177. Telegram From the Embassy in Saudi Arabia to the Department of State1

346. Military addressees handle as Specat Exclusive. USMTM for General Cathey and Colonel Meyer only. Subj: Joint US-Saudi Planning Committee.

Summary: In meeting on January 13 Prince Saud made eloquent plea for U.S. commitment to defense of Saudi Arabia against any direct Soviet threat. He said that formal request from Crown Prince Fahd to President will be forthcoming in next few days for establishment of Saudi-U.S. planning committee to make contingency plans. He urged that plans be formulated right away so that any meaningful decisions with respect to regional security can be made during Crown Prince’s forthcoming meeting with President. End summary.

1. I met with Foreign Minister Prince Saud and Intelligence Director Prince Turki for little over an hour on January 13. Meeting was also attended on Saudi side by Deputy Foreign Minister Abd al-Aziz al-Thunayan and General Kabbani and on U.S. side by Deputy-Director USMTM Colonel Meyer, SRF Chief and Pol Counselor.

2. Saud referred to upcoming trip of Crown Prince Fahd to U.S. and said he thought it was important for us to agree in advance on at least some of the topics to be discussed by President and Crown Prince. [Page 574] As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, the most important issue is regional security. We are faced by a clear-cut Soviet policy to penetrate, destabilize, and spread their influence in the area. They have recently become more open in their activities. This has been evident in Angola, the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, and South Yemen. Their direct involvement in these areas has been encouraged by a lack of U.S. response to their initiatives. This situation should be reviewed and some basic decisions should be made in the meeting between Crown Prince Fahd and the President.

3. Saud said that analysis is not what is needed. There have been numerous discussions of the situation dating from the time of President Johnson. Specialists have come and spoken with SAG. U.S. and Saudi Arabia agree on analysis. The need now is to decide on what has to be done. As far as Saudi Arabia is concerned, the situation is extremely serious. The Kingdom faces a direct, immediate threat. The USSR is involved in South Yemen and it plans to utilize South Yemen to destabilize the surrounding countries, such as Oman and North Yemen. The objective is to penetrate this strategic area. They now even have an important economic reason, and perhaps this explains their more active involvement in the area.

4. Saud went on to say that Saudi Arabia has a responsibility to meet this threat. SAG is trying to assist YAR over the long-run, by aid to help build the country’s infrastructure and to promote stability. However, there is also an immediate threat. In fact, there are two kinds of immediate threat, i.e. involvement of South Yemen in YAR and terrorist activity in YAR and elsewhere. There are threats not only inside YAR but in Oman as well. As far as terrorism in Saudi Arabia is concerned, SAG will have to depend on itself to counter that. However, there is a limit to Saudi capabilities when it is facing direct threat from a world power. Saudi Arabia cannot handle this by itself. It needs a commitment from U.S. to meet whatever direct threat there is from the USSR. This would be a preventive measure. If the USSR sees that the U.S. is prepared to meet the threat, then Soviets will not carry through on the threat, but rather will back away.

5. Saud explained that the purpose of the joint US-Saudi committee which Prince Sultan had originally proposed would be to carry the matter from discussion to a joint program. We need a joint program designed to counter the Soviet threat. The committee could develop scenarios and options. If joint policy decisions are needed, they can be made by Fahd and President during the visit. Joint committee could make the agenda for the Crown Prince and President. In SAG view, there are three areas in which help is needed:

(1) Measures to help YAR protect itself against subversion,

(2) Steps to provide military equipment needed to meet contingencies,

[Page 575]

(3) Contingency planning to define U.S. role in event there is direct involvement by the USSR or any of its allies in Saudi Arabia, YAR, or Oman.

6. I said that we do not disagree with Saudi Arabia about the nature of the threat. I said that I wanted to make two points. First, we do not have formal approval from Washington to set up a committee to prepare an agenda for the Crown Prince’s talks with the President. We would of course be happy to talk on an informal basis about issues that may come up in the talks. Second, under our system of government, the President would have to have congressional approval for any commitment that the U.S. might make to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi leadership has been very helpful in receiving congressional visits and has certainly been able to get across to many members of Congress the Saudi viewpoint on the threat faced by Saudi Arabia. This would of course make it somewhat easier for the President to get approval for any commitment to Saudi Arabia he found it necessary to recommend. The President himself understands Saudi concerns and has shown that understanding in his personal intervention to develop a better timetable for delivery of F–5 aircraft to YAR.2 That understanding was also evident in his decision to authorize the forthcoming visit of the F–15’s to Saudi Arabia.3

7. Saud said he understood both my points. However, he had hoped that there was some urgency on the part of the U.S. to tackle the regional security problem in the Arabian Peninsula. He said he thought it would be useful for a joint committee to devise possible scenarios and the range of U.S. responses to these scenarios. It would be useful for us to know the areas of responsibilities of each side. We need specifics, rather than generalities.

8. Returning to the areas where assistance is needed, Saud said that one way we might help YAR protect itself against subversion would be to improve its intelligence collection capabilities. He said that Saudi Arabia could also use help in this field. As for military equipment needed to meet contingencies, Saud said that Saudi Arabia, and the other countries on the Peninsula as well, wanted to share in their own defense. It would be a shame not to give them what they need. Failure to do so would only hasten the day when the U.S. would have to send troops.

9. Prince Saud went on to say that SAG would be happy to submit formal request for the establishment of a committee such as he [Page 576] described. In fact, he would prepare the request as part of an oral reply of Crown Prince to the oral message sent by the President through me to the Crown Prince in November.4 That reply will be delivered to the Embassy in a few days time. I said I would forward the Crown Prince’s message as soon as it was received.5

10. Begin comment: Prince Saud’s presentation today represents a qualitative change in our dialogue with the Saudis and involves requests for cooperation unlike any we have heard before. Beginning in the fall of 1977, we heard pleas for assistance in countering the Soviet threat in the Horn of Africa on the grounds that the Soviet presence there represented a real threat to Saudi Arabia. In July 1978, the plea became even more urgent but it concerned YAR, which Sultan characterized as Saudi Arabia’s first line of defense.6 The plea we heard from Saud today was an earnest plea for a commitment to the defense of Saudi Arabia itself.

11. The atmosphere here has changed. Whereas SAG was reluctant 18 months ago to talk about U.S. defense of Saudi Arabia or even of the Saudi oil fields, we find SAG welcoming not just a show of force in the region as suggested by Prince Sultan six months ago, but a visit by a squadron of F–15’s in Saudi Arabia itself. We have seen hints over the past several months that SAG would eventually come to ask for a U.S. commitment to its defense, and we should therefore not be surprised that it has finally come. Saud was at his eloquent best. His presentation was solemn and earnest and reflected the deep concern that the Saudi leadership feels in the face of events in Iran and in the Yemens.

12. In our view, the Saudi request for a defense commitment is even more than what it says. It is a test. Refusal to engage in contingency planning will be interpreted as U.S. impotence or disinterest in Saudi Arabia. They will wonder if we are prepared to sacrifice them on the altar of detente. They may even wonder if we are prepared to drop them as easily as we did the Republic of China.7 They hope, however, [Page 577] that their oil makes them more important to us and gives them a better claim on our attention. At the same time, they will scrutinize any contingency planning we do with them to see if they can discern the depth of our actual commitment. Any contingency planning that looks inadequate or unresponsive will be interpreted either as failure in our strength of purpose or as sign that we have been hypnotized by the siren call of Mexican oil.

13. I feel sure that Prince Saud will press for an answer ASAP, although we can of course await the formal request from Fahd. I attempted to forestall the request by telling him that we could wait until we received some acknowledgement of our first report concerning the committee. Saud said he would prefer to get a formal request to us. End comment.8

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P850027–2567. Secret; Immediate; Exdis Distribute as Nodis. Sent for information Immediate to CHUSMTM Dhahran, USMTM/DCR Riyadh, USLO Riyadh, and Dhahran.
  2. See Documents 257 and 258.
  3. A squadron of F–15s visited the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for a brief time beginning on January 15. (Telegram 240 from Jidda, January 10; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790013–0277)
  4. Not further identified. Carter sent a message to Fahd on the Egyptian-Israeli peace process, which was transmitted in telegram 279224 to Jidda, November 2, 1978. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P840153–2316) Carter’s message was delivered by the Embassy to Second Prime Minister Prince Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz on November 4, 1978. (Telegram 7860 from Jidda, November 4, 1978; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P850040–2678)
  5. West transmitted the formal request in telegram 890 from Jidda, January 31; see Document 182.
  6. See Document 248.
  7. Reference is to the Carter administration’s normalization of relations with the People’s Republic of China and the severance of diplomatic relations with the Republic of China on Taiwan.
  8. In telegram 17130 to Jidda, January 22, the Department responded to this telegram, posing questions and outlining proposals on a number of issues pertaining to Saud’s request. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P850027–2439)