Sometimes, the tiniest events have a monumental impact on the course of human history.
I wrote last year about how a Kentucky Christian missionary and medical doctor who worked in Korea a century ago resulted in opening up the back channel to Korea that allowed former President Carter to visit Pyongyang in 1994. I recently stumbled across another minor event that had major long-term geopolitical consequences. This story also begins with American Protestant missionary doctors.
In 1889, a group of doctors affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church established a group called the “Arabian Mission” in New Brunswick, New Jersey, to bring modern medical technology to the Middle East. They first established themselves in Basra, Iraq in 1891 and began to offer basic medical services to locals. Upon receiving permission from the Emir of Bahrain, together with a land grant, they built the first modern hospital in the Middle East, the American Mission Hospital, in 1903. The hospital was openly identified with the Dutch Reformed Church and was staffed by Drs. Sharon and Marmion Thoms, who also set up a Christian mission and graveyard behind the hospital.
In 1911, ten soldiers of Ibn Saud’s guard were wounded in a local skirmish along the Persian Gulf, and were brought to to the American Missionary Hospital in Bahrain for treatment of their serious injuries. They were treated well by the doctors resident in the hospital, some of whom for which it was their first time to treat gunshot wounds, such that Ibn Saud took notice of the doctor’s compasion and skills. He then invited them to send expeditions to his kingdom, and the first such traveler was Dr. Peter Harrison. Despite meeting great suspicion from many locals, Dr. Harrison was a guest in Ibn Saud’s tent and suffered no harrassment. Indeed, he recounted in letters to supporters in the United States that there was far too much work to attend to, and invited some patients who were well enough to travel to visit the American Mission Hospital in Bahrain. In 1923, Dr. Harrison returned to Riyadh and treated Ibn Saud for facial cellulitis.
In 1926, Ibn Saud received a cable telegram from Charles R. Crane, a wealthy American philanthropist and representative of the American government in the Middle East, who described himself as a friend of the Arabs and seeking an audience with the King of Nejd and Hijaz (the pre-1932 name for Saudi Arabia). Ibn Saud, who had never heard of Crane, ignored the American’s request, but was ultimately convinced to meet with Crane, a philanthropist businessman who previously served as Woodrow Wilson’s representative to the Middle East after World War I. St. John Philby, the quirky British advisor to Ibm Saud, claims that it was him who introduced Crane to the King, but Crane had been pushing to meet Ibn Saud for years before.
According to one text on the history of Saudi Arabia: “Crane convinced the king that Americans were more generous and trustworthy than the British–a conclusion he maintained for the remainder of his life.” Thus while the British were producing oil in Iran and Iraq, cutting out any American involvement in the Middle East that was dominated by French and British interests, it was through the existing American relationship with the Saudis that, in 1933, the Saudi government signed a concessionary agreement with Standard Oil of California (Socal) that led to the discovery of some of the world’s largest oil reserves — exports which overwhelmingly went to America, and which helped the US secure the economic growth that it enjoyed through the 20th century.