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

589. Subj: Saudi Arabia and Regional Security. Ref: Jidda 346 (Notal).2

1. S-entire contents.

2. Summary: Recent events in Iran and in the Yemen are causing the Saudis to reexamine their position in the region and the status of their relationships with the United States and the USSR. They prefer to maintain as close relations as possible with the United States and they have asked for a defense commitment and contingency planning. This will be a time of serious probing and testing of United States intentions by the Saudis. As unpleasant as the notion of an accommodation with the USSR is to the Saudis, we do not believe they regard it as unthinkable. If they do not like the results of their probing and testing, they may reluctantly come to the conclusion that they have [Page 579] no choice but to come to terms with realities as they see them. End summary.

3. We have read the interesting exchange of telegrams from Muscat, Kuwait, Abu Dhabi, and Baghdad on Gulf security.3 We have also reflected further on our meeting with Foreign Minister Prince Saud on Jan 13.4 We would like to offer the following thoughts on current Saudi thinking about the Soviet threat and regional security.

4. The Saudis are more convinced than ever that the Soviets are embarked on a policy of encirclement to gain control of the Arabian Peninsula and its oil resources. They firmly believe the study that shows that the USSR will be oil short in the mid-1980’s. They also accept the results of a recent study they commissioned that shows that the cost of development of oil resources in Siberia over the coming decade will be astronomical, making the cost of production there many times the cost of production in the Peninsula and the Gulf. The events in Afghanistan, the Soviet involvement in the Horn of Africa, and stepped-up Soviet activity in South Yemen only serve to confirm their hypothesis about Soviet intentions. Some Saudi leaders even believe that the Soviets are involved in Iran. All of them believe that, involved or not, the Soviets will find their ultimate seizure of Saudi oil much easier as a result of the events there.

5. Events in Iran have suddenly and drastically altered the power arrangement in the Gulf.5 It is true of course that Iran will not be absent permanently or even for long as an important actor in the Gulf arena. The country is too big, too populous, and potentially too powerful to be excluded from Gulf affairs. Occupying as it does the whole northern shore, it has too many interests in the Gulf to ignore it completely. However, while Iran is distracted and weakened by internal crisis, it probably cannot and will not serve as a regulating force in the Gulf. Like Oman and the other Arab states in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia realizes that the two-pillar arrangement (Iran and Saudi Arabia) has either collapsed or is temporarily inoperative, and they know that temporary things can sometimes last a long time.

6. If Iran’s power in the Gulf has declined, its influence in the larger region has diminished even further. Iran had been the principal supporter of Saudi Arabia’s anti-radical policy in the Horn of Africa [Page 580] and it was instrumental in putting an end to the recent troubles in Oman.6 Now Iran is not able to play that role and there is even a question about its ability to do so in the future. The threat of Soviet encirclement has therefore become even more immediate. The USSR and its allies in South Yemen are in a position to bring about chaos in North Yemen and to destabilize Oman. Both YAR and Oman appear to have internal situations that provide such opportunities. The Saudis fear that if hostile regimes were established in YAR and Oman they would seek with Soviet encouragement to promote trouble in Saudi Arabia itself or even to provoke hostilities with the Saudis. The Saudi leadership is actively seeking a way to deal with this situation.

7. For some weeks now, diplomatic circles in Jidda have been buzzing with a story of a conflict in the royal family. The story appears to have originated for the most part from the absence of the Crown Prince from a number of important functions immediately after the return of the King to Saudi Arabia in November and from reports that Foreign Minister Prince Saud refused to return early from vacation in December when summoned by the Crown Prince. Some diplomats have speculated that the conflict involves foreign policy and that some of the royal family believe that Saudi Arabia should come to terms with the Soviets, move to a more non-aligned position, and even establish relations with the USSR. We see no hard evidence for a split in the family over Saudi policy toward the USSR, and most thoughtful and knowledgeable diplomats in Jidda say that this speculation has gone far beyond where the evidence warrants. All the diplomats have trouble in identifying on which side of the Soviet issue the various members of the family stand.

8. Split in the family or not, we think there has been intense discussion among the chief foreign policy decision-makers over the past 16 months concerning Saudi Arabia’s position in the region and its relationship to the United States and the USSR. The inability in 1977 and 1978 to find common ground with the United States on the Horn of Africa and the prospect late in 1977 and early in 1978 that the United States would not go through with the F–15 sale caused Saudi Arabia to wonder whether the United States had the interest, will, and capability to work with Saudi Arabia to oppose the spread of Soviet influence and to promote stability in the region. Congressional approval of the F–15 sale reassured the Saudi leadership, but the agony with which the military support program has evolved over the last half of 1978 has created new nagging doubts. Hints of the nature of the discussion among the chief decision-makers may be seen in talks we have had [Page 581] with Min Def Prince Sultan, Foreign Minister Prince Saud, and Crown Prince Fahd, who have argued frequently over the past year that security of the Arabian Peninsula is basic to the interests of the United States and who have attempted to persuade us to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in promoting that security. Prince Abdallah bin Abd al-Aziz commander of the National Guard, periodically brings up with us the possibility that the day may come when Saudi Arabia will have to move away from the United States but he then dismisses the thought as unthinkable.

9. Our British colleagues in Jidda have concluded that the events in Iran will cause the Saudis to move closer and to strengthen their ties with the United States and that they will not try to reinsure with the Soviets. We agree that they will try to move closer to the United States but after careful reflection on Prince Abdallah’s periodic remarks and on our conversation with Prince Saud on Jan 13 we do not think that the proposal for a joint US-Saudi committee for contingency planning has come out of the blue but that it was the culmination of a long process of development. Prince Saud’s presentation was too carefully prepared and rehearsed, and he was too ready for the contingency of offering to submit a formal request to the President for the establishment of the joint committee when we told him we had not been authorized to establish it. We think the Saudis regard the contingency planning as an opportunity to test and probe the United States intentions so that SAG will have a better basis on which to review and structure its own foreign policy over the next several years.

10. Heretofore, Saudi Arabia has not wanted a direct U.S. commitment to its defense because it would tarnish its credentials with the other Arabs. Only last year, Saudi leaders were endorsing statements of other Gulf states that they would defend the Gulf themselves, fully believing that the United States would respond anyway when the chips were down. They now know they cannot intervene militarily elsewhere, nor can they adequately defend their own territory. In addition, they are probably not sure of the United States any longer. They still have the nagging fears about the strength of United States purpose which have built up over the past year. They are painfully aware that the United States could not do anything to save the Shah. In addition, having seen the ease with which the United States dropped its commitment to the Republic of China, they may fear that the United States will decide in the interest of detente to rely on a dubious Soviet commitment to good behavior on the Arabian Peninsula. They may even wonder if the United States is not beginning to shift its attention to Mexico as the source of its energy needs and may therefore decide it can afford to write Saudi Arabia off. In these circumstances, the Saudi leadership may wonder if it can still count on the United States coming [Page 582] to the rescue when the crunch comes. With Iran out of the picture, they may fear that the crunch will not be too far off and may have decided that they had better find out now how strong the United States card is.

11. We know that accommodation with the USSR is an unpleasant notion to the Saudi leadership, but we doubt that it is as completely unthinkable as Prince Abdallah says. We know that the Soviets have had contacts with the Saudis on the subject, mostly through third parties. We suspect that Iraq has pressed the idea with the Saudis as a means of enhancing their credentials with the other Arabs and providing themselves with more maneuverability in the international arena. If the Saudis are not satisfied with the results of their testing and probing of United States intentions, they may well decide that they had better come to terms with realities as they see them and that it might be best to move toward a more nonaligned position. This may not necessarily mean establishment of diplomatic relations with the USSR but it could mean a cooling of relations with the United States and an acceptance of the Soviet presence in South Yemen and the Horn of Africa. It could also mean trade ties with the USSR and an agreement to supply some of their energy needs, probably at the expense of the West or Japan. One of the characteristics of the Saudi leaders is to have someone of lesser rank convey messages that the top leader finds embarrassing or unpleasant. Prince Abdallah may have been chosen to convey the unthinkable notion that an accommodation with the USSR may become necessary. In that way, the King and the Crown Prince do not have to be identified with it.

12. In these circumstances, three upcoming events may well be more important than they would seem at first glance: (a) the proposed formation of the joint United States-Saudi contingency planning committee; (b) the visit next month of SecDef Brown; and (c) the proposed Fahd visit to the United States in March.

13. Activists in the SAG have long privately deplored the lack of an effective decision-making process. Consideration has been given to the formation of the Saudi equivalent to our National Security Council. Recent events including the exaggerated report of PDRY incursion into YAR have emphasized concerns about this shortcoming in the Saudi system. The manner of formation and the makeup on the Saudi side of the proposed committee may well be significant. The committee was suggested by Sultan and stated by him to have Fahd’s blessing (Riyadh 0039).7 The Saudi team is composed of the third generation of the SAG [Page 583] royal family: two of Faisal’s sons, his son-in-law, General Humaid, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces. These individuals are from the new generation and are U.S. educated. They probably represent the strongest pro-American sentiment in the SAG. If there has in fact been serious internal discussion of the Soviet option, they were probably among the most articulate opponents, since they see no future for royalists in a 21st century Marxist state. They may well be the point group for probing United States intentions, and the joint U.S.-Saudi committee may be the instrument they have chosen. Their uncles may have said to them, “show us how much we can depend on the United States. The time is growing short. We need to know.”

14. The first test will come with the United States reaction to Saudi proposals in the committee. The Saudis clearly want specifics, such as joint contingency plans for possible scenarios affecting SAG security. The next test will probably be attempted by the Saudis during the Brown visit. The Saudis will want to know how he will react to joint contingency planning. The ultimate test will come in the Carter-Fahd meeting. Can the President give the Crown Prince the specific assurances which SAG needs to quiet the cynics and doubters of USG?

15. We would like to comment on the conclusion of the Middle East regional conference of Egyptian Ambassadors that the events in Iran will cause Saudi Arabia to move closer to Egypt and to depend on the Egyptians for their defense needs. We believe that Saudi-Egyptian relations will improve anyway as they learn to talk to each other again about the Middle East peace process. Since Egypt is a moderate state, Saudi Arabia will no doubt seek to consult closely with Egypt, as it has in the past, on the Soviet threat in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean area. We think, however, that Saudi Arabia would be very reluctant to see Egyptian troops anywhere in the Peninsula, and we suspect that it would have to be in the direst of circumstances before it would accept Egyptian or any other Arab troops on its own soil. As Deputy Foreign Minister Abd al-Rahman Mansouri told DOD Deputy Assistant Secretary Robert Murray on August 1, 1978, Saudi Arabia considers itself the paramount power on the Peninsula.8 When it cannot live up to the requirements of that role, it would probably prefer to rely on the United States for assistance, rather than Egypt.

16. If, for whatever reason, Iranian troops are withdrawn from Oman, Saudi Arabia would want to see them replaced by a suitable Islamic state, preferably from a non-Arab state like Pakistan. As for United States assistance to Oman, Saudi Arabia would welcome it if [Page 584] it did not dilute U.S. interest in Saudi Arabia itself. However, it would not want a U.S. combat role unless there was no other alternative. If the U.S. were agreeable to a U.S. military assistance program, the Saudis would probably prefer that it resemble the relationship it approves for YAR, with suitable modifications. SAG would want to be associated with it and appear to be the senior partner.

17. We may well be reading out of a cloudy crystal ball, but we are reporting what the signs seem to say to us at this time.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790034–1176. Secret; Immediate; Exdis. Sent for information to Dhahran, USLO Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Cairo, Amman, Damascus, Doha, Khartoum, Kuwait, Manama, Muscat, Moscow, London, Paris, Tel Aviv, USINT Baghdad, Department of Defense, and Sana.
  2. See Document 177.
  3. Reference is to telegram 80 from Muscat, January 18; telegram 99 from Kuwait, January 7; telegram 56 from Abu Dhabi, January 8; telegram 70 from Abu Dhabi, January 9; and telegram 93 from Baghdad, January 15. These telegrams are in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790027–0961, D790009–0338, D790009–0805, D790010–1129, and D790022–0795, respectively.
  4. See Document 177.
  5. The Shah left Iran on January 16, beginning what became a permanent exile.
  6. See Documents 12 and 13.
  7. In telegram 39 from Riyadh, January 8, the Liaison Office reported on a meeting among West, Sultan, and Saud, during which Sultan raised the idea of establishing a joint committee on security issues. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790024–0531)
  8. See footnote 2, Document 249.