280. Memorandum From the Secretary of State’s Deputy Special Assistant for Intelligence (Arneson) to the Secretary of State1


  • Intelligence Note: The Saudi Arabian Position with Regard to the Gulf of Aqaba

One of the results of the Suez crisis and the establishment of the UNEV has been the temporary elimination of Egyptian physical control over the entrance to the Gulf of Aqaba. With Egyptian acquiescence the role of spokesman for the Arabs in the matter of navigation in the Gulf has shifted to Saudi Arabia. From the Egyptian point of view this shift has several advantages. It gives Egypt a chance, if it regards it as tactically desirable, to put the blame for any lack of action upon Saudi Arabia without having to emphasize its own present inability to hinder Israeli-bound shipping in the Gulf. Furthermore, it offers an excellent opportunity to weaken the friendship between the United States and Saudi Arabia and to induce Saudi Arabia to reestablish its close ties with Egypt.

Saudi Arabia has espoused the role of spokesman for the Arabs with alacrity and has utilized a number of arguments in defense of the Arab standpoint which had not been stressed before. In a characteristic mixture of Islamic law and Western international law the Saudi Government has contended that the Gulf of Aqaba is an important pilgrim route and that the Saudi Government has to safeguard it as “guardian of the Islamic holy places and the way to these places.” At the same time it contends that the territorial character of the Gulf was confirmed by the Convention of Constantinople of 1888 (an apparent misinterpretation of that Convention) and that it was a “closed Arab Gulf.”

The other Arab states have followed the Saudi lead with a consequent hardening of the Arab position. There is evidence that King Saud is deeply involved emotionally in this issue, and the religious connotations of the problem have been emphasized by the [Page 499] Saudi order that pilgrim traffic through the Gulf be suspended during this year’s haj (pilgrimage). The emphasis on the religious issue and on the character of the Gulf as a “closed Arab Gulf” appear to leave little room for compromise with the Israeli and Western contention that the Gulf has an international character. It is unlikely that the Saudis will be able to reverse their position. If they maintain their present stand a number of courses would appear to be open.

Saudi Arabia almost certainly will continue to complain about Israeli actions in the Gulf and express its dissatisfaction with US measures with a resultant gradual deterioration of US-Saudi relations.
There may well be an increasing rapprochement with Egypt because of the need and possibility of a “united front” on an issue on which there is no intra-Arab disagreement.
Saudi Arabia may attempt to arouse Moslem opinion generally in support of the Arab stand, but the success of such an attempt is doubtful since countries such as Turkey or Pakistan are not likely to risk their relations with the West over an issue which is of no direct concern to them and since there is little if any real pan-Islamic solidarity.
At present the Saudis do not have the capabilities to interdict the Straits to Israeli or Israeli-bound shipping by force. Because of the basic distrust of Egypt by the King it is likely that he would try to prevent the establishment of Egyptian-operated bases on his soil in the absence of a decisive rapprochement.2
The King almost certainly would not object to any Egyptian move in the Gulf short of the establishment of bases on Saudi territory. Egyptian naval action in or near the Straits is a possibility and the use of the newly acquired submarines cannot be excluded. It should be noted, however, that so far Egypt has avoided visit, search and seizure on the high seas, probably because of the international complications such a move would almost certainly provoke.
There have been no indications so far that the King desires to bring the case before the International Court of Justice at this juncture. Such an action might be regarded by some of the more fundamentalist Saudis as undesirable because of the religious issue involved. The dispute may, however, be brought before the Security Council, particularly if there is an incident.

A similar memorandum has been addressed to the Under Secretary.

  1. Source: Department of State, INR Files: Lot 62 D 42, Near and Middle East. Secret. Drafted by Liebesny on July 16. In a note to Becker, July 17, attached to the source text, Arneson wrote:

    “Herewith a copy of an IN we are sending to the Secretary this morning on the subject we discussed yesterday. Our people are also completing a fairly detailed examination of the attitudes of the various area states on the Aqaba dispute. This intelligence report is expected to be completed in a week or ten days and we will of course send you a copy as soon as it is ready.

    “I am also sending a copy to Mr. Allen Dulles.”

  2. As a result of Eisenhower’s correspondence with King Saud in May, the President suggested that it might be desirable to hold talks with Saudi representatives in Washington to discuss the respective U.S.-Saudi positions toward the question of the Gulf of Aqaba and the Straits of Tiran. In June and July, Department of State representatives, led by Rountree, held discussions with Abdel Rahman Azzam Pasha, King Saud’s special representative.