214. Memorandum Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1

PA M 80–10217



The most likely threat to the Saudi monarchy over the next several years is not a conventional military attack by one of its neighbors, but externally inspired subversion or internal unrest.

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The sale of many of the more sophisticated weapons requested by Riyadh would not in any case appreciably off-set the large inherent advantages in manpower (Iran, Iraq) or technical expertise (Israel) enjoyed by most of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors.

Against South Yemen—the most plausible external threat in the short term—Saudi deterrent capabilities could be more than adequately improved by additional training with little increase in hardware.

The overriding rationale, therefore, for meeting Saudi arms requests is not military but political: to bolster the “special” US-Saudi relationship, which has become badly frayed around the edges.

In addition to the obvious political benefits the US would derive from such sales, there are some potential political dangers. By promoting a large defense program over the next five years ($115 billion) and purchasing more advanced equipment than the Saudi armed forces can readily absorb, Saudi leaders could lay themselves open more than they already are to charges of wasting the country’s resources and increasing Saudi Arabia’s dependence on the US.

On the other hand, Washington runs a high risk of creating further misunderstandings and hard feelings among Saudi leaders if it refuses to supply at least some of the more sensitive and sophisticated equipment they have asked for. This would be all the more true if the US were to be more responsive to Israeli and Egyptian arms requests.

From our perspective, it is difficult to judge with any confidence what mix of arms sales might placate the Saudis and still minimize whatever risk there may be of contributing to internal discontent.

Symbolic Importance

The US-Saudi arms supply relationship has taken on great symbolic importance for Saudi leaders. It is at once a measure of the US commitment to Saudi security and a source of prestige. US policy on this issue probably will be an increasingly important yardstick by which the Saudis measure their willingness to cooperate with the US. A quick and sympathetic US response, therefore, to the Saudis’ present arms requests is likely to do much more to strengthen US-Saudi relations than it will to augment the Saudi armed forces’ limited defense capabilities. Conversely, a lukewarm response will probably further strain bilateral relations.

Indeed, the slowness of the US in meeting outstanding Saudi arms requests already is a major irritant in relations. Rightly or wrongly, Saudi leaders believe that since the Camp David Accords and the fall of the Shah our “special relationship” has become increasingly one-sided in favor of American interests: that Washington has tended to take Saudi support for granted, and to give insufficient support to special Saudi concerns.

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This frustration, and even bitterness, results primarily from what the Saudis view as US unwillingness to pay an adequate price for Saudi cooperation on oil by pressing Israel harder on the Palestinian issue. The “favoritism” they feel Washington shows towards Israel and Egypt in filling arms requests has only made matters worse. At bottom, their continued harping on the arms issue reflects their growing frustration with what they view as US insensitivity to the changing equities in the relationship and their desire to be treated less as a client and more as a valued ally, on a par with Israel.

External Threats

The overriding political importance of the arms supply issue is underscored by the fact that Saudi leaders know as well as we do that the Saudi armed forces could not now, or in the foreseeable future, withstand a conventional military attack for long, from any plausible source—except possibly South Yemen—without the aid of foreign combat forces. No amount of new, sophisticated weaponry is likely to significantly alter this basic equation over the short- to mid-term, if ever.

The absorptive capacity of the Saudis’ small 31,500-man Army is simply too limited and the comparative advantages in manpower of most of their neighbors is too large. Moreover, Saudi military leaders have shown little interest so far in dealing with one of their most glaring weaknesses: the lack of adequate training in command and control, logistics management, maintenance, and strategy and tactics. This kind of training would do more than anything else to upgrade the Saudis’ defense capabilities against South Yemen, their only likely military opponent in the near term.

Saudi leaders seem unconcerned about this deficiency probably because, like us, they see little likelihood of a major armed conflict with one of their neighbors over the next several years. Historically, wars between Arab states have been few and relatively brief, often amounting to little more than border clashes. Because of pan-Arab constraints on attacking a fellow Arab, the limited offensive capabilities of most Arab armies and the potential political risks of defeat, most Arab leaders have traditionally resorted to subversion rather than military action to unseat an opponent. Some or all of these constraints exist for potential Arab opponents of Saudi Arabia. In addition, we judge there is slim chance that Saudi leaders would use Saudi regular forces in an aggression outside Saudi Arabia proper.

As the strongest adjacent Arab state, Iraq with its well-trained 200,000-man army could easily overwhelm the Saudis. Saudi leaders, however, are not particularly worried at present about a threat materializing from that direction. Over the past year or so, Riyadh and Baghdad have developed closer ties, which include some limited military and security cooperation.

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Even if relations turned sour again, there is little reason to believe that renewed political feuding would lead to a military clash. Both the attitude of other Arab states and fear of an American reaction would act as strong constraints on Iraqi adventurism if Baghdad were so inclined.

Because of its new-found revolutionary fervor Iran has emerged as a more serious threat to Saudi security. But the military threat is more apparent than real. As long as Iranian leaders remain distracted by internal problems and perceived threats from the US and Iraq, and the Iranian military remains in disarray, the Saudis will have more to fear from Iranian efforts to foment unrest among Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority than they will from a conventional military attack from Iran.

As for Israel, Saudi military leaders dismiss the possibility of a direct conflict as remote. Even if another Arab-Israeli war broke out the Saudis are not about to attack Israel directly. Instead, they would seek to meet their obligation to the Arab cause by sending an expeditionary force either to Jordan or Syria. And they would expect the US to restrain Israel from striking at vulnerable military installations and industrial targets inside Saudi Arabia.

A border war with South Yemen, on the other hand, is plausible under certain circumstances. If, for example, the Adeni regime thought it could inflict an embarrassing reverse on Saudi forces that would trigger widespread internal unrest or a coup against the monarchy, Yemeni leaders probably would take the risk. Such an attack in the near future, however, would achieve neither goal and probably would result in South Yemen’s increased isolation in the Arab world. Thus, it seems more likely that Aden will try to undermine the Saudi regime, if it can, by resorting to subversion and perhaps urban terrorism. Given the inhospitable terrain and climatic conditions, it is questionable in any event whether Yemeni forces could mount a sustained offensive into Saudi Arabia.

Finally, a direct Soviet attack is highly implausible because of the enormous risk of triggering a superpower confrontation.

The Greater Threat

In our judgment the greater threat to the survival of the Saudi monarchy is internally or externally inspired subversion, feeding off domestic discontent. Because of increased popular awareness and dissatisfaction over corruption, government inefficiency and waste, and unresponsive political institutions, the huge Saudi defense budget and the purchase of large quantities of expensive US military equipment—some of dubious utility—could contribute to internal criticism of the regime and serve as a rallying point for the discontented.

The extent of the contribution is difficult to measure. Certainly it is not as great as was the case in Iran. Because of the Saudis’ greater [Page 689] financial resources and smaller population, the Saudi Government can easily afford both guns and butter without fueling inflation or creating shortages that might generate the kind of economic grievances against the regime that contributed to the downfall of the Shah. Additionally, such acquisitions probably would have the positive effect of binding the Saudi military closer to the monarchy, ensuring the continued loyalty especially of senior officers. A US refusal to sell some of this hardware, moreover, would simply prompt the Saudis to turn elsewhere, thus circumventing US efforts to channel Saudi defense spending into what we view as beneficial directions.

On the negative side the purchase of equipment that the Saudi armed forces cannot readily absorb and that would require additional US (or other foreign) personnel to operate and maintain could feed discontent among younger, lower ranking Saudi officers over what some of them already regard as incompetence, corruption and excessive dependence on the US by senior Saudi leaders.

Political Dilemma

The dilemma for the US in trying to decide what weapons to sell, and what to withhold, is that the Saudis are placing a high political premium on our responsiveness to their arms requests. Given the realities of US Congressional resistance to some sales and the Saudi armed forces’ absorptive problems—which the Saudis are well aware of—most Saudi leaders might accept with equanimity a US decision to refuse or defer consideration of some of their requests. But after having gone to such great lengths to emphasize the importance to Saudi Arabia of a positive US response, there is a high risk that the Saudis will view US efforts to persuade them to drop their requests for some equipment as either patronizing, or worse, indifference to their sensitivities.

In analyzing the list of weapons Riyadh has requested we cannot determine with confidence the mix of weapons sales that would meet the Saudis’ genuine military needs, satisfy Saudi leaders politically, and still minimize any potential harm such sales could do. The Saudi insistence, above all, on obtaining accessories for the F–15, which would meet strong opposition from pro-Israeli elements in the US Congress, underscores the difficulty. Indeed, the suspicion arises that some Saudi leaders seem to be courting rejection in order to demonstrate that the US is not prepared to grant Saudi Arabia the special status they believe it deserves. One possibility is that they have already decided on some action that the US will not like, and by pushing us into saying “no” here they hope to put us on the defensive and stifle our ability to object.

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, Office of the Director of Central Intelligence, Job 82M00501R, 1980 Subject Files, Box 15, Folder 1, Saudi Arabia. Secret; [handling restriction not declassified]. A typed notation on the first page indicates the memorandum was prepared in the Arabian Peninsula Branch, Near East South Asia Division, Office of Political Analysis, National Foreign Assessment Center, in response to a request from the NIO for Near East South Asia and it was coordinated with the Office of Economic Research and Office of Scientific Research. Sent to Turner under cover of a May 5 note from Helene L. Boatner, Director, Political Analysis. Boatner wrote that she thought Turner “might find it interesting reading.” Turner wrote in the margin: “excellent paper—thanks—have asked to condense [less than 1 line not declassified] Stan.” National Intelligence Officer for the Near East/South Asia Robert C. Ames also sent a copy of the paper to Turner under a May 6 note, upon which Turner wrote: “I like the conclusion and last part of last paragraph of text.” He added: “Excellent paper—ST.” (Ibid.)