140. National Intelligence Estimate1

NIE 36–6–70

[Omitted here are a cover sheet, the Table of Contents, and a map.]



This estimate examines trends in Saudi Arabia, the prospects for the Saudi regime over the next two or three years, and the implications of these matters within the area and for the US.


After years of increasing prosperity and social change, the growing educated element in Saudi Arabia is pressing for a share in the political power now concentrated in King Feisal’s hands. If Feisal remains active, the regime can probably cope with domestic discontent for at least a few more years, thanks to broad support by the religious and conservative majority, tight internal security measures, and the geographical separation of the main population centers. Two contingencies would reduce the regime’s chances of survival—the departure of Feisal or another Arab-Israeli War. Either one might prompt dissidents within the military to attempt a coup.2
Feisal probably will be able to carry out his duties for some time to come, but in the event of his death or incapacity, there is likely to be less unity and firmness in the House of Saud. Any foreseeable royal successor would probably be more inclined to accommodate to radical trends in Arab politics and less capable of suppressing dissidents. [Page 445]If the ruling family were overthrown, the successor regime almost certainly would be radical, militantly anti-Israeli, and markedly anti-American.
Feeling increasingly isolated in the Arab world, Feisal will seek to oppose radical and revolutionary influences—especially in the two Yemens—and to maintain the present modus vivendi with Nasser— who needs the $100 million annual subsidy that Egypt receives from the Saudis. Feisal sees the need to cooperate with the Shah to maintain stability in the Persian Gulf after the British withdrawal in 1971, but any number of forces could upset the fragile situation there, inviting a clash of interests between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Cordial relations with the US, long a cornerstone of Saudi foreign policy, have been weakened by US support for Israel, especially since 1967. Growing anti-American sentiment in Saudi Arabia and in the Arab world generally will cause Feisal more and more to de-emphasize his ties with the US. This process would be accelerated by another round of Arab-Israeli hostilities. Whatever the state of relations between the US and Saudi Governments, the latter will press the oil companies for more revenues.


I. Saudi Society and the Saudi Regime

King Feisal rules over a country of sharp contrasts between the traditional and the modern. Its four million or so people are spread over an area of nearly 900,000 square miles; many of them are still bedouin, and even more of them retain traditional tribal ties. The great bulk are still rigidly orthodox Muslims. Yet increasing numbers of Saudis are affected by the economic and social changes which have occurred in the Kingdom. This is true of all the major areas: the Eastern Province, where the enormously productive oil fields provide the financial underpinnings of the state; the Najd, base of the Saud family and center of traditional religious fundamentalism; and the Hejaz, the western area along the Red Sea, the site of Islam’s two holiest cities—Mecca and Medina. In these areas a new middle class has emerged, with regular and substantial contacts with the outside and more sophisticated world.
In the years ahead, Feisal is likely to face increasingly difficult foreign and domestic problems. He has long been a principal Arab advocate of maintaining close relations with the US, but this policy is becoming less tenable as the US becomes increasingly identified in Arab eyes as the principal political prop and arms supplier of Israel. At the same time, social and economic changes are not only affecting the nature of Saudi society but are also working to make Feisal’s position and that of the ruling family less secure. The recent, sudden overthrow of the monarchy in Libya has doubtless heartened the regime’s domestic opponents.
Feisal has been the dominant figure in Saudi Arabia for the past 10 years. Within the ruling family, he stands above all factions. The strong point of Feisal’s rule has been a combination of conservative fiscal policies and orderly government; he has successfully reversed the waste both of money and of energies which plagued the country under his incompetent brother Saud. For the past several years the Kingdom has had balanced budgets, even while spending substantial amounts of money on roads and other infrastructure projects, on extensive increases in educational and medical facilities, and on military equipment.
Yet Feisal’s talents are more appropriate to the problems of the past than to those of the present and future. He is deeply religious in the context of the rigid Muslim orthodoxy which still characterizes many Saudis, and in large measure he is attuned to the desires of the traditional elements of the society. However, the traditional solidarity stemming from religious zeal is eroding. Increasing bureaucratic centralization has replaced the former system of local governors enjoying considerable latitude. Now, most issues must be referred to the capital, where the proclivity of Feisal or his top ministers for personal involvement often results in long delays or even no decision on important questions. Much of the inherently egalitarian aspect of the earlier tribally-oriented social structure has been smothered by administrative centralization and diminished access to the ruler. Feisal’s personal style of government involves reliance on a coterie of conservative advisors, some of whom are not in tune with the times. He also tends to emphasize loyalty more than competence in appointments to many influential positions, a practice which has increased the frustration of younger, often better educated, civil servants.
The traditional sources of Feisal’s power—his control of Saudi wealth, widespread loyalty to the Saud family, and religious custom— are also the aspects of Saudi Arabia which a growing number of its influential citizens resent. Indeed, influential Saudi subjects, particularly in the Hejaz, have always resented alien rule by the Najd-based Saud family. Yet the King has resisted political innovation which might make the government more responsive to local demands. In the past year or so, he has taken steps which indicate growing concern for the regime’s security, including the arrest of several hundred people on charges of subversion. This has had the effect of increasing resentment of the government among certain important groups.
Social liberalization has made considerable progress during the past decade. Many new schools have been opened, the public’s participation in the economic benefits deriving from oil income has greatly broadened, and the power of the ultraconservative religious leaders has declined. Desires for participation in the political process have been greatly stimulated by the expansion of education, of communications, [Page 447]and of foreign travel—as well as by frustration over the increasing inaccessibility of those in power. Many Saudis, even though they recognize their country’s prosperity and stability, contrast the regime’s autocratic structure and family possessiveness with other seemingly more socially-oriented regimes in the Arab world. A more rapid rate of social and political progress is increasingly demanded by the younger and better educated elements of the population, even including a few members of the ruling family. But Feisal has tended to restrict political power to a narrow circle which—though it has been expanded beyond the royal family—includes only a relative handful of trusted officials. He has occasionally shown some awareness of the desirability of broadening participation in the government, but he finds the prospect too difficult to undertake with confidence—especially with the growing complexity of the government.
There is little prospect, however, of Feisal or the Saud family being overthrown by any mass public uprising. As in other Arab countries, the principal challenge to the conservative regime would come from the military, chiefly from those in the officer corps who are of middle class origins, relatively sophisticated and modern minded, and hostile to the monarchy. Many in this group tend to identify with officers who overthrew the traditional monarchies in Egypt, Iraq, and Libya; they favor the sort of program instituted in those countries— especially destruction of the powers of the old ruling class, the attempt at some type of “socialist” reform, and the adoption of a strongly hostile attitude toward the US as Israel’s protector.
[1 paragraph (8 lines) not declassified]
[1 line not declassified] At present the Saudi Army consists of 28,000 officers and men. [4 lines not declassified] Units of the army are widely scattered away from the main cities—in southern Jordan facing the Israelis, in the border areas near Yemen and Southern Yemen, and in garrisons in the northwest. The great distances between principal cities and the difficulties of communication make a coordinated coup attempt much more difficult than in most Arab countries. [2 lines not declassified]
In addition, the regime relies heavily on its own paramilitary force, the National Guard (also known as the “White Army”). This force, roughly the same size as the regular army, is recruited from tribes traditionally regarded as loyal to the Saudi monarchs and, unlike the army, is stationed near the principal cities. The National Guard is probably loyal to the regime, but its ability to protect the government, particularly if it came to a clash with the army, is less certain. It has been effective in performing its primary mission of maintaining internal security and has demonstrated its ability to suppress civil disturbances in the Kingdom. It is, however, hampered in its operations by a shortage [Page 448]of trained personnel, particularly officers, and extremely ineffective administrative and logistic systems. It is not equipped with heavy armaments, such as tanks and artillery.
[2 lines not declassified] Antimonarchical forces would be encouraged if a neighboring conservative regime, notably Jordan, were toppled. On the whole, however, we believe that the regime would be most likely to face serious threats in the following contingencies: (a) a new round of major Arab-Israeli hostilities, or (b) the death or incapacity of Feisal.
As to the first of these, the regime’s policy with regard to the Arab confrontation with Israel is regarded by many Saudis as lacking sincerity. While Feisal has adopted a tough posture on the question of Jerusalem and has strongly supported the Fatah fedayeen organization, this limited stance has not satisfied the country’s younger elements. The close Saudi relationship with the US in the face of growing anti-Americanism in the Arab world has increased public dissatisfaction with the ruling family. While the stationing of Saudi troops in southern Jordan has given the military some sense of participation in the struggle with Israel, many officers realize that this participation is chiefly symbolic. Another Arab defeat at the hands of the Israelis, especially if it involved Saudi forces in Jordan, would probably shake the Saudi regime. Public sentiment would be aroused, disorders probably would break out in Jidda or at the oil complex in the Dhahran area and could occasion anti-American activities throughout the Kingdom; in such a time of high emotion, military officers might seize the opportunity to move against the House of Saud.
King Feisal appears healthy enough to carry out his duties for some time to come, but he is 64 and has mild arteriosclerosis. Moreover, he is so much the linchpin of the government in Saudi Arabia that an examination of the succession problem is advisable. While the chances favor the royal family closing ranks upon Feisal’s death, there are sufficient rivalries within the family, as well as a “generation gap” between the younger princes and the elders now holding the reins of power, that a smooth transfer cannot be assured. Feisal’s designated successor, Crown Prince Khalid, is noted neither for his leadership qualities [less than 1 line not declassified]. While he could probably take over as a figurehead King, with executive power in other hands— possibly those of his more talented half-brother Fahd, others in the family have recently talked critically of such an arrangement. The circumstances of Feisal’s demise would certainly be of critical importance. Were he able, for example, to arrange the succession and to extract promises of cooperation from his various brothers, serious infighting might be avoided. On the other hand, his sudden death or total incapacitation might prompt one or another faction to grab for power.
With Feisal’s death there is likely to be less unity and firmness on the part of the House of Saud and thus more vacillation in the governing of the country. This would tempt discontented elements, both civil and military, to take advantage of the situation and thrust for power. Should the House of Saud be overthrown, a successor regime would almost certainly be radical, militantly anti-Israel, and markedly anti-American.

Economic Considerations

For all its large oil revenues Saudi Arabia is facing some financial constraints.3 Oil revenues, source of about 85 percent of the government’s income, will not rise as fast as anticipated governmental expenditures. Since the Khartoum Conference of November 1967, foreign exchange reserves have been tapped to help pay the $140 million annual subsidies to Egypt and Jordan. Foreign exchange reserves (including government investments abroad) have dropped from almost $950 million in late 1967 to about $750 million. Although reserves are adequate to permit continued drawdown for several years without serious problems, the regime is extremely anxious to keep these funds intact, since $550 million represent full currency cover and deposits for pension funds. The government probably can secure agreement from the oil companies for an advance against future tax payments and thus improve its financial position on a one-time basis. Given the world oil surplus, there is little prospect of getting the companies to increase production more than 6–8 percent annually; similarly, income per barrel is not likely to be increased much. Thus, the Saudi Government will be forced to establish more strict priorities for expenditures, since it is determined not to rely on heavy foreign borrowing.
Some indication of revised priorities is already evident. The 1969–1970 defense and internal security budget amounts to $515 million—a 20 percent rise from the previous year and almost 40 percent of the current budget. The budget allocates $357 million to development, a decline of 7 percent over last year. The rapidly increasing defense expenditures reflect the regime’s uneasiness regarding both external and internal security threats, which have been heightened by the border friction with Southern Yemen and the forthcoming British withdrawal from the Persian Gulf. Past and projected defense purchases include sophisticated missiles and aircraft and naval vessels which the country can maintain and use only with outside assistance.
Saudi Arabian social and economic development will continue to be hampered by a scarcity of technicians, teachers, and workers. There is little prospect that manpower efficiency can be increased enough to help significantly in the next few years. Although increasing numbers of graduates from the rapidly expanding Saudi educational system are entering the job market, this will not do much to satisfy the large demands for skilled hands. The country will continue to depend to a large extent on imported skilled personnel in almost all categories.

II. Foreign Relations

In the Arab World Generally

The Saudi regime sees itself as increasingly encircled by hostile forces. Several Arab regimes with similar conservative domestic and foreign attitudes have gone under in recent years. In Feisal’s view, neighboring revolutionary regimes—the Baathist governments of Iraq and Syria and the regimes in both Yemen and the Peoples Republic of Southern Yemen—are working actively against him and his regime or intend to do so at their earliest opportunity. Only two of Feisal’s important Arab neighbors, Hussein of Jordan and the Amir of Kuwait, share his political outlook.
The Saudi regime will take the steps it thinks necessary to keep radical and revolutionary influences as far away as possible. It will continue to extend political and occasionally financial support to fellow conservatives. Thus, Saudi Arabia will continue to maintain good relations with Morocco, Tunisia, Kuwait, and Jordan. It will probably help King Hussein from time to time with money over and above the $40 million annual Khartoum subsidy. Saudi Arabia is also likely to support conservative non-governmental groups in the Arab world, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and possibly antiregime organizations in the Sudan.
Feisal probably views his present relations with Nasser as about the best he can hope for. For years, these two leaders were at loggerheads—each possessed of a profound personal and political antagonism for the other. Nasser encouraged and gave various kinds of support to radical nationalist elements in Saudi Arabia and around its periphery—out of broad sympathy for their cause and as a means of cutting down Saudi influence. Egyptian radio propaganda was particularly offensive to the Saudi Government. Saudi Arabia, for its part, extended support to many of Nasser’s Arab adversaries.
Much of that pattern changed in the aftermath of the 1967 war. Nasser ended his campaign against Saudi Arabia and withdrew from Yemen. This was partly in return for the $100 million annual Saudi subsidy agreed to at Khartoum. Moreover, Nasser has been so immersed [Page 451]in the confrontation with the Israelis that he has neither the time nor resources for involvement in the affairs of states in the Arabian Peninsula or Persian Gulf. Nonetheless, Feisal probably will remain alert to limit any resurgence of Nasser’s influence or any resumption of his interference. Thus, Feisal is likely to seek to improve relations even with revolutionary and socialist Algeria—which has an antipathy to Nasser, but which has displayed no aspirations to become involved in the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi efforts to support antiregime forces in the Sudan could run afoul of Egyptian support for the regime there. In sum, the current modus vivendi between Feisal and Nasser is subject to many strains, though each side has reasons to avoid a renewal of the feud.

The Yemens

Feisal has been extremely sensitive about the radical regimes in Yemen and Southern Yemen. He supported the Royalist cause in Yemen against the Egyptian-dominated republican regime for five years, stopping only after the Egyptians withdrew their forces from Yemen as a result of the defeat by Israel in 1967. For reasons which are not altogether clear, the Saudis resumed support of the Yemeni Royalists in the fall of 1969 at a time when the civil war had virtually ceased. Feisal may have been influenced by his more conservative advisors to conclude that the regime in Yemen posed a renewed danger to him, or he might have been greatly influenced by the governor of the Saudi province bordering on Yemen, who apparently has profited by diverting to his own pocket funds earmarked for the Yemeni Royalists. The Saudis will probably continue efforts to get the republican government to include members of the Yemeni royal family. The republicans will probably not go far enough to satisfy the Saudis, and relations between Saudi Arabia and Yemen are likely to be touchy, if not actively hostile, for the foreseeable future.
In regard to Southern Yemen, Feisal was stunned that the British allowed the federation to collapse in 1967 and intensely dislikes the radical orientation of the Southern Yemen regime. The Saudis have since given some support to conservative elements in futile efforts to stir up trouble against the Southern Yemen Government. In fighting over an unmarked border in late 1969, Saudi Arabia scored a signal military success against a Southern Yemen incursion. There will probably be more clashes along this desert border, but they are not likely to pose any serious threat to the Saudis.

The Persian Gulf

The planned withdrawal of the British from the Persian Gulf in 1971 poses a number of problems for Saudi Arabia. Dealing directly with the small sheikdoms without the interposition of the British will raise some new problems. For example, Saudi Arabia’s long-standing [Page 452]territorial dispute with Abu Dhabi over the Buraimi oasis might become active again. While the mini-states of this region have less than a half million people, they are divided among 9 sheikdoms with populations running from a high of 200,000 people (Bahrein) down to 4,000 (Ajman and Umm al-Qaiwain), all of them with tribally based societies. Age-old rivalries and disputes among them have been heightened by quarrels and jealousies arising from the presence of oil along the shores of the Gulf, and by the prospect that Britain’s restraining hand will soon be lifted.4 Further complicating the efforts of these mini-states to maintain their independence, perhaps by combining in the proposed Federation of Arab Amirates, are the aspirations and designs of their larger neighbors, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq.
The Shah of Iran’s ambition to succeed Britain as the “power” in the Gulf is a potential source of trouble, especially in view of Iranian territorial claims there. The means by which the Shah seeks to make Iranian power felt in the Gulf could bring about an Arab-Iranian confrontation, facing Feisal with a situation in which he would be forced to line up on the Arab side almost regardless of the issue. If, for example, radical turmoil should break out in one of the shakier mini-states of the Gulf and the Shah were to intervene, Arab-Persian antagonisms would probably compel Feisal to oppose Iranian intrusion— even though his sympathies might be against the radicals. At present, the Shah and Feisal seem determined to cooperate, but the two together cannot guarantee stability in the Persian Gulf; too much depends on forces within the Gulf sheikdoms and on the policies of Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. At the same time, either Saudi Arabia or Iran could upset the fragile equilibrium there. For some time Iraq has been giving clandestine assistance and military aid to subversive elements in the Gulf sheikdoms and will continue this, at least on a small scale.
Feisal will continue to emphasize his role as guardian of the Muslim world’s holiest cities in order to increase Saudi Arabia’s influence. But this role will give him only limited leverage, as radical Arab regimes depend less and less on religion for support. Between Iran and Saudi Arabia, religious ties will be invoked from time to time, but the two countries are of rival Muslim sects. Moreover, relations with Iran will be clouded by that country’s various ties with Israel.
With the British withdrawal, the Soviet presence in the Gulf will probably increase. Moscow will seek diplomatic representation in the new states and will offer them military and economic aid—though such offers may well be declined. Increased Soviet naval activity in the [Page 453]Indian Ocean seems likely and will probably be reflected in the Gulf. Feisal and the Shah are both wary of Soviet influence in this area; if they prove unable to cooperate in matters concerning the Gulf, Soviet opportunities will be enhanced.

The United States

A cordial relationship with the US has been a cornerstone of Saudi foreign policy for over a generation. The Saudi regime continues to look to the US for evidence of support against domestic enemies and regional rivals. Especially since the 1967 war, however, Feisal has become progressively more embarrassed at home and in the Arab world by the difficulty of reconciling his close ties with the US with prevailing bitter Arab criticism of US support for Israel. As long as active confrontation between the Arabs and Israelis continues and the latter continue to occupy territory taken in 1967, relations with the US are unlikely to improve and may deteriorate further. In public, at any rate, Feisal will be compelled to adopt increasingly negative stances toward the US.
In the event of renewed major hostilities, Saudi relations with the US would be severely compromised; [31/2 lines not declassified] But the government, mindful of anti-US disorders in 1967 and after, would probably step up security measures against such contingencies. The Saudis might also halt American oil operations—though probably not for long because of the extreme Saudi dependence on oil revenues. [11/2 lines not declassified] In normal circumstances, however, Saudi Government pressures for increased oil production and greater oil revenue will grow, regardless of the Arab-Israeli situation and the state of Saudi Arabia’s relations with the US Government.
We believe that Feisal, especially in view of growing anti-American sentiment in Saudi Arabia, will seek to de-emphasize his ties with the US. The Saudis are likely to turn more toward others—e.g., France and Japan—for more of the imports now supplied by the US. More likely than not this cooling of relations will be a gradual process for some time to come. For all Feisal’s disagreement with much of US policy in the Middle East, it is doubtful that he sees any satisfactory alternative to a degree of reliance on the US for certain purposes. When he leaves the scene, however, US relations with his successor are likely to become increasingly difficult.
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–044, Senior Review Group Meetings, Review Group NSSM 90. Secret; Controlled Dissem. A note on the cover sheet indicates this estimate supersedes NIE 36–6–66. The Central Intelligence Agency and the intelligence organizations of the Departments of State and Defense and NSA participated in the preparation of this estimate. The Director of CIA submitted this estimate with the concurrence of all members of the USIB with the exception of the AEC and the FBI who abstained on the grounds that it was outside their jurisdiction. For text of the earlier estimate, NIE 36–6–66, “The Role of Saudi Arabia,” December 8, 1966, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume XXI, Near East Region; Arabian Peninsula, Document 283.
  2. The finished NIE did not reflect a March 10 CIA assessment that a renewed offensive by South Yemen would increase the dangers of a military coup because “it would put the Saudi regular army and air force in a better position in terms of ammunition, transport and battle-readiness to execute a coup. If Saudi forces were defeated in the south it would also increase chances of their turning against the regime on the grounds that they had not been adequately equipped and supported by their own government.” Such considerations, according to the CIA, had led Faisal to renew help to the Yemeni Royalists in order to provide a buffer on Saudi Arabia’s southern border. (Central Intelligence Agency, NIC Files, Job 79–R01012A, Box 388)
  3. In telegram 1499 from Jidda, April 16, the Embassy reported that Anwar Ali continued to be concerned that military spending would result in distortions in the Saudi economy at the expense of development projects and that this would worsen considerably if Saudi Arabia embarked on major projects for a new Navy and Coast Guard/ Frontier Force. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, E 2–4 SAUD)
  4. Bahrain, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai have oil revenues totalling over $500 million annually. In other sheikdoms, commercial quantities of oil have not yet been exploited. [Footnote is in the original.]