Karine Walther on "American Missionaries, ARAMCO, and the Birth of the US-Saudi Special Relationship, 1889-1955"

Karine Walther is Associate Professor of History at GU-Q, and a 2019–2020 CIRS Faculty Fellow. During her fellowship at CIRS, Walther is completing research on American missions in Saudi Arabia at the end of the nineteenth century and the ways in which the groundwork they laid over subsequent decades paved the way for American oil interests in the area. She presented her talk, “Spreading the Faith: American Missionaries, ARAMCO, and the Birth of the US-Saudi Special Relationship, 1889–1955,” also the title of her forthcoming book, at a CIRS Dialogue lecture on September 18, 2019.

Walther outlined the historical and ideological ties linking American religious, commercial, and political interests in the Middle East, beginning in 1889, when medical missionaries under the Reformed Church of America (RCA) arrived in the Arabian Peninsula as the “Arabian Mission.” Western medicine was the primary tool used in the missionaries’ efforts to convert Muslims to Christianity, and, within a couple decades, several mission stations and hospitals were opened in Basra (Iraq), Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman. By the end of World War I, the Mission had become the most important source of western medicine in the Arabian Gulf.

Using the Mission’s foundational documents, Walther demonstrated how the missionaries’ religious beliefs overlapped with secular understandings of the world at the time. Arabian societies had been placed on a ladder of historical development, in which “the United States was understood as occupying the most advanced rung, with a religious and moral duty to bring about the advancement of non-Christian societies,” she said. In addition to medical work, the missionaries opened schools at their mission stations to teach children the English language and industrial skills along with Christian biblical lessons.

Over time, the RCA missionaries forged close relationships with Gulf rulers, including the founder of Saudi Arabia, Ibn Saud, whom they met in 1914. Over the next three decades, the missionaries provided medical treatment to Ibn Saud, his family, and his soldiers. Walther reported that British political agents in the Gulf were, at the time, concerned about increased American political influence brought by the missionaries, given that establishing hospitals and public health programs was a tactic also employed by the British Empire to solidify its political control in the region.

According to Walther, “American oil developers benefited directly from the missionaries’ network of contacts, and later relied on their cooperation in advancing their strategic interests in the area.” The connection between American missionary work and the granting of oil concessions was made explicit in 1933, she said, when Ibn Saud signed a concession with Standard Oil—later ARAMCO (Arabian American Oil Company). Walther quoted the ruler’s own words: “The British want our oil … but wherever they go they take over. Our experience with Americans has been nothing but good. They’ve helped us. They’ve come here and served us. So I’ve given my concession to the Americans.”  

Walther found substantial claims of America’s many contributions to Saudi Arabia’s development in a public relations book commissioned by ARAMCO in 1955—a time when the company was being accused of economic imperialism. Yet, Wallace Stegner’s Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil, contained no acknowledgment of the missionaries’ role in the country’s development. “ARAMCO had coopted missionary rhetoric about progress and development and adopted the public health and education programs they had put in place in the five decades preceding the arrival of American oilmen in Arabia,” she said. Furthermore, while celebrating ARAMCO’s “benevolent presence” in Saudi Arabia, the book also ignored the company’s well known exploitative and racialized labor practices, she said.

According to Walther, Discovery! maintained that ARAMCO’s development work served as a “private Four Point program” in Saudi Arabia. This was in reference to US President Truman’s 1949 Point Four program calling for aid to help the Global South become “modern.” Under this Cold War policy, technical assistance was provided to developing countries in an array of fields such as science, agriculture, education, and economics. Walther said, “Modernity in this case was largely defined by the United States’ own strategic interests, the most important of these being the adoption of free market capitalism.” The primary goal of the Point Four program was to ensure developing countries aligned with the US in its ideological battle against Soviet Communism, she said.

RCA missionaries reflected wider trends in the mission field, Walther said, which maintained that missionaries should learn local languages and customs and study the religious faiths of the people they were trying to convert. As such, “in the first decade of the twentieth century, this type of missionary education would become more organized, more institutionalized, and more global,” she said. Thus, specialized schools were opened for the purpose of training missionaries in theological seminaries throughout the US, including at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. At the same time, the British opened schools such as the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) for the purposes of training future imperial officers. “This tells us quite a bit about the difference between British and American interests in the Middle East during this time period,” Walther said.

Knowledge about the Middle East was becoming increasingly important to Americans, and, after WWII, ARAMCO also saw the advantage of its executives understanding the languages, history, religious beliefs, and cultures of Arabia, Walther reported. By the late 1940s, the US Department of State began calling for the creation of Middle Eastern Studies departments in American universities, “again driven by the goal of advancing American strategic interests in the Middle East,” she said. ARAMCO strongly backed these efforts and contributed substantial funding for these academic programs, Walther noted. Universities, in turn, relied on existing experts in the field, which included ARAMCO executives, US Department of State officials, British orientalists, and former missionaries.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, ARAMCO dramatically expanded its industrial education programs in Saudi Arabia to train young Arabs to work for ARAMCO. It also enlarged its medical facilities and set up malaria eradication programs—initiatives similar to those established by the Mission in previous decades. By the mid-1950s, the missionaries’ cooperation with ARAMCO brought unintended consequences that would make their own work obsolete in Arabia. Medical missionaries began competing with new facilities and hospitals provided by oil companies and governments. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Arabian Mission closed most of its hospitals and missionary stations due in part to this redundancy.

In conclusion, and “unsurprisingly, the missionaries’ goals of using technology to convert and ‘occupy’ Arabia were never realized,” Walther said. Even though Americans working for ARAMCO had more success in achieving their goals, they too would be forced to leave eventually. “The United States may have succeeded in spreading a certain faith to the Saudi State, but it was a faith in capitalism, not Christianity, that eventually won out,” she said.


Karine Walther is Associate Professor of History at Georgetown University in Qatar. She is the author of Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821–1921 (UNC Press, 2015). Her second book, Spreading the Faith: American Missionaries, ARAMCO and the Birth of the US-Saudi Special Relationship, 1889-1955, will be published in 2020 by University of North Carolina Press. Walther is a CIRS Faculty Fellow for the 2019/2020 academic year.

Summary by Jackie Starbird, CIRS Publications and Projects Assistant