352. Memorandum of a Conversation, Department of State, Washington, July 3, 1957, 11 a.m.1


  • The Gulf of Aqaba


  • The Secretary
  • Abdul Rahman Azzam Pasha, Special Representative of King Saud
  • William M. RountreeNEA
  • John HanesIO
  • Loftus BeckerL
  • David NewsomNE

The Secretary opened by stating he and the President were much concerned by differences which had arisen between Saudi Arabia and [Page 682] the United States over the Gulf of Aqaba.2 He said he wished to make clear that he and the President were determined to do all they could, consistent with basic United States interests, to find a solution which would accord with the views of the Saudi Arabian Government and the King. He stated that he and the President believed that the close friendship with Saudi Arabia which had been reinforced by the King’s visit should not be marred by differences. He said he realized that the Gulf of Aqaba was a matter of particular and proper concern to the King, not only as a Ruler of a littoral state but also as the Keeper of the Holy Places.

The Secretary said that the United States shared Saudi Arabia’s view that Israel should not gain as the result of armed attack. This view, he said, had been expressed by the President, by Ambassador Lodge, and others, on many occasions. He stated that there was apparently some misunderstanding with Saudi Arabia on this point which it might be possible to clarify. He stressed that there was a difference between the acquisition of a new right and greater use of an old right. In the view of the United States there had always been a right of free and innocent passage through the Gulf of Aqaba by any nation with a position on the Gulf. The Secretary stressed that this conformed to views held by the United States from earliest times. He acknowledged that the United States might take a more liberal view than certain other countries, and pointed to strong United States adherence to the three-mile limit as an example. He pointed also to the United States view that when a body of water served several nations it could not be closed without the consent of all.

The United States views on Aqaba, the Secretary said, were not invented to meet a particular situation. The United States had fought the War of 1812 because of the encroachment on the United States rights on the high seas. The Secretary, illustrating with a globe, pointed out controversies over territorial waters in which the United States was engaged in the Far East, particularly near to Soviet waters. He stressed that the United States must insist on its right to send ships and planes to within three miles of Soviet mainland. The United States, he said, could not go back on this position without repudiating its historic view and endangering rights important to its security.

[Page 683]

The Secretary said that the United States recognized that there were varying views regarding the character of the Gulf of Aqaba. He acknowledged that there was a respectable body of opinion contrary to that of the United States. He did not know what the decision might be if the matter were submitted to the International Court. He pointed out that the United States view was shared by nations which were largely maritime powers and that such a view was in their interests.

If the question were submitted to the Court, he said, and the Court held that the three-mile limit did not apply to the Gulf of Aqaba, or that the Arabs had the right to close the Gulf, the United States would accept that view and act accordingly. If Saudi Arabia wished to take the matter to the Court, he said, the United States would be sympathetic, would not oppose its going to the Court, and would abide by the Court’s decision.

The Secretary said he was frank to admit that, while Israel has not gained a new right in the Gulf of Aqaba, it was exercising the old right to a greater extent. The question of rights in the Gulf, he said, had been raised with Egypt in 1950. Egypt had indicated there would be free and innocent passage through the Strait of Tiran. Israel has been exercising that right. He pointed out that the port of Elath was developing, that pipelines were being built and transportation facilities were being increased. As a result, he said, transit was more frequent. This is not, he said, a development stimulated or sought by the United States, but was the result of the closing of the Suez and the desire on Israel’s part to develop alternate means of access which did not depend on the Canal.

Some ships of United States registry had been used in the traffic to Elath. The use of such ships, he emphasized, was without the knowledge or connivance of the United States Government. Any one could charter a vessel and use it in lawful pursuit. The United States had no way under its law in which it could stop such traffic. Even if it could, he said, ships of other nations would be obtained. In point of fact, most of the transit of the Gulf of Aqaba has been by ships of other than the United States registry.

The situation respecting naval vessels, the Secretary said, was probably different from that governing commercial vessels. The United States had never expressed views on naval vessels and their rights in the area, particularly regarding naval vessels of Israel.

The Secretary stressed once more that the views held by the United States on the international character of the Gulf were basic and that in its opinion commercial vessels in exercising this right were exercising a right they had always had. Recognizing differences with Saudi Arabia, however, the Secretary indicated that he had been examining what might be done to resolve the differences.

[Page 684]

The Secretary said he had already referred to the fact that if Saudi Arabia wished to take this problem to the International Court of Justice the United States would have no objection. If the views upheld by the Court did not conform with those of the United States, he said, the United States would conform to the Court’s decision.

In respect to warships, he stated that whatever the legal position may be in the Gulf, the right of Israel to use its warships in the territorial waters of other states poses a different problem. He said he believed Israel should agree to take its warships out of the Gulf or to keep them tied up. They should, he said, not be permitted to maneuver and threaten peaceful passage. If Saudi Arabia wished, the Secretary said, the United States would seek to bring about restrictions on the warships, either directly with Israel or through an appropriate intermediary.

Commercial vessels, he added, did not have to proceed to Elath through Saudi Arabian or Jordanian waters, although many did. He said he would be willing to explore the extent to which the United States could ask vessels of United States registry to avoid encroachment on Saudi Arabian waters.

The Secretary said that the Department had not expressed the view, and did not hold the view, reported in the press that there need be no notice given to coastal sovereigns. While differences of opinion existed on this question, he said, it was generally accepted in international law that, at a minimum, a sovereign nation might ask notice of ships proceeding through territorial waters. He said the United States would be willing to have its ships give notice to Egypt if Egyptian waters were to be used.

Another problem dealt with the pilgrims. This had been discussed personally between the King and the President, the Secretary said. The President had expressed his view frequently that nothing should happen which would in any way interfere with the pilgrims. The fact that the King has found it necessary to warn pilgrims is a matter of some sadness to the President because it seems to indicate that the President’s assurances do not appear to the King to be adequate.

To meet the King’s concern on the pilgrim matter, the possibility might be explored of making an exception to normal rules in the Gulf of Aqaba. Because of the presence of pilgrims this is a matter of great importance. The Secretary suggested this might be a case which the Government of Saudi Arabia might wish to take to the United Nations and ask for a special resolution. This would recognize the King’s position as Keeper of the Holy Places and might give a special protection to the pilgrims. If the Government of Saudi Arabia wished to do this, the Secretary said, the United States would give full support to [Page 685] reasonable steps. Whatever might be the general rules of international law, he said, he could conceive that there might be some special rule to protect the privileges of the pilgrims.

Referring to the King’s expression of concern over possible Israeli aggression, the Secretary stated that he did not believe Israeli aggression against Saudi Arabia to be likely. The United States, he said, was determined to prevent such a development. The United States had stood firmly against aggression and the Israelis were aware of this. The Secretary mentioned the declaration of 1950 (Tripartite Declaration) and statements by the President during the Egyptian crisis of 1956. He emphasized most strongly that it was the United States which got the forces of Israel out of Egypt. It was not Soviet arms in Egypt, he said, but the fact that the United States stood against aggression and was prepared, if necessary, to impose sanctions on Israel. It was not, he said, an easy position for the United States. The Government had acted in the face of heavy pressure. No government in the United States had, he said, ever been subjected to a sterner test or had exhibited a comparable determination to stand on its principles. Israel, he added, would probably not tempt fate a second time. The Arab Governments should be aware that the United States Government would stand up against Israel if it became an aggressive force.

The Secretary said he was aware of Saudi Arabia’s special concern now that it had, in fact, become a direct neighbor of Israel. Israel was now closer to Saudi Arabia. He said he could understand that, in the King’s mind, Israel represented a threat. The Secretary said he wanted to make it clear that the United States would not stand idly by if there were a threat of aggression by Israel against Saudi Arabia.

The Secretary said that the Department had explored the matter thoroughly and sympathetically. He recapitulated the possibilities he had suggested, including the International Court, action regarding warships, the avoidance of Saudi Arabian territorial waters by United States ships, the willingness of United States ships to give notice, and a possible formula relating to the pilgrim traffic.

The Secretary said he was prepared to explore these possibilities with the Saudi Arabian Government and the King and believed that through some, or all, a modus vivendi might be found which would avoid disturbing the good relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. He pointed out that the United States had a number of differences with friendly countries. He said the United States hoped to reduce its differences with Saudi Arabia; if this were not fully possible, he hoped the differences would not affect good relations.

The Secretary stressed the dedication of the United States to the maintenance of the independence and integrity of the Arab countries. He said the United States looked particularly to the position and to the role of King Saud in the area. Recalling the events of the fall of 1956, [Page 686] he said the United States role had prevented the clock being turned back in the area. He stressed that the United States, he believed, was entitled to recognition for its stand and to the fact that no ties in the world prevented the United States from standing up for its basic principles.

The Secretary suggested that the various ideas put forward might be followed up, either by further discussion in Washington or by a letter which Azzam might wish personally to take to the King.

Azzam Pasha said he was grateful for the Secretary’s comments. He said that for the first time in the last few years the Arabs had new hopes in the United States, mainly because the United States was now standing for its basic national interests. He said the United States and the Arabs might differ but if the United States regarded its own interests first, these differences could be worked out. The Arabs, he said, had no basic quarrel with the United States; legal issues regarding the Gulf of Aqaba could be settled at some later time.

The present problem in the Gulf of Aqaba, Azzam said, resulted from other problems—from history and from fears that have made the Gulf of Aqaba sensitive. For thousands of years, he said, this was an Arab Gulf. The establishment of the Israelis at Elath drove a wedge between the Eastern and Western Moslem peoples; it cut the traditional pilgrim route from North Africa. In Elath, he said, the Israelis, a Mediterranean power, were trying to develop a piece of desert without water in an abnormal fashion. He said they had visions of reviving history and of establishing links between Israel and the Far East. He stressed that throughout history the Arabs had been opposed to every power which sought to establish itself on the Gulf of Aqaba.

The British, he said, were aware of the sensitive situation in the Gulf. When difficulties there flared up, they quietly made an agreement with Egypt. Egypt, he said, did not make much trouble and even permitted some ships to go to Elath.

Azzam said when the Secretary referred to the re-establishment of the original position in the Gulf of Aqaba, he was not wholly correct. The existence of Israel is a new factor. Elath itself was established after the armistice agreement and is itself illegal.

When the Israelis settled in Elath, according to Azzam, Saudi Arabia asked Egypt to occupy the islands at the mouth and gave Egypt ten million dollars to fortify the mouth. The Saudis, he said, have always been more sensitive to the situation in the Gulf than has Egypt. When Egypt disappeared from the Gulf, the King became involved in a difficult situation. Egypt put the burden on King Saud to protect Aqaba. Saud had no power except the friendship of the United States. He cannot retire from this responsibility without dishonor.

[Page 687]

Azzam admitted that the United States had taken its action in order to save the situation. He admitted that the Arabs should be grateful to the United States. He stressed, however, that the true status quo to which the King wished to return was that existing under the armistice agreement in which there were neither warships nor commercial vessels in the territorial waters of the parties to the armistice agreement. A return to the status quo, he said, would take the immediate problem of the Gulf out of the scene and permit ultimate consideration by the Court or the United Nations.

Azzam claimed that the Israelis had heightened the tension by pushing ships into the Gulf and boasting about developments at Elath. He suggested that all of this was in view of Israel’s difficult financial situation and Israel’s need to appeal to world Jewry.

Azzam stressed again that the United States was not actually involved and that the King had no objection to the passage of American vessels into the Gulf. He said that he felt a return to the situation under the armistice would provide a way to resolve the difficulty.

The Secretary agreed that there was no reason that the United States should be so deeply involved since it was merely representing an opinion held by many other maritime nations. He referred again to his earlier suggestion regarding a declaration in the United Nations providing a special pathway for the pilgrims. He said that this might provide a way for the United States to step aside, although the United States remained prepared to work out a voluntary agreement with Israel. When the Secretary suggested that all warships might be excluded from the pilgrim pathway, Azzam said Moslem warships frequently escorted pilgrim ships and suggested that only non-Moslem warships be excluded.

Azzam replied that while United Nations action might ultimately be desirable, United States good offices would be helpful in the beginning. He stressed, however, that a declaration regarding the pilgrim traffic would not be of much help unless the activity of Israeli warships in the Gulf were reduced.

It was agreed that Mr. Rountree would be in touch with Azzam within a few days and that in the meantime the Department would ask Ambassador Wadsworth to inform the King of the general status of the discussions.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 980.74/7–357. Secret. Drafted by Newsom on July 8.
  2. During a conversation with Ambassador Wadsworth on June 27, King Saud once again spoke strongly against the Israeli presence in the Gulf of Aqaba and expressed his deep concern over the U.S. statement of June 5 (see Document 347), which Saud claimed contradicted the substance of talks with President Eisenhower and other U.S. officials on the subject. The King also warned that the current U.S. policy toward the Gulf of Aqaba would adversely affect relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States, if it were not altered. (Telegram 861 from Jidda, June 29; Department of State, Central Files, 980.74/6-2957)