215. Telegram From the Embassy in Saudi Arabia to the Department of State and the Department of Defense1

3053. Military addressees treat as Specat Exclusive. Subject: Lawrence Visit—Meeting With Sultan.

1. (S-entire text).

2. Summary. Efforts of M/Gen Lawrence to engage in substantive discussions of non-arms transfer security issues were thwarted by Sultan’s insistence upon protesting perceived US unresponsiveness to Saudi equipment requests. Sultan ruled out both discussions on wider security issues and joint military activity within the Kingdom, such as training and exercises, until the Royal Saudi Air Force had obtained its equipment requirements. Sultan confirmed, however, that Saudi personnel will participate in Red Flag and other training activity within the US. The highly charged atmosphere of this session with Sultan revealed the deeply aggrieved sensitivities of the Saudis over the arms question and the critical importance of this issue to our relations with SAG. End summary.

3. Prince Sultan, Minister of Defense and Aviation, used his meeting with visiting Major General Richard Lawrence on May 12 to argue strenuously for US satisfaction of Saudi arms requests. Sultan has done so with every successive American visitor for over three months. This time Sultan’s contentions had special conviction, for the meeting came soon after the US decision declining, in Saudi eyes, to give unequivocal assent to conformal fuel pods, MERS, and aerial refueling tankers for the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF). Furthermore, Major General Sabri and Lt. Col. Fahd Abdallah of RSAF participated in the meeting and personified Saudi disgruntlement with the military supply situation. Sultan’s often vehement delivery was for their benefit as well as for the American side.

4. The Ambassador and Gen. Lawrence, accompanied by Major General Donnelly, Pol–Mil Counselor Marsh, and Lt. Col. Ryer, AIRA, met for two hours in Riyadh with Sultan, who was flanked by Generals Humayd, Hammad, Sabri, and Omran, in addition to Sabri and Fahd Abdallah. In opening remarks the Ambassador said that Lawrence had come to make formal presentation of the 1979 USEOPE survey report, to have discussions with MODA officials on a wide range of security [Page 691] topics, and to obtain Sultan’s views on these matters for transmittal to Secretary Brown and Under Secretary Nimetz.

5. Lawrence emphasized the steadfast commitment of the US to the security of Saudi Arabia and US interest in various forms of defense cooperation, such as a continuing dialogue on the spectrum of issues of mutual concern, and activities such as joint exercises and training. At each attempt by the US side to discuss matters other than the unresolved arms requests, Sultan returned to his preoccupation with that problem.

6. In fact, most of the two hour meeting was a heated monologue by Sultan in which he set forth his exasperation and indignation. Most of his arguments were familiar, but he gave them even more than his usual emphasis. He maintained that the US refused to face the facts of genuine Saudi defense needs, given the encirclement of the Kingdom by adversaries with designs on Saudi oil fields. Saudi Arabia was the region’s foremost friend of the US but neighboring states had “ten times” the arms possessed by the Kingdom. Not only had this friendship brought the Saudis much criticism from within the region, but it had not induced the US to respond to Saudi defense requirements either. The Kingdom needs visible evidence of US support to offset the political liability of its close association with us.

7. Sultan enumerated the benefits derived by the US from cooperative Saudi policies. In oil production and pricing the Kingdom had shown itself responsive to US interests. Unlike certain NATO countries, Saudi Arabia constitutes no drain on US defense resources but seeks only to provide for its own requirements, incidentally by cash purchases helping to sustain the US economy. Sultan protested that in return for such dependable self-reliance the Kingdom must cope with both USG reluctance to provide modest arms needs and a series of US media calumnies denigrating the country. Such attacks included distortion of the Mecca incident into an alleged sign of internal instability, and disparagement of Islam itself through the showing of “Death of a Princess.”2

8. Sultan turned down joint contingency planning, joint exercises, and other kinds of cooperative activity. No American forces, even of small scale, should be brought into the Kingdom nor should contin[Page 692]gency planning occur prior to actual times of crisis. (French Defense Minister Bourges had proposed joint exercises to Sultan only the day before, and had met with a similar refusal). Sultan indicated that Saudi personnel would go to the US for Red Flag and other training activity, but in all other instances of proposed defense cooperation there is a sine qua non—providing RSAF the equipment it needs. Only after that prerequisite is satisfied will it be prudent or opportune even to discuss joint planning and exercises.

9. Gen. Lawrence will attempt to hold discussions with the Saudi service chiefs on the USEOPE report and other topics. Clearly, however, Sultan’s ire about the RSAF equipment requests overcame his respect and appreciation for Lawrence’s survey. We conclude, regretfully, that the meeting was wholly inauspicious for productive subsequent staff-level discussions.

10. Comment. It is unmistakeably clear that Sultan considers the RSAF requests the major current test of US good faith in the defense sphere. His staff and he are affronted by our seeming unresponsiveness—and Sultan remarked twice during the meeting that SAG “patience is limited.” (In this vein, we have heard reports that some RSAF officers are seriously considering urging SAG cancellation of the F–15 purchase and acquisition of more fully equipped first-line aircraft from another country). We cannot induce the Saudis to address wider security concerns nor can we pursue regional defense objectives requiring their cooperation, until this equipment issue is resolved satisfactorily. In the aftermath of the Iranian crisis, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the Mecca incident the Saudis are in search of tangible US reassurance of commitment to their security. Their air force requests epitomize the reassurance they seek. Failure to meet these needs—for the military equipment and the political support it also represents—can have a profoundly adverse impact upon our overall relationship. And, as all concerned are aware, that relationship is already strained because of other bilateral and regional policy issues. End comment.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D800236–0791. Secret; Immediate; Exdis. Sent for information to CHUSMTM Dhahran, USMTMDET Riyadh, USLO Riyadh, and USCINCEUR Vaihingen.
  2. Reference is to the television movie “Death of a Princess,” which aired on Public Broadcasting Service stations across the United States on May 12. Saudi officials vigorously protested the showing of the film, “based on the execution of a Saudi princess and her commoner lover,” in both the United Kingdom and the United States. The Department of State and Mobil Corporation intervened in order to air an hour-long panel discussion following the broadcast. (C. Gerald Fraser, “‘Princess’ Film Discussion to Run for Hour After Showing Monday,” The New York Times, May 10, 1980, p. 48)