Crude Oil, Crude Money

Aristotle Onassis, Saudi Arabia, and the CIA

by Thomas W. Lippman


In 1954 former President Eisenhower effectively squashed a contract with Saudi Arabia that would have given one man exclusive control of the flow of its oil.

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Cover image for Crude Oil, Crude Money

May 2019


Pages 266
Volumes 1
Size 6 1/8x9 1/4
Topics Politics, Law, and Government/International Relations
  American History/Economics

Tells the untold story of how Exxon, Mobil, Chevron, and Texaco teamed up with the CIA and Department of State to thwart the plans of Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, who almost managed to reshape the Middle East.

In 1954 Aristotle Onassis (long before he married Jacqueline Kennedy) made a bold business gamble: he tried to corner the crude oil shipping market by signing a deal with the King of Saudi Arabia. If it had worked, it would have reshaped the history of the Middle East. As it was, the proposed deal terrified British and U.S. oil companies and the Dulles brothers, who saw it as the first move in the nationalization of Saudi oil. Complicating things were the burgeoning Arab nationalist movement led by Egypt's newly elected president, Gamal Nasser. And of course there were the Soviets, now without Stalin, eager to build influence in the region.

This little known story about the collision of nationalism, money, celebrity, and oil sheds new light on the tangled history of the Middle East. Drawing on the author's immense knowledge of the Middle East, and original research incorporating unexplored declassified documents, the book is an eye-opener for students of U.S. foreign policy, anyone interested in the global oil business, and scholars and historians of the role of the U.S. in the Arab world.


  • Dramatically illustrates the convergence of interests of the U.S. government and big business
  • Shows how McCarthy-era phobia about communism affected U.S. foreign policy decisions—even when no communists were involved
  • Examines history with enduring ramifications through narrative to engage students and general readers
  • Unveils a world of international intrigue unknown to most citizens
Author Info

Thomas W. Lippman is an author and journalist who has been writing about U.S. policy in Saudi Arabia and the greater Middle East for 40 years. A former Middle East bureau chief at the Washington Post, he covered foreign policy and national security throughout the 1990s. He is author of seven previous books, including Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally. Lippman is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S.-Saudi relations.



"From one of the keenest observers of Middle East history comes a fascinating tale of Cold War politics, international finance, big oil, CIA intrigue, shipping magnates, and romance. At the heart of the story is Lippman's erudite account of how Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emerged as central to America's calculus of Cold War competition against the Soviet Union and other potential rivals, in turn shaping the strategic importance of Middle Eastern oil and setting off power struggles within the House of Saud, the Suez Canal Crisis, and much more. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in in-depth histories of the Cold War, oil, and the Persian Gulf."—Mehran Kamrava, Director, Center for International and Regional Studies,Georgetown University, Qatar, and Author of Troubled Waters: Insecurity in the Persian Gulf

"Through meticulous research in newly declassified documents, Tom Lippman has once again written a compelling account of skulduggery in the dark corners of the Middle East. He takes us into the new, overmatched Saudi king's royal palace, where the king ignores existing concessions granted to the major oil companies (vital to U.S. energy security) and commits to a shady deal to turn control of much of the world's oil supply to tankers owned by Onassis. Bribery, royal court bungling, and CIA efforts to sabotage the Onassis deal without derailing the Saudi alliance all powerfully command the reader's attention. As with his earlier works, Lippman combines a crisp, detailed writing style with a zest for a plot that thickens with each chapter. It's a terrific work by a real expert."—Robert W. Jordan, Former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and Author of Desert Diplomat: Inside Saudi Arabia Following 9/11

"In Crude Oil, Crude Money, Tom Lippman provides a fascinating narrative of one set of moves in the Eisenhower administration' and the Dulles brothers' complex game in Arabian Gulf to consolidate U.S. economic interests. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, it adds important insights into U.S. policy, the Dulles brothers and their business links with "Big Oil", and how the role that the Onassis Affair played in the 1950-1958 U.S. struggle to protect, consolidate, and expand its economic interests in the region. Lippman's book is a must read that has added the Onassis Affair to the list of mid-1950s struggles in the Arab Middle East -- Buraimi, Jabal al-Akdar insurgency, Nasser, Yemen, and the Saudi succession -- that would ultimately make the U.S. the preeminent foreign power in the Gulf." —Dr. Roby C. Barrett, Senior Fellow Joint Special Operations University--US Special Operations Command

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