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


  • Our Influence with Saudi Arabia

Our ability to make the Saudi leadership take a decision which they believe is contrary to their basic interests is very limited. We do, nonetheless, have the capability of influencing their decisions on a considerable range of issues. Insofar as we are able to influence Saudi Arabia, we will also be in a position to deal with the most important member of OPEC. This relates to your interest in developing a strategy toward OPEC, which we will discuss with Henry Owen at greater length. (C)

There are basically two ways to influence the Saudis—by positive inducements or by negative sanctions. No single act will produce much leverage, but over time our behavior can affect the Saudis in significant ways. (C)

Positive Inducements

This is the method we have used most frequently with the Saudis, and the one which has most often produced results. It is most likely [Page 629] to be the preferred course of action when we want them to do something—as opposed to making them stop doing something. (C)

1. Presidential Request. A direct and personal request from the President to Khalid or Fahd which recalls the depth of our “special relationship” and asks for a specific policy or course of action will sometimes produce results. Obviously this must be used sparingly and only for issues of great moment, and there must be some hint that our relationship will suffer if the requested action is not taken. (S)

2. Security Relationship. Tangible demonstration of the benefits of the U.S.-Saudi security relationship, e.g. our response to the Yemen crisis is invaluable in countering the Saudi impression that our relationship is always one way, with us asking them for something. We cannot create the opportunities for such demonstrations of our support, but we should remain alert to opportunities to enhance our credibility as a security partner. (S)

3. Arms Sales. The Saudis have no major end items on their present shopping list. The F–15 sale was of course a major boost to our relationship, but approvals of lesser items of essentially non-controversial equipment or improvements in deliveries of FMS items only remove potential irritants. They go largely unnoticed by the key decision-makers, who tend to take for granted the efficient operation of our supply relationship. (S)

4. Economic. The items enumerated by Mike Blumenthal at the PRC on Saudi Arabia are a sample of the kind of secondary issues which provide potential leverage if our response can be positive and suitably packaged.2 These are the kind of items which an emissary could carry in his pocket to forestall the “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” syndrome. They will not have a major or lasting impact, although they can have considerable influence on a single decision if properly presented. In general, our economic relationship is perceived by the Saudis as one where we are constantly asking for concessions on their part, while we avoid taking painful decisions. Consistent efforts on a domestic energy program, moves to support the dollar, and decisions on taxes and other areas of special interest to Saudi Arabia are areas where we can most effectively counter this impression. (S)

5. Middle East Policy. The Saudis imply that they would be ready to pay a price if we were to adopt position on the Palestinian question which is closer to their own. Any movement by the U.S. toward a dialogue with the PLO, support for an Arab role in Jerusalem, or the creation of a Palestinian homeland would encourage the Saudis to significantly revise their policies and draw closer to us on the political [Page 630] front without fear of Arab reprisal.3 In the longer term, demonstration of success in changing Israeli attitudes toward the West Bank and settlement policy would give us new bargaining leverage on the political front. The Saudis previously showed interest in helping to bring the Palestinians into the negotiating process; they could probably be persuaded to renew their intermediary role by a serious U.S. offer to seek Palestinian participation. (S)

Negative Sanctions

Unless done very carefully or on issues of supreme national importance such as an oil embargo, threats by the United States tend to be counterproductive. The Saudis are proud and weak. Their performance at Baghdad4 shows that they are not impervious to rather crude threats, but in that case the threats were immediately credible and came from a fellow Arab state. In effect, the rejectionists at Baghdad were pressing the Saudis to do what they basically wanted to do in the first place, and their acquiescence could be rationalized as support for Arab nationalism. Our requests tend to cut against the grain of their natural inclinations, and overt pressure tends to make them stiffen rather than bend. As a general rule, negative sanctions are most effective in persuading them to stop doing something. (S)

1. Arms Sales. We can slow or stop the delivery of key items of equipment and spare parts for Saudi military forces. This would be a drastic step. If credible, it would force the Saudis to consider alternative sources of supply and could undermine the reliability of our entire security relationship. (S)

2. Public Statements. We have already dropped hints that Saudi opposition to the peace process could create unfavorable reactions in Congress and the American public. These warnings have registered and have probably been taken into account. The Saudis have shown great sensitivity to criticism in the U.S. press. This may be a useful way to signal our displeasure if used skillfully. (S)

3. Economic. Economic sanctions are a two-edged sword which risks hurting us as much as the Saudis. There is virtually nothing we provide them in goods or services which they cannot obtain elsewhere, and [Page 631] they have no shortage of retaliatory weapons. We need to look more carefully at the wider range of how we can use economic measures to moderate OPEC behavior on oil prices. (C)

4. Military. A threat to use military force to protect our interests would probably be effective in extremis, when it would be credible. It is of little value in conditions short of that. Such threats are probably best handled indirectly, through leaks or inspired articles. Kissinger’s all-out campaign of November and December 1975 (hints of dire U.S. action in the event of economic “strangulation,” stories about war games in the U.S. desert, a sudden carrier visit to the Persian Gulf, and scholarly articles discussing the advantages of direct intervention) certainly got Saudi attention, but did not necessarily affect Saudi behavior. A background of such intangible threats may, however, help to enhance the attractiveness of whatever carrot we might be able to offer with the other hand. In general, positive inducements may be most effective after a period of coolness or tension in our relations. (S)

General Comments

In order for the United States to exercise effective influence over Saudi Arabia on any given issue, four general conditions must be met:

—We must be able to provide a service which is needed or badly wanted by the Saudis;

—The Saudis must be unable to obtain that assistance or equipment or support elsewhere;

—The Saudis must lack the means to make us provide the service; and,

—They must be unwilling to do without our help. (C)

Those conditions come closest to being fulfilled in the security area. They are furthest from being met in the economic sphere, where the Saudis have considerable resources of their own. On political issues, there is typically a trade-off between competing interests. Thus, our present strategy of maximizing our security relationship as bargaining leverage in the economic and political spheres is entirely rational. However, by increasing Saudi perceptions of the benefits we can offer on the political and economic sides, we can increase our overall influence and make the relationship more stable. (S)

The decisions which we make on our domestic energy program and the direction of the next round in the peace negotiations are the areas of most promise in sustaining and expanding the U.S.-Saudi ties over the difficult months that lie ahead. Influence, however, will not flow from any single act on our part, but instead is likely to be a function of the quality of our overall relationship. That requires continu[Page 632]ing attention to our dialogue with the Saudi establishment, not the search for a quick fix. (S)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 67, Saudi Arabia: 4–7/79. Secret. Sent for information. Brzezinski wrote the following note in the upper right-hand corner of the memorandum: “DA please give me your comment. This is troublesome. ZB.” Attached but not printed is a handwritten note to Quandt from Brzezinski that reads: “Bill Q, We need to have a better strategy than this. How can we press them? E.g. on F–5s? ZB.” Quandt added a note to Sick: “GS—any need to develop this further? BQ.”
  2. See Document 190.
  3. Brzezinski placed a vertical line in the left-hand margin next to the first portion of this paragraph.
  4. Reference is to the summit meeting of Foreign Ministers from 18 Arab states and the PLO which convened in Baghdad March 27–31, in order to consider sanctions against Egypt for concluding a peace treaty with Israel. See Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. IX, Arab-Israeli Dispute, August 1978–December 1980, Document 242.