175. Memorandum From Gary Sick of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Cracks in Saudi Facade (U)

Crown Prince Fahd’s indecisive performance at Baghdad2 and Saudi passivity in the OPEC meeting3 are most disturbing outward signs of a deeper malaise currently afflicting the Saudi Royal Family. (C)

King Khalid, although recuperating from his open-heart surgery and reportedly off for a hunting trip in the desert, clearly recognizes that his remaining time as King is limited. He has offered to abdicate but is being persuaded to remain in office until the line of succession can be established. (S)

Unfortunately, Crown Prince Fahd is himself not well. He is a diabetic and we have had considerable evidence recently that his condition [Page 561] is worsening. He has gained weight and appears puffy and unhealthy. Reportedly he has become very difficult to wake up in the morning and recently has been three and four hours late for meetings. His concentration is said to be poor and he is meeting with very few people, in contrast with his rather vigorous schedule of a year ago. (S)

The conventional wisdom is that Prince Abdullah will almost automatically become Crown Prince when Fahd is elevated. But Fahd must himself make the choice when he becomes King, and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that he would in fact choose his brother Sultan rather than the dour Abdullah who is leading the opposition to the Fahd clan. If the Crown Prince position is given to Abdullah, as now seems likely, there is still the question of the heir apparent. Sultan is the obvious choice, but he is being challenged by two surprising contenders, Princes Mishal and Abd al-Muhsin. Both claim to be older than Sultan, and both have held government positions in the past. Both, however, are rather disreputable characters and it remains to be seen whether they can in fact generate any substantial support within the Royal Family. Abdullah may simply be using these two claimants to keep Sultan off balance and thereby less actively involved in the Crown Prince sweepstakes. (S)

In any event, at a time when the Arab-Israel question is in the balance, when the Arab world is increasingly polarized, when Soviet influence is on the rise in Ethiopia, Yemen, and Afghanistan, when Iraq is developing a more complex policy of seeking leadership in the Arab world, and when the military pillar of Gulf stability in Iran is crumbling, we are faced with a leadership in Saudi Arabia which is ill, indecisive, and distracted by the succession struggle. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia is actually facing the prospect of a deficit budget for next year, corruption is endemic, and social and cultural tensions with the imported proletariat which does the dirty work (or highly skilled work) in the country have resulted in some unaccustomed riots in the past year. (S)

Saudi Arabia is not Iran. Its financial cushion is far more substantial, its development is better under control, its population is far smaller. They have faced competition for succession in the past, and this is actually less bitter than on several previous occasions, e.g. when they deposed King Saud. But we are also operating on the basis of some of the same principles which got us into trouble in Iran. Our intelligence is all of the “official” variety. We rely primarily on Saudi officials and westerners with a stake in Iran4 for our understanding of what is going [Page 562] on. Our embassy focuses on the politics of the Royal Family and the Government, and we limit our military advisors from collecting intelligence. (S)

I have talked to several experts in the past few days, one of which has just returned from a major fact-finding trip to Saudi Arabia. They assure me that it is business as usual and all’s right with the world. I am willing to concede that nothing fundamental has changed within Saudi Arabia, but my concern is that the environment in which the Saudis live is changing too rapidly for them and they may not have the latitude for muddling through which has been their salvation in the past. (S)

Sam Hoskinson concurs.5

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 67, Saudi Arabia: 6–12/78. Secret. Sent for information. Inderfurth initialed the memorandum. A stamped notation on the memorandum reads: “ZB has seen.”
  2. Reference is to the Arab League meeting in Baghdad November 2–5. The participating nations released a statement critical of the Camp David Accords, which had been signed on September 17; expelled Egypt from the Arab League; and relocated the organization’s headquarters from Cairo to Tunis. (Telegram 7992 from Jidda, November 7; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780460–0171)
  3. On December 17 at the OPEC meeting held in Abu Dhabi, the organization agreed on a 10 percent weighted average increase in the price of oil. (Telegram 3319 from Abu Dhabi, December 19; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780524–0491) President Carter and King Khalid exchanged letters about a price increase prior to the meeting. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XXXVII, Energy Crisis, 1974–1980, Document 176.
  4. An unknown hand, possibly Inderfurth’s, crossed out the word “Iran” and wrote “the establishment” above it.
  5. Hoskinson initialed this sentence.