176. Intelligence Note From the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Cline) to Secretary of State Rogers 1


  • Saudi Arabia–Southern Yemen: Conflict in the Sands


The border war between Saudi Arabia and the People’s Republic of Southern Yemen (PRSY) continues, and both states are endeavoring to move reinforcements to the front. The affair began on November 26, when Southern Yemeni forces seized a Saudi outpost. The attack appears primarily designed to strengthen the PRSY regime’s domestic position by turning attention toward the “external threat” posed by imperialism and its “stooge,” Saudi Arabia. Despite the incident, Saudi King Faisal still plans to attend the Arab Summit meeting beginning December 20, and he will probably use the incident as ammunition against the radical Arab states. Allegations that both sides are using mercenary pilots are unproven, but Saudi Arabia has a few British contract pilots available, and Soviet pilots are training the PRSY Air Force.

The Wudai’a Incident. A sizeable Southern Yemeni force crossed the undemarcated border into Saudi Arabia on November 26 and seized the Saudi border post at Wudai’a (see map),2 killing several of the 26-man Frontier Force garrison and capturing the remainder. Saudi Arabia hastily deployed ground units toward the area, reinforcing the Saudi army garrison at Sharawra, some 30 miles north of Wudai’a. F–86 fighters, temporarily based on Khamis Mushait, are supporting the Saudi effort. Both sides have used aircraft to attack ground forces starting November 29, but there has apparently been no air-to-air combat. Saudi forces pushed the Southern Yemenis out of Wudai’a on November 30, and the Saudis claim to have reoccupied that locality. Each side asserts that it has inflicted heavy damage on the other’s forces. Southern Yemen also claims to have shot down four Saudi planes; this claim appears false, but there is an unconfirmed report of two Saudi helicopters being downed. Fighting continues, and Saudi Arabia will probably be the victor when it succeeds in bringing its superior military strength to bear on this remote area.

Wudai’a is Saudi Territory. Wudai’a has been outside the territory of Southern Yemen and its predecessor states since the boundary of the Aden Protectorate was first agreed on in the Anglo-Turkish Convention [Page 551] of 1914. Saudi Arabia has for decades claimed that its border was considerably farther south than the 1914 line. The British successfully rebuffed Saudi efforts to give effect to their claim in the 1950’s, and the line recognized by the British became the de facto border. This line is indicated on maps published by PRSY in 1968, with the Wudai’a area shown as Saudi territory. The nearby boundary between Saudi Arabia and the Yemeni Arab Republic has never been delimited, but the Yemen Arab Republic and its predecessor, the Yemeni Kingdom, have not tried to occupy the Wudai’a area.

Why Did Southern Yemen Attack? Southern Yemeni motives are not clear. PRSY leaders apparently feel that the Wudai’a-Sharawra area ought to be part of Southern Yemen, for PRSY forces made an incursion into the area and blew up a Saudi marker at Sharawra a year ago. Southern Yemeni statements during the first few days after the attack simply alleged that the area was in Southern Yemen and lambasted the Saudis for having “attempted to occupy” it. On December 1, apparently shifting ground, Southern Yemeni President Rubayya’ asserted that the area had historically been part of Southern Yemen, but that the British turned it over illegally to Saudi Arabia on the eve of PRSY independence in 1967.

Other factors apparently contributed to the decision to attack. The National Front (NF) regime in Southern Yemen is dominated by a small group with a narrow base, and signs of a split within the regime became apparent during the meeting of the NF General Command which began November 17. The regime needed a popular cause—a “rally-round the flag” issue—with which to galvanize support. With the anniversary of independence coming on November 30, what better step than to strike a blow at the forces of reaction and imperialism as personified by Saudi Arabia?

Possible Saudi Internal Repercussions. Besides their domestic reasons for attacking, PRSY’s radical leaders may have hoped that a successful action would encourage rebellion inside Saudi Arabia by showing that the Saudi regime was weak. They may have felt that the widespread arrests of Saudis for dissident activity last summer proved that extensive discontent existed. (Perhaps 300 persons, including some 80 military and police officers, have been rounded up in Saudi Arabia during the past six months.)

A similar assessment actually played a major role in the nature of the Saudi response to the PRSY attack. Saudi officials felt that Saudi Arabia must act promptly, forcefully, and successfully. Otherwise, in their view, the Saudi regime would appear weak, which would encourage potential dissidents.

Saudis may use Incident at Arab Summit. On December 3, Saudi Arabia announced that King Faisal would attend the December 20 Arab summit meeting in Rabat, dispelling earlier reports that he might stay [Page 552] away if the fighting continued. Since Faisal expects to be on the defensive at the meeting against radical Arab demands for increased financial contributions and for various anti-American measures, the Wudai’a incident gives him a much-needed opportunity to seize the offensive. Faisal can now claim that it is the Arab radicals who are sabotaging the common Arab effort against Israel by fomenting inter-Arab clashes. He can point out that the incident forced him to transfer troops away from northwestern Saudi Arabia, where they had been backstopping the Saudi troops in Jordan. The Saudis and their supporters in the Lebanese press are already beginning to attack the UAR in connection with the Wudai’a incident, and the UAR, which strongly favors holding the summit meeting, is embarrassed.

Propaganda Includes Allegations of Mercenary Involvement. Southern Yemen claims that it is responding to external conspiracies, declaring that the incident was an aggression planned by the US and carried out by its Saudi “stooges.” Charges in support of this line include allegations that oil is the issue, and that “mercenary” pilots have been fighting with the Saudi forces since November 26 (when the Saudi Air Force was not yet in action). The implication in the mercenary issue has generally been that Americans were involved, although one report in the Aden press mentioned “Iranian pilots.” (PRSY has not yet focused on the British and Pakistani advisors to the Saudi Air Force.) Saudi Arabia has privately asserted that Syrian pilots are flying Southern Yemeni planes, but has not charged that PRSY’s Soviet advisors are involved.

But no Confirmation Mercenary Pilots in Combat Yet. The mutual allegations that mercenaries are participating in combat operations seem premature. Saudi Arabia is using F–86 aircraft for ground support because it has eight Saudi pilots to fly them. It has an additional seven qualified Saudi pilots for its Lightning aircraft, including three royal princes. There is no clear evidence that non-Saudi pilots are being used in combat, but the Saudis have asked the British Airworks Company (holder of the Lightning training contract) to provide three combat pilots for the Wudai’a operations. The British Government has replied that it opposed the employment of Airworks instructor pilots for combat, but that it had no objection to combat missions by British pilots who were already on direct Saudi contracts. The number of these pilots, who may have flown in combat, is not known. A Pakistani pilot ferried an F–86 to Khamis Mushait on November 30, but whether any of the Pakistani advisors is flying combat missions is unknown.

Southern Yemen has three Arab pilots for its MIG–17’s—two Southern Yemenis and one Syrian expatriate. The Syrian is not believed to be connected with the present Syrian regime. The Soviet advisors with the PRSY Air Force do not appear to have engaged in combat, but they may have participated in other missions. Despite Saudi allegations, the USSR does not appear to have played any role in instigating the PRSY action, [Page 553] although Soviet media belatedly supported the Southern Yemeni side of the dispute on December 2 and replayed an allegation that RAF aircraft based in Salalah in Muscat had conducted reconnaissance missions before the incidents on November 26.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 32–1 SAUD– SYEMEN. Secret; No Foreign Dissem; Controlled Dissem.
  2. Attached but not printed.