355. Aide-Mémoire From the Department of State to the Saudi Arabian Embassy1

The United States Government and the special representative of His Majesty King Saud have, during a series of discussions, considered various possibilities with respect to the Gulf of Aqaba. The position of each Government has been explained and examined and means have been sought to relieve the current apprehensions of Saudi Arabia regarding the situation in the Gulf.

The United States recognizes that there are differences of views concerning the legal status of the Gulf and shares with King Saud concern over the maintenance of peace and tranquility in the area of the Gulf. It acknowledges the historic significance of the Gulf as a traditional path for Moslem pilgrims to the Holy Places located in Saudi Arabia. It recognizes that the situation in the Gulf is a matter of legitimate concern to His Majesty, King Saud, not only as the ruler of an important Arab state and littoral power on the Gulf, but also as the Keeper of the Holy Places of Islam.

During the discussions, the United States has stated its views that the Gulf of Aqaba comprehends international waters and that the commercial ships of all nations are entitled to free and innocent passage [Page 692] through the Strait of Tiran and in the Gulf. It has been emphasized that this position is based upon recognized principles of international law with due consideration to the interests of the United States as a maritime power. The principle of the freedom of the seas has been a cardinal point in United States policy since the beginnings of the Republic. The application of this principle to the Gulf of Aqaba by the United States is not intended to establish any rights to which nations on the Gulf and other nations have not always been entitled.

The United States has sought to determine how the legal questions might be resolved by an authoritative impartial body and what practical steps might be taken to preserve peace and tranquility.

The United States specifically suggests that:

Saudi Arabia might wish to consider taking the question of the legal status of the Gulf of Aaaba to the International Court of Justice. Insofar as vessels of United States registry are concerned, the United States would abide by any decision or advisory opinion rendered by the Court.
The United States recognizes that the principal question raised by His Majesty in advance of the present discussions was the movement of Israeli naval and air forces in the territorial waters of the other littoral powers on the Gulf. The United States has not considered that its declared position on the character of the Gulf implies the unrestricted passage of war vessels in the territorial waters of the Gulf under present circumstances. To meet His Majesty’s special concern in this matter, the United States is prepared, in the interests of maintaining peace and tranquility in the Gulf, directly or through a suitable intermediary, to seek restrictions on the use of Israeli naval and air forces, including such measures as the tying up of the vessels in Elath or their removal from the Gulf.
The United States would be prepared, if requested to do so, to ask vessels of United States registry to avoid Saudi Arabian territorial waters in transiting the Gulf. The United States is also prepared to request masters of vessels of United States registry to give notice when requested to do so by regulations of littoral powers conforming to accepted principles of international law.
Saudi Arabia might wish to have the Security Council consider the question of the passage of the pilgrims. In this event, the United States is prepared to support a resolution, consistent with its position respecting the Gulf, which would put the authority of the United Nations behind the rights of the pilgrims to undisturbed passage through the Gulf of Aqaba and give United Nations affirmation to His Majesty’s rightful concern for the safe passage of pilgrims as Keeper of the Holy Places of Islam.

In presenting these suggestions, the United States is acting in the spirit of close friendship which has always characterized its relations with Saudi Arabia. The United States wishes to restate and reaffirm the assurances given on many occasions in the past that it supports [Page 693] firmly the territorial integrity and independence of Saudi Arabia. We have also stated we would regard most gravely any threat to the safe passage of religious pilgrims to the Holy Places of Islam. Certainly in a matter which involves the maritime rights of many nations and the territorial rights of several nations, the United States has no desire to be cast in the role of a principal protagonist. We are confident that with good will the divergences of opinion may be practically reconciled in a matter meeting the legitimate concern and protecting the just interests of all concerned.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 980.74/7–1257. Secret. Newsom prepared the original draft of this aide-mémoire, which Dulles transmitted to Eisenhower on July 9. Eisenhower approved the draft on July 10 except for the paragraph containing the fourth U.S. suggestion. For a summary of the subsequent discussion concerning the wording of this paragraph, see Document 353.

    Rountree handed the Aide-Mémoire to Azzam Pasha on July 12. During the discussion that followed Azzam asked Rountree what the U.S. position was concerning the notice which a vessel might properly give a coastal sovereign when passing through its territorial waters and whether the sovereign had the right of search. Becker responded that the right to ask for notice did not, in the U.S. view, imply a right of search. Azzam also expressed the hope that the United States would not press the legal aspects of the problem, as practicalities required some liberality in the legal concepts involved. (Memorandum of conversation by Newsom, July 12; Department of State, Central Files, 980.74/7–1257)

  2. Regarding pargraph 4, see Document 353.