Memorandum of Conversation, by the
Director of the Office of Near Eastern Affairs (Hart)
- Problem of Buraimi.
- Sir Oliver Franks, British Ambassador
- Mr. B. A. B. Burrows, Counselor, British Embassy
- Mr. David Bruce, Under Secretary, Dept. of State
- Mr. James C. H. Bonbright,EUR
- Mr. Parker T. Hart, NE
Reference was made by Mr. Bruce to the close relations between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and to President Truman’s letter of 1950 to King Ibn Saud.
Mr. Bruce stated that an urgent message had been received from the American Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Mr. Hare, now in Riyadh.1 Ambassador Hare had been summoned by the King to discuss Buraimi and found the King extremely agitated since no effective action had been taken, in his opinion, to remedy the situation. We were worried over what the King might be planning to do next. It seemed likely, that if something were not done to ease the tension shortly, the matter would be made the subject of a formal request for mediation, or would be introduced by the Saudi Arabian delegate to the United Nations as a matter for cognizance by the Security Council. Regardless of the merits of the case (which the U.S. Government was in no position and did not wish to discuss) it seemed clear that the King was particularly irritated by the flights of the RAF planes out of Sharja over Hamasa, Buraimi. The U.S. Government had no desire to become involved in this affair and, therefore, hoped that the personal suggestions which had been made by Ambassador Hare at Riyadh might be seriously considered, since the King had expressed his agreement with them. These were:
- “a. Termination of the RAF over-flights and such other measures and practices which are regarded by the Saudis as aggressive and provocative. This would be on the understanding that the Saudis would likewise agree to desist from provocative acts.
- “b. Further direct message from the British that they are prepared to resume direct discussions immediately with Saudi Arabia on the frontier question and Buraimi in particular; and
- “c. Both sides to remain in their present positions at Buraimi and elsewhere in the Eastern Frontier area.”
Remarking that he had only just been briefed by Mr. Burrows on the Buraimi matter and was almost wholly ignorant of the boundary problems of eastern Saudi Arabia, Ambassador Franks stated that he would report our views to London. He understood, however, that notice had been sent to Saudi Arabia of British willingness to reopen direct talks. Mr. Burrows confirmed that by now the Saudi Arabian Government must have received the news. Asked by Ambassdor Franks when such discussions were to be resumed, Burrows replied: “October”.
Mr. Bruce expressed his surpirse at this information. He not only was unaware that the Saudi Arabian Government had received such news; in fact, all the Department’s information was to the contrary. Mr. Burrows offered as explanation the refusal of King Ibn Saud to permit the return to Riyadh of his Ambassador to the U.K., bearing the message from Mr. Eden indicating British willingness to resume these discussions. It seemed, however, that by this time a telegram should have been received.
Ambassador Franks stated that, if Mr. Bruce would agree, he would like to rearrange the Department’s suggestions in the following manner for transmission to London:
“USG being unable ignore agitation King over present Buraimi situation hoped direct UK–SAG talks cld be immed resumed and suggested as means improving atmosphere these talks, each side refrain from actions Buraimi area which wld be regard by other as provocative and both remain present positions Buraimi and elsewhere Eastern frontier area. Main emphasis, therefore, on resumption talks.”
Mr. Bruce agreed to this re-arrangement.
Ambassador Franks then asked whether one might not characterize the Buraimi situation as similar to that of a chess gambit in which a player moves a pawn forward to menace his opponent’s Queen. Would the U.S. Government suggest that a counter-move is not in order? Mr. Bruce rejoined that both sides had now advanced their pawns.
Mr. Burrows then remarked that the British Government had received news from the Sultan at Muscat that the latter had been approached by the Imam of Oman requesting assistance against a Saudi advance into his territories. The Sultan had consented and was sending a fairly sizeable Arab force to the general area of Buraimi, but not into the oasis itself, to protect certain neighboring villages from a possible Saudi advance. The Sultan of Muscat had been requested by the British Government, and had agreed, to [Page 2484] avoid actions which might result in an incident between his forces and the Saudi contingent at Buraimi.2
Note: This development represents a change in relations between the Imam at Nizwa and the Sultan at Muscat. The traditional government of Oman is that of an elected Imamate of the Ibadhi Sect. This theocratic ruler, chosen for life by the Shiekhs of the hinterlands, holds temporal and religious power, in theory, over all Oman (except the Trucial Coast). The Imamate, which was developed some 1300 years ago, lapsed for a while during the temporal rule of the Al Bu Said dynasty which installed itself on the coast two hundred years ago (finally locating at Muscat) and which for a time ruled also over the interior. This dynasty also had possessions during the last century at Zanzibar and elsewhere on the East African coast. It has enjoyed treaty relations with the U.S. since 1833. No Imam of Oman has ever had treaty relations with a Western power, so far as this writer knows. During the last quarter of the 19th century, the elected Imamate was revived, competing with the Al Bu Said at Muscat, but was able to exercise authority only over part of the mountainous interior of Oman and not over Muscat and the coast. An attack by the Imam’s forces on Muscat during the early years of the 20th century was repulsed by the Sultan with British help. Since that time, the Sultan has been able to retain authority only on a narrow coastal strip of northeast Oman known as the Battinah coast lying to the northwest, and on the area around Sur to the southeast of Muscat. The Sultan has claimed but hardly has exercised sovereignty over that part of Buraimi (Hamasa) where the Saudi contingent is now in occupation, and over some of the mountainous area (Ruus al Jibal) east and north of the Trucial Sheikhdoms. In actual fact, the Sultan has not maintained even a wali3 except on Battinah coast and at Sur. As for the Oman interior, his men have not been able to penetrate it, and a state of mutual non-recognition has existed between the Imam and the Sultan until very recently. The present Sultan has attempted to correspond with the Imam and has sent his emissaries to Nizwa on friendly missions.[Page 2485]
The appeal by the Imam has two implications among others which may later be apparent:
- Recognition of the Sultan by the Imam.
- Opportunity for the Sultan to strengthen his prestige in the hinterland as a part of his believed policy of the re-asserting authority of the Al Bu Said throughout Oman (except the Trucial Coast).
- See telegram 91 from Dhahran, Oct. 6, supra.↩
- Telegram 87 to Dhahran for the Ambassador, Oct. 6, repeated as 176 to Jidda and 2446 to London, reported the conversation with the British Ambassador. It said Hare might give the King the Department of State’s assurance of British willingness to solve the frontier problems and, if he thought it useful, he might suggest the possibility of mutual simultaneous withdrawal from Buraimi. The Department advised him that it was anxious to prevent the presentation of the issue to the United Nations, where it might become a rallying issue for anti-Western sentiment. (780.022/10–652)↩
- This word normally appears in a religious context, and can have one of several meanings as appropriate, in this case perhaps “protector”.↩