147. Letter From the Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (Thacher) to the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs (Sisco)1

Dear Joe:

I have put off answering your letters of December 10 and December 24 until I could have the benefit of Saqqaf’s reaction to our assessment of conditions prevailing in Syria, Iraq, and South Yemen.2 Our telegram 02343 reports this in the first talk I had been able to have with him for some time. The material sent with your letter was most useful and if more can be supplied from time to time, it can do a good deal to help keep up a useful dialogue. I delayed writing also until I had experienced some more contact with the King and had tried to develop more perspective on his attitudes, which are so all important here.

Your first letter has an appended PS noting your concern with the increasingly unrealistic attitudes of the King. I share this concern and have tried to assess those aspects of Saudi policy likely to be affected. The King’s renowned theory on the ties between Communism and Zionism is a framework in his own mind to which he accretes wherever he can find them such facts as may tend to strengthen his hypothesis. But perhaps we can be thankful that Faisal does not, as many Arabs do, turn to the Soviets as the only possible counterweight they can see to Zionism, but rather regards both philosophies as dangerous. Faisal is bitterly critical of our policies towards Israel, but I detect a feeling also that the US may not be quite responsible for what it is doing since without realizing it we have lost control of our Middle East policies to Zionist influence. What he is trying to say, I suppose, is that however illogical it may seem to us, we are playing the Communist game by allowing ourselves to be “controlled” by the Zionists.

What is more important than this involuted reasoning is, of course, the impact of Faisal’s attitude on Saudi policy toward the Arab-Israel question. Faisal’s policies on Arab-Israel are built on political as well as emotional considerations. A policy of negative and hostile aloofness [Page 468] tends to buffer him against radical Arab critics and the hostility of his own Palestinian populations, some 30,000 strong. I suspect he knows instinctively too that neither he nor Saudi Arabia have the ability to influence the situation significantly and therefore he had best not try. He has told us, as you know, that if the day comes when the powers bordering Israel are prepared to accept a settlement, he will not object to the terms except with regard to the fate of Jerusalem. On that issue he might be unhelpful, and perhaps the time would come when we would have to think how best we could persuade him not to announce his opposition publicly. In such circumstances we might want to seek the help of the Shah whom the King respects. But in the meantime, the King’s basic outlook, while certainly not helpful, does not particularly obstruct the progress of Arab-Israel negotiations. I should add, too, that I still have a great deal of respect for the King’s firmness and acuteness of judgment in many internal matters and the general management of the Kingdom.

The King’s other great preoccupation, Communist-radical encirclement, is perhaps of greater significance to us. Recent trends in Iraq and Syria, if they continue, may help abate some of his fears, though the King does not easily abandon apprehensions once fixed in his mind. The threat from South Yemen remains for him an even more critical concern. It would be a difficult task to persuade the King and his advisors to abandon their present plans for action against the PDRY. Over the years, Faisal has been exceptionally tenacious in clinging to his interpretation of the significance of events in Yemen (when it differs from ours) and in adhering to what he considers the right course. Whether we should even try to warn him of the risks of offering the Soviets an excuse to establish a stronger foothold in Aden is a question which Dick Murphy told me is now under consideration in Washington. I have no particular eagerness for the task, but I am still inclined to think we ought to get through to the King via Saqqaf our assessment of the dangers he is running and perhaps speaks to Sultan also. I will be interested in Washington’s views on this, though I recognize it is a difficult situation to assess and time is needed for analysis.

The proposed project against PDRY [less than 1 line not declassified] is the major Saudi manifestation in reaction against the sense of encirclement. But there is mixed in with this a gnawing fear also that the world expects to see Saudi Arabia next on the list of toppled monarchical regimes, and that perhaps the world is right. A lessening of national self-confidence may tend to undermine initiative and determination and to erode judgment too.

Consideration of the foregoing does not, I’m afraid, lead to any important new revelations. It does affirm the need for continuation of our efforts quietly to reassure the Saudis. Hopefully we can continue [Page 469] where we think circumstances justify responding favorably to their requests for military and other technical assistance. Dialogue can help as well, and we will do what we can to keep up Saqqaf’s present relatively optimistic assessment of the Middle East scene in the hope that he will communicate some of it to the King. We must avoid giving them the idea we accept their slowness in modernization, but we must find opportunities also to compliment them on their achievements, i.e. such things as their recent show of much greater activity with regard to Gulf affairs.

In a nice congratulatory note on my appointment Bill Brewer wrote me some time ago saying he thought I was the man to “do the hand-holding job in Saudi Arabia” but that I should be sure “when the grip gets clammy, not to let go.” Obviously we have many more tasks here than just handholding but that is one of them and the spirit of Bill’s remark makes good sense.

With every good wish,


  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 3 UAE. Secret.
  2. Sisco’s letter of December 10, 1970, is printed as Document 181. In Sisco’s attached December 24 letter, he acknowledged Faisal’s concern about “growing Communist influence in surrounding states.”
  3. Telegram 234 from Jidda, January 22, reported that Saqqaf was “mildly optimistic” about the Middle East, particularly Jordan. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 27 ARAB–ISR)