railroad's seven-mile long railway trestle and cargo pier at Dammam, moves it some twenty miles north to Ras Tanura, and describes it as an Aramco-built oil port for loading tank ships. Ali Naimi, the first Saudi president and CEO of Aramco and now minister of petroleum, is said to have been admitted as a young boy to "to Aramco's Jebel School located in the desert near Dammam, where he won a diploma in geology" (pp. 315-16). The school was in Dhahran, and it did not provide courses in geology.
In describing the exercise of Christianity in Aramco, Brown states (p. 147) that no priests or clerics were allowed "except occasionals who slipped in disguised as schoolteachers." This is a good deal more colorful and romantic than the actual facts, which were that the three main Christian groups all had full-time priests or ministers and that each had a large company house that served as residence and parish house. They entered Saudi Arabia (with the knowledge of upper levels of the government) on visas that described them as "special teachers." In describing the final departure from Arabia of Baldo Marinovic, the assistant to Aramco's chairman, Brown writes (p.369), "and so he went home with his wife, his dog, his cat, in a company private jet provided by Naimi." Marinovic tells me that he has never in his life owned a dog and that he departed from Arabia by commercial airline, economy class.
Brown not only alters dates (Ibn Saud's first visit to Aramco in 1939 is moved forward to 1938) but moves events from decade to decade. He states that in negotiating the Saudi Arabian concession in 1933, Socal was concerned about problems over the importation of goods marked with an asterisk because of its resemblance to the Star of David (p.48). There was indeed a problem with the six-pointed star, but this came only after the independence of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent establishment of the Arab League's Boycott of Israel Office. The author states that "Brock" Powers (later president of Aramco) arrived in Dhahran in 1951, "but at the outbreak of the Korean War he was recalled for service in the Marine Corps." The Korean War broke out in June 1950.
Brown has built his reputation on a series of books about spying and other undercover skullduggery, including histories of World War II espionage, the machinations of the Communist International in the years leading up to the war, and biographies of a number of spies and spy masters. This has led him, perhaps, to see everything in terms of intrigue, dark plots and evil conspiracies, and this point of view has carried forward into Oil, God, and Gold. He pictures Aramco as having an enormous and powerful intelligence apparatus that was used not only for the company's own nefarious purposes but also to assist the Saudi government in its territorial disputes with the British in Oman and the lower Gulf. Aramco's main instrument in all this is said to have been the Arabian Affairs Division, which he describes as "Aramco's intelligence and analysis section in government relations" (p. 142) and "the intelligence collection, research, and analysis branch" (p. 220), whose "considerable resources" he says were placed "in the service of the Saudi government."(p. 208).
Brown does not support his accusations and insinuations with any hard evidence. Instead, he gives the reader statements like, "It appears that this division also had connections to the CIA and FBI" (p.213); "Lenczowski ...noted that British sources maintain that ..."; and "There is equally good [sic] evidence that Aramco's Arabian Affairs Division ... directed an intensive political warfare campaign to condemn Britain in the United Nations."
I was a member of the division for many years, including the period during which it was providing the Saudi government with material for use in its territorial dispute with Muscat and Abu Dhabi (the so-called Buraimi problem), and I feel I can speak with some authority about Brown's misinformation and his distortion of the motives behind the division's work.
The Arabian Affairs Division (originally the Research Division and the Arabian Research Division) was established not to be Aramco's own CIA but in response to the belief of Tom Barger and a few other farsighted members of the company's early management that the best route to good relations with the Saudi people and their government (and thus success of the enterprise) was through knowing them and their customs and beliefs and history. In working toward this objective, the Division produced a number of background papers and translations and two major geographical and historical reports (both of whose titles Brown gets wrong on page 209).
Since the Saudi government had little knowledge about the areas in dispute and lacked the experience and expertise that Aramco had developed in collecting and interpreting such information, it asked for the company's help. Aramco could hardly refuse, and thus became indirectly involved in the matter. Saudi Arabia's dispute was not with Great Britain but with the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Muscat, nor was Aramco motivated by any deep-seated hatred of Britain. Brown's statement (p.142) that I was sent to school in London so that I could learn to "match wits with the British" is ludicrous. I was sent to London to work toward a degree in Arabic, and the only Briton I remember matching wits with was a customs inspector at Heathrow.
None of these misstatements and distortions of fact is by itself of great significance, but when they occur on page after page throughout the book the reader must be left wondering whether any of Brown's statements can be trusted. Suffice to say that Brown has produced a "good read" but a badly flawed one. The tragedy is that it may be taken by future historians as a reliable source.