93. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Persian Gulf: Luce Visit


  • Sir William Luce, Secretary of State’s Special Representative for the Persian Gulf
  • Mr. Guy E. Millard, Minister, British Embassy
  • Mr. Ramsay Melhuish, First Secretary, British Embassy
  • Mr. Joseph J. Sisco, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern & South Asian Affairs
  • Mr. Rodger P. Davies, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern & South Asian Affairs
  • Mr. Alfred L. Atherton, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern & South Asian Affairs
  • Mr. Harold H. Saunders, Member, Senior Staff of National Security Council
  • Mr. Thomas P. Thornton, Policy Planning Staff
  • Mr. Dayton Mak, Director, Near East/South Asia, Bureau of Intelligence & Research
  • Mr. Jack C. Miklos, Country Director for Iran
  • Mr. Richard W. Murphy, Country Director for Arabian Peninsula Affairs
  • Mr. Joseph W. Twinam, Office of Arabian Peninsula Affairs
  • Mr. Timothy W. Childs, Office of Iranian Affairs
[Page 289]

In discussions lasting over four hours, the U.S. side, led by Mr. Sisco, posed a variety of questions relating to the future of the Persian Gulf. During the discussion Mr. Sisco made the following points:

The U.S., and even more so the U.K., have important interests in the Gulf. Strategically, events there have a bearing on a wider area. We are concerned with geopolitical aspects of the Gulf situation, including the Soviet capability to cause trouble in the future. In the tiny Gulf states small investment in subversion could cause wide-ranging problems while a modest investment in stability might prevent the U.S. and U.K. much grief. We recognize that internal instability is a more likely threat than outside aggression. The U.S. has always supported a strong British presence in the Gulf, regrets the Labor Government’s decision to withdraw, and hopes that the future British presence will be as strong as possible. In planning to continue the homeporting of U.S. Middle East Force in Bahrain, a decision which has received at least tacit acceptance by friendly littoral states and enthusiastic welcome by Bahrain’s Ruler, we will wish to cooperate closely with the British. This desire for close cooperation extends to other questions of adjusting our presence in the Gulf to meet the situation created by the changing British presence.

In response to questions, Sir William made the following observations:

Policy Decision

The British Government has reached a decision on its role in the Persian Gulf. There will be an announcement in Parliament about mid-February after Sir William has notified King Faisal, the Shah, the Amir of Kuwait, and the Rulers of the four larger Gulf Amirates. Until then he hoped what he told us about the decision would be held in strictest confidence. It should under no circumstances be repeated to other governments and preferably should not be repeated to our Embassies, since UK Embassies have not yet been informed.

UK Interests

Sir William pointed out that Britain’s major interest in the Persian Gulf is, of course, oil as a vital source of fuel and important source of revenue. As an oil consumer, the UK interest in the Gulf exceeds the US interest. Also Britain wants to limit the expansion of Soviet influence in the region. The Government’s primary objective is to create the necessary pre-conditions for (a) peace and stability in the Gulf States; (b) preserving British political influence and countering Soviet expansion.

Policy Setting

The Heath Government’s review of its predecessor’s policy had to face the conditions which were created by the announcement in 1968 of withdrawal by the end of 1971. Different attitudes within the [Page 290]Conservative Party and the resources that the UK could make available to the Gulf in view of commitments elsewhere were other considerations. The Labor Government’s announcement, however, has been the dominant factor in developing the attitudes of the Gulf States about the area’s future.

The announcement had certain desirable effects. It has encouraged Saudi/Iranian cooperation, contributed to the Bahrain settlement, and spurred the movement toward political integration of the Arab Amirates. In the environment created by the announcement, however, three major problems have developed: The movement toward political integration has not progressed in the way in which the British had hoped, Iran has reasserted its claim to Tunbs and Abu Musa, and long-standing Saudi/Abu Dhabi border disputes have flared up again. The major task of UK Gulf policy at the moment is to seek to resolve these problems in order to create conditions for future stability.

End of Treaty Relationship

After coming to power, the Conservative Government appointed Sir William to consult with the area states as a basis for a policy review. He found the four major Amirates determined to be fully independent by the end of 1971. The British feel this is proper. Therefore, the Government concluded that there should be no attempt to prolong the present treaty arrangements with the Persian Gulf after December 1971. The political aspect of the UK role in the Gulf is often overlooked in focusing on the question of military presence. For example, the Soviets have been kept out of the lower Gulf not because British forces are stationed there but because the British have controlled the foreign relations of the lower Gulf States.

Military Role

It was recognized that once the UK’s protective treaty responsibilities end, so would the basis for the present British military presence in the Gulf. The question then arose, ought there to be some new relationship providing for a specific military presence, and with whom should this relationship be made? In his visit to the area, Sir William sought the views of the Gulf Amirates and major area states on this question. He received predictable but conflicting answers. All of the Amirates except Qatar wanted a British military presence after 1971. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait wanted the British to leave since their continued presence might cause conflict in the area. The Shah urged the UK to go forward with its earlier decision to withdraw. He noted that if a future Gulf Federation asked for a defense relationship with the UK he could not object, but he doubted that such a request would be made. Iraq and the UAR said that on principle they oppose foreign bases on Arab territory and, therefore, could not ignore a reversal of the announced British decision to withdraw.

[Page 291]

A new defense commitment to be meaningful would require a force in being no smaller than the present level of British presence; that is, two RAF squadrons in Bahrain, six mine sweepers in Bahrain and one frigate on station in the Gulf, and a battalion divided between Bahrain and Sharjah. The Government had concluded that retaining such a force would be unwise. The basic role of the present force, particularly the RAF in Bahrain, has been to fulfill the British defense understanding with Kuwait. The Kuwaitis have notified the British that they will permit this understanding to lapse this March. The British see no direct Russian military threat to the Gulf at the moment. The only foreseeable external threats to the Amirates are Saudi Arabia and Iran reacting to territorial claims. It is not in the UK interest to come into conflict with either of these States over territorial questions. The UK cannot antagonize Saudi Arabia and Iran which are the primary local forces for limiting Soviet expansion in the Gulf.

The British see the main threat to the area as subversion and revolution either in the Gulf Amirates or Saudi Arabia. If British forces remained in strength in the area and subversion occurred, inevitably the British would be drawn in and would have to be reinforced, which would be extremely difficult in view of British commitments elsewhere. Moreover, the presence of British forces would only serve to complicate the relations of the Rulers with their larger neighbors and such forces could themselves become targets for radical propaganda, thus enhancing the prospects for the very subversion Britain sought to avoid.

Therefore, the Conservatives have decided, on balance, not to reverse the Labor decision of 1968, however regrettable that decision may have been. But HMG does not wish to leave the impression that it is abandoning the Gulf. This calls for a political/military manifestation of interest. Therefore, the UK will offer the following to the Rulers:

A new treaty of friendship, providing for consultations in the event of any security threat but without any specific commitment to provide military assistance, although this would not be excluded. (This would be concluded with a Federation and/or with the four larger Amirates separately but not with the smaller five.)
Frequent visits of British naval frigates, where appropriate in connection with CENTO exercise.
Visits to the Trucial Coast of company strength army units for training exercises.
Training visits by RAF units.
Liaison Missions:
A small token contingent of naval personnel (but no ships) to remain on Bahrain in a training/liaison role; they would also provide logistic support for naval visits.
A small token military/air contingent (but no aircraft) to remain on the Trucial Coast (Sharjah or Abu Dhabi) in a training/liaison role. (In addition the 90-odd military advisors in Kuwait will remain. The RAF staging base at Masirah will remain, but it is not related to Gulf policy. The possibility of stationing a force for the Gulf in Masirah was rejected, primarily because it would be too far away from the area to achieve its primary role of serving as a visible show of British interest.)
Continuing to lend officers and other personnel to local forces, principally the Trucial Oman Scouts (90 UK personnel) as the nucleus for a Federation land force (Willoughby Study)2 and the Abu Dhabi Defense Force (100 UK personnel). An effort to strengthen local police forces, including providing British Special Branch officers, will also be made.

The proposed British presence would for all practical purposes not be effective militarily.

Security and Stability

At present the only permanent Soviet presence in the Gulf, aside from Iraq, is a diplomatic presence in Kuwait. Once the Amirates are independent, the Soviets will undoubtedly seek diplomatic relations with them, and the Rulers will be in no position to refuse. In viewing the Soviet threat, however, the essential problem is the likelihood of revolution in the Amirates.

The security of Saudi Arabia is the key to the internal security of the Gulf. So long as the Saudi monarchy remains it will buttress the security of the smaller states. Even should a radical revolutionary government come to power in one of the smaller amirates, its survival may not be tolerated by Saudi Arabia and Iran. After all, it was 8 months after a radical group seized power in South Yemen before the Soviets decided to establish a presence there. Iranian intervention against a revolution in the Amirates would cause special problems.

It is noteworthy however that the Ruler of Dubai told Sir William that he was confident the Shah would come to his aid in the event of internal disorder.

Since 1963 the UK has seen no threat to Kuwait from external aggression by Iraq. The danger there is an internal one with Iraq and other radical elements playing a subversive role. The Palestinian movement in Kuwait is becoming of increasing concern elsewhere in the Gulf. The respectability of the Palestinian label in the Arab world provides an excellent cover for radical elements.

[Page 293]

Among the Amirates, Bahrain is the most “sensitive” politically. Here, however, there is a strong moderate reformist element which serves as a counter to radical tendencies. Unless the ruling Khalifah family moves quickly to provide reform, progress and prosperity, there is a possibility that this group might seize power. The possibility of a radical takeover is slim. The Special Branch, assisting local authorities, have good surveillance of revolutionary elements. Various radical groupings are small in number, varying from 100 to 200 in number.

While the ruling family of Qatar is in many ways the least attractive in the Gulf, it is difficult to see how any subversive group could get a footing there in view of tight control by a large and tough ruling family.

A coup in any of the Amirates is unlikely unless local security forces can be subverted. There has been some dissidence in the Bahraini Defense Force, but this now appears under control. The presence of British officers with the Trucial Oman Scouts and the Abu Dhabi Defense Force is a major factor for stability. The Ruler of Ras al-Khaimah is cause for some concern since he is both poor and “slippery.” The Iraqis may seek to establish influence there by exploiting his need for money but, on balance, it is unlikely that Abu Dhabi and the major Gulf littorals will permit this.

Trucial Oman Scouts

The role of the Trucial Oman Scouts to the security of the area is a key one. The prospect of there being no Federation to provide a framework in which to place the Scouts is an “awful” thought. Should this occur the TOS might be broken up between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, with some provision being made for Ras al-Khaimah.

Future Role of the Major Littorals in the Gulf

Iraq has relatively little scope for doing mischief in the Persian Gulf states. The people of the area dislike the Iraqis, and Iraq is probably too fearful of Iran’s reaction to risk any adventures in the Gulf.3 Iraq has established trade missions in Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and Dubai and has sent some high-ranking visitors to the area. Last fall there was some evidence of dissidence in the Masandam Peninsula in which Iraq may have played a role, but this now appears under control. The disruptive Iraqi influence is likely to be limited to largely verbal support for opposition elements in the Amirates.

[Page 294]

In spite of Kuwait’s contributions to the area states, the Gulf Arabs generally regard the Kuwaitis as arrogant. Kuwait’s influence is therefore limited.

The radical regime in South Yemen has little capacity for causing trouble in the area except for supporting the revolution in Dhofar. Under the new Sultan there is hope that the rebels can be isolated politically and that the insurgency can be contained in the mountains.

Saudi Arabia has a key role to play in the security of the area. History suggests, however, that the Saudis must be careful about overextending themselves in pursuit of domination of the lower Gulf.

Iran is unquestionably the strongest power in the region, but in Sir William’s personal opinion Iran by itself cannot guarantee stability on the Arab side of the Gulf. For this Saudi cooperation is essential. Iran may be able, however, to establish maritime supremacy in the area. Such supremacy was after all good enough for the British until oil interests drew them onto the Arab shore after World War II.


A Federation of all 9 Amirates would still be ideal, but it appears impossible. After the Bahrain settlement, public opinion on the island, which had never been enthusiastic about a Federation, hardened against Bahrain’s participation. The ruling family, itself always halfhearted in support of federation, has been influenced by local feeling.

Sir William had worked hard on the constitutional question to remove an obstacle to Federation. He found, however, at the Deputy Rulers’ meeting in late October 1970, that the old Bahran/Qatar rivalry had polarized on constitutional questions. The constitution itself is not the real issue. The real problem is an apparently irreconciliable competition between Bahrain and Qatar for predominance.

This month’s Saudi/Kuwait joint mission will concentrate on trying to resolve the Bahrain/Qatar problem to achieve a 9-state Federation. The UK, however, holds little hope for this mission, which will probably not deal with specifics and will not be enhanced by Prince Nawwaf’s leadership.

Sir William will go to the Gulf in late January and will use the imminent announcement of the UK policy decision as a lever to try to force as many states as possible to federate. He sees no hope for Bahrain’s joining, but Bahrain does not feel it can publicly admit it has abandoned the Federation concept. The UK also does not want to bear the onus of abandoning the concept of a 9-state Federation. Bahrain sooner or later will have to make a move. By early fall it will want to apply for UN membership if it is going to seek independence separately. Qatar says it will go with the seven Trucial States in the Federation but Sir William doubts this.

[Page 295]

There is a real possibility of a Federation of all seven Trucial States. Abu Dhabi would dominate this grouping because of its oil wealth. The Saudis would not prefer a Federation dominated by Abu Dhabi, but it is a viable possibility. Dubai’s advisor Mahdi Tajir is promoting the idea of a rump Federation of Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. This scheme would have Bahrain seek independence on its own, and would leave the five smaller shaykhdoms to sort out their problems with the possibility of some of them later joining as one unit. The attraction of this scheme is that the Federation would not be burdened with Iran’s claims against the Rulers of Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah over Abu Musa and Tunbs.

There is also the possibility that Abu Dhabi can gather the five smaller shaykhdoms, or four excluding Fujaira, under its leadership to form a five-to-six state Federation. Dubai might welcome the opportunity to go it alone as a sort of “Monaco of the Gulf.”

The absence of any Federation at all by the end of 1971 would not in itself postpone British determination to end the treaty relationships. It is possible, however, that if a specific process of Federation were underway with reasonable chance for quick fulfillment the Government might postpone briefly the date of withdrawal.

Abu Musa/Tunbs Islands

The Shah’s intense concern about the islands must be primarily motivated by reasons of prestige. It is hard to believe that the Shah really thinks the islands have the strategic importance he claims, given his control of Qeshm island. Whatever the Shah’s motivation, there is no doubt that he is in deadly earnest when he says he will take the islands by force if a negotiated settlement satisfactory to Iran cannot be reached. A year or more ago the Shah might have agreed to a demilitarized proposal; now Sir William believes the Shah would accept no less than joint garrisoning of the islands under joint flags, with a split on any oil that might be found.4

If the Shah did take the islands by force, there would of course be an outcry among the Arabs, but Sir William doubts that they would be able to do more than protest. The UK is pressing the Rulers of Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah very hard to reach an accommodation with the Shah, but there is a limit to what the UK can do. They cannot force the Rulers to sign away the islands. The Ruler of Ras al-Khaimah says he would be a target for assassination if he gave away Arab territory; and therefore prefers that the Shah use force, since he could then plead force majeure.

[Page 296]

Responding to specific hypothetical questions, Sir William said numerous schemes for settlement had been explored. [51/2 lines not declassified]

[31/2 lines not declassified] (Iranian opposition because of the islands, however, could keep some of the Amirates out of a Federation.) There are no “substitute” shaykhs who could be put in office to make a deal with the Shah. “Moving shaykhs around” is difficult in any case and only possible with consent of the ruling family. The Qasimi family (Sharjah and Ras al-Khaimah) is united in opposition to signing away the islands. Selling the islands to Iran was considered as early as 1930 and rejected: it is now out of the question. The Shah would never “buy” that which he already claims to own. [3 lines not declassified]

Saudi/Abu Dhabi Border Dispute

King Faisal’s latest proposal for settlement is indeed more reasonable than earlier Saudi claims. Nevertheless, the Saudis still are demanding: a) a large piece of territory giving an outlet to the Gulf on the west of Abu Dhabi between that state and Qatar; b) adjustment of the southern border which would cost Abu Dhabi some territory of petroleum interest and c) a plebescite on Buraimi.5 The British are puzzled at the intense Saudi interest in the outlet to the Gulf. The area seems unsuitable for an oil terminal, so presumably the Saudis want the outlet for security reasons. Possibly they feel more comfortable with a position on the Gulf controlling land movement between Qatar and Abu Dhabi.

Sir William had recommended the postponement of the proposed September Dammam conference to negotiate this dispute since he was convinced it would be abortive. Abu Dhabi advisors were preparing to present a position based on the 1952 Abu Dhabi claim. Faced with this position the Saudis would undoubtedly have walked out and Faisal would have reverted to his 1949 claim on Abu Dhabi. The British are now trying to get a reasonable response from Shaykh Zayid of Abu Dhabi in hopes of working out a settlement with Faisal. There may be some further flexibility in Faisal’s position.


Last summer’s change in leadership was for the good.6 The new Sultan Qabus is intelligent, well-educated, and has the right ideas. His uncle Tariq, whom he brought back from exile as Prime Minister, is a talker not a doer. Their relationship is troubled and Sir William’s personal guess is that Qabus will emerge as the stronger of the two. Tariq [Page 297]may eventually accept a position outside the country, such as Ambassador to the United Nations.

Oman is potentially the “least unviable” state in the area. Shell’s oil production (over 1/3 of a million barrels per day) now brings an annual oil income of over 100 million dollars. There is good potential for agriculture and fishing. Unfortunately the administrative apparatus of the country is chaotic or non-existent. Only the defense establishment, officered by the British, works. It is disappointing that since Qabus took power last summer there has been no real evidence of progress. The advantage of the change in leadership will wear off if there is not soon some sign of progress.

In the long run, Oman seems destined to play some role in the neighboring Trucial States. All the people of the coast, except the rulers there, consider themselves Omanis. For the moment, however, the leadership of Oman is much too preoccupied with internal problems to exert any external role. Qabus does plan to send a good-will mission to the Arab states, and will probably seek UN membership. If there were chaos in the Trucial Coast, particularly in neighboring Fujaira, Oman might be moved to try to play a role. In the near term, however, these are the conceivable limits of Oman’s role beyond its borders.

Sir William thinks that Qabus would welcome US representation in Oman in the not too distant future. It is possible that Oman may wish to obtain UN membership before permitting the expansion of diplomatic representation in the Sultanate.

Middle East Force

Sir William doubted that the US decision to maintain Middle East Force homeported in Bahrain would present much of a target for hostile Arab propaganda. He noted that Shaykh ’Isa, in discussing the future British presence on the island, had made a sharp distinction between naval forces, which he wanted to stay, and the British Army, which he felt must go as a symbol of colonialism. In Sir William’s view, the key consideration making retention of Middle East Force acceptable is that it reflects no change from the existing situation and, unlike the UK, the US is not burdened with a previous announcement that its forces will be withdrawn.

Final Remarks

In thanking Sir William for his extremely helpful presentation, Mr. Sisco reiterated the US desire for the most effective possible British presence in the Persian Gulf area and our wish to cooperate and coordinate fully with the British in pursuing our own limited future role in the area. He reiterated US willingness to be helpful to the British where appropriate with the Shah on the islands issue.

[Page 298]

Sir William replied that at the moment the burden is on the UK to come up with reasonable proposals from the Rulers on both the islands and the Saudi/Abu Dhabi border disputes. If such proposals are obtained, the UK may indeed ask US assistance in both Tehran and Riyadh.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, POL 7 UK. Secret; Exdis. Drafted by Twinam (NEA/ARP) and Timothy W. Childs (NEA/IRN). Initialed by Sisco. Luce, Millard, and Milhuish also met with Rogers. (Memorandum of conversation, January 13; ibid., POL 33 PERSIAN GULF)
  2. Airgram A–1318 from London, July 26, transmitted the Willoughby Report. (Ibid., DEF 6 TRUCIAL ST)
  3. In Airgram A–011 from Dhahran, January 13, Dinsmore suggested that the Department pay more attention to Iraq’s interest in the Persian Gulf and the likelihood it would seek a future role in Gulf Affairs. (Ibid., POL 33 PERSIAN GULF)
  4. See Document 88.
  5. See Document 72.
  6. See Document 87.