216. Letter From the Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (West) to President Carter 1

Dear Mr. President:

I am enclosing an assessment of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. I regret that it is so pessimistic. Frankly, I am as concerned as I have been at any time during my three years here. There is one positive factor which I purposely did not include in this paper—namely that I do not believe the Saudis will take any action which might endanger your reelection prospects. The entire government leadership, including Fahd, Abdullah and Sultan are outspoken in their support. They believe that without your reelection, there is no hope for peace in the Mid-East.

For example, I referred in the assessment paper to my meeting with Prince Abdullah two days ago. At the close of the meeting, he asked my opinion as to whether Saudi Arabia was producing too much oil. I replied that I didn’t think so for we needed a continuation of the present surplus to stabilize the market. He persisted by saying, “You really wouldn’t object too much if we cut back, would you?”

I replied, “I hope you don’t but if you decide to do so, for goodness sakes wait until after the election!” He laughed and said, “No, we’ve got to have President Carter reelected—it means as much to us as it does to you . . .”

Harold Brown’s meeting with Prince Sultan later this month could be very important.2 If we could indicate a favorable response on the additional equipment requested for the F–15, it would be most helpful. I have sent Harold in some detail our thoughts about the meeting.

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Congratulations on winning the renomination—I hope the results of today’s primaries3 cause Sen. Kennedy to withdraw—at last.

Your choice of Sec. Muskie was superb. I am sending him separately a copy of this assessment.


J. West


Report Prepared by the Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (West) 4


SUMMARY: A major crisis is coming in U.S.-Saudi relations. Indeed, it has probably already begun, and is simply now increasing in intensity and severity. Expressions by Saudi government and private sector leaders indicate a growing concern and uneasiness about the future of USGSAG relations. Likewise, recent events clearly show the beginning of a serious deterioration in the special relationship. Two reasons emerge: (1) The Saudis see the relationship with U.S. as one-sided, with the SAG’s actions on oil pricing and production far outweighing any quid pro quo coming to Saudi Arabia, and (2) The Saudis are increasingly convinced that Israeli interests are paramount in USG policy decisions in the Mideast, a conclusion which strikes at the very heart of the bilateral relationship as viewed by the Saudis. END SUMMARY.


Since my return from consultations in Washington six weeks ago, I have noted increasing concern by normally pro-Western Saudis about the future of the U.S.-Saudi relationship. I have travelled extensively throughout the country and have talked to a wide spectrum of people, including numerous members of the royal family both within and without the government, ministers, deputy ministers, provincial governors, and Saudi business leaders, most of whom are Western educated and generally pro-Western in their sentiments. In addition, I have [Page 695] talked with U.S. business leaders with long experience and many contacts here in the Kingdom. The conclusion is unanimous and inescapable: our bilateral relationship is deteriorating badly.

Recent public statements and declarations by Saudi leaders have had a common theme—dissatisfaction with U.S. policies in the Mideast and disillusionment with the special relationship. There was official condemnation of the use of force to attempt to rescue our hostages.5 Foreign Minister Prince Saud’s speech at Islamabad which criticized almost equally both the U.S. and the USSR, Minister of Industry and Electricity Qusaybi’s address to The Arab-American Society, and Fuad al Farsi’s articles in the local press all have a similar ominous note. These three SAG officials, all products of America’s best colleges and universities, are sending us a signal loud and clear that all is not well. Perhaps most significant of all is Crown Prince Fahd’s recent interview in a Kuwait paper which quoted him as saying that the SAG would not rule out use of the oil weapon. It is the first such public statement by the Crown Prince. A careful reading of the statement indicates that it was probably reluctantly made; however, its significance cannot be over-estimated.

From all of our public and private sources, there has been a nearly unanimous opinion that U.S.-Saudi relations have clearly worsened in recent times and are fast approaching a critical stage. There is general agreement that U.S. policies of the past several months have taken away much of the Saudi confidence and satisfaction with the “special relationship.” There is a generally-shared feeling that all Saudis now feel that the special relationship is one-sided, with the U.S. receiving far more than it is giving.

In virtually every conversation, these typical Saudi questions and comments are heard: “Why do we continue to produce twice as much oil as we need just to accommodate the U.S.?” “Why do we continue to sell our oil at $6.00 to $10.00 per barrel less than other countries are receiving?” “We do these things for you and yet we receive no thanks—only continued attacks in your press. What are we receiving from our friendship with the U.S.?—problems with the Arab world, a draining of our natural resource (oil) with no compensating concern for our position, our needs and concerns.”


The answer which we often give to the above questions is that the U.S. security system is Saudi Arabia’s primary protection from Russian [Page 696] aggression, along with a reminder of the sale of the F–15s and of USG’s response during the Yemen crisis of early 1979. Those answers are no longer effective, for events of recent months have weakened our position as a friend, ally, and reliable arms supplier. We are forced to conclude that the basic cause of the present deteriorating status of the U.S.-Saudi special relationship is the Arab-Israeli problem. This conclusion is particularly serious in that many influential Saudis have heretofore viewed the U.S.-Saudi “special relationship” as equal to the ties the U.S. has with Israel. Now, however, there is a growing perception among Saudis that this evenhandedness has vanished.

There is unanimous agreement among all Saudis with whom we have talked or with whom we have contact:

(1) That the autonomy talks have failed and that the U.S. does not now have the will or capacity to cause Israel to make the concessions necessary to solve the Palestinian problem. In the absence of such a solution, Saudi Arabia’s continued support of U.S. interests, especially in oil production and pricing, subjects Saudi leaders to increasing internal pressure and at the same time isolates Saudi Arabia from the rest of the Arab world (except possibly Egypt), a position they consider completely untenable;

(2) That U.S. foreign policy is Israel-oriented and that no action will be taken by the U.S. which is considered to be pro-Arab or anti-Israel. Such a conclusion frightens the SAG political and military leadership and undermines confidence in the U.S. as a reliable friend, arms supplier, and military ally. These conclusions are cancerous and strike at the very heart of our special relationship.

The Saudis have contended from the outset of the current peace process that the Camp David accords would never result in a real solution to the Palestinian problem. Early on, they responded to our assertions that autonomy for the Palestinians would be the first step toward that solution with the rejoinder that there would never be any real autonomy as long as Begin’s government was in power and unless the U.S. was prepared to exercise pressure upon the Israelis. Unfortunately, events since Camp David seem to have proven the Saudis right. With the passage of the May 26 deadline,6 they are more convinced than ever that a separate peace has been accomplished between Egypt and Israel; that Egypt has been effectively removed from the Arab orbit; that the Palestinian problem has been shunted aside; that Israel is now moving forward to legalize and finalize its occupation of Arab territory seized in the 1967 war; and, as a final blow and insult to the Arab world, that Israel is moving to make its occupation of Jerusalem [Page 697] a non-negotiable issue with the Arabs, a step which would be in conflict with U.S. policy and contrary to the understandings of Camp David.

With regard to the present Saudi conviction that U.S. foreign policy is Israel-oriented, there have been a series of events over the last months which, in Saudi eyes, have substantiated this belief. These events include the resignation of Ambassador Young,7 the repudiation of the UN vote on Jewish settlements,8 the abstention on the votes on UN resolutions condemning Israel for its incursions into Lebanon and the expulsion of the three Arab notables,9 and, most disappointing of all, the failure of the U.S. to respond affirmatively to all of the SAG’s recent arms requests.10

With typical Bedouin frankness, Prince Abdullah, the third ranking member of the royal family, told me on June 1, “Arabs all over the Mideast are now convinced that your policies are set in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Can’t you do something to give your friends in Saudi Arabia a basis to deny that charge?”


The Saudis have seized upon their arms requests as the litmus test of the U.S.–SAG relationship. Well aware of the open-ended military assistance the U.S. has given to Israel in recent years and concerned with their own security needs, the Saudis have included in their military equipment requests many of the weapons and systems that we have supplied or promised to supply to Israel. U.S. refusals to grant certain equipment are now being challenged heatedly, and the same requests are being raised again and again.

A leading case in point concerns supplemental equipment for the F–15s. The SAG is again insisting upon the acquisition of conformal pods and multiple ejection racks (MERs) for these advanced fighters, plus KC–135s to permit aerial refueling. We have learned that the SAG military was not consulted when the Saudi government concurred in Secretary Brown’s letter to the Congress in April 1978, saying that the [Page 698] conformal pods and MERs would not be included in the F–15 package.11 This decision has been a source of frustration and anger within the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF), and has been the subject of considerable discussion among Saudi political and military leaders.

The Saudis feel even more strongly that the restrictions should be removed in view of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Their contention is that there is now complete military justification for this additional equipment but that political constraints (read Israel) are preventing the U.S. from furnishing these needed items. The feeling that they are being given only second class consideration by the U.S. creates bitter resentment and unconcealed frustration.


Thus far, the Saudi response to these forces has been restrained. However, the SAG has repeatedly hinted that its patience with U.S. policies has its limits, and there are now strong indications that other options are indeed being actively considered. The French seem to be the leading benefactors, and the significance of growing Franco-Saudi defense ties (which have included during the past year a visit by Sultan to Paris and two visits by French Defense Minister Bourges to Saudi Arabia) should not be underestimated. The Saudis believe they can get whatever they want from the French in terms of equipment, advisors, and support for Saudi political positions. As Prince Sultan remarked to a local journalist on May 11, “Our friends in France will not refuse us anything that we might ask from them in the future.”


The Saudis, therefore, see themselves buffeted by four forces: (1) the threat of military aggression by the Soviet Union and/or its proxies; (2) internal political and military pressures; (3) the anti-U.S., anti-monarchial tendencies of the Arab world; and (4) the efforts of the Western Europeans, chiefly the French, to replace the U.S. as the principal security partner of Saudi Arabia. The end result of this buffeting is to call into serious question the U.S.-Saudi special relationship. Thus, the two questions which next arise are what can be done to preserve this relationship, and what will be the consequences of continuing deterioration if strong remedial action is not taken immediately.

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The most obvious answer to the first question is some clear indication that the U.S. is acting to move the peace talks forward by securing meaningful concessions from Israel on the core issues of the Palestinian problem. Failing that, the administration should make a commitment to explore with the next Congress the furnishing of the additional F–15 equipment including KC–135s. The consequences of doing nothing and seeing the continued deterioration of the relationship has, potentially, both short-term (6 months–2 years) and long-term (2–5 years) consequences.

The major short-term consequences concern oil. The Saudis may have already started to relinquish their role as a moderate on oil prices and to allow market conditions to determine the price. This action could well be followed by a substantial Saudi reduction in oil production. We do not, however, believe this will occur prior to the fourth quarter of 1980. We also anticipate that there might be a gradual termination of the relatively favorable treatment of U.S. firms in the Kingdom. The accommodation presently being made by SAG officials to avoid disruption in U.S.-Saudi business dealings by moderate application of the anti-boycott laws would begin to disappear.

Another short-term consequence, and one which is already underway, is the Saudi move to other suppliers for military equipment. Recently, for instance, the Saudis informed us they do not wish to purchase U.S. M–60 tanks for the next stage of their army mechanization program. The Saudis have agreed with the French on a mammoth coastal defense package, and several other arms deals are in the offing. The net long-term significance of these developments is of crucial importance, as the SAG appears to be seeking a new security strategy. This new strategy is still not well defined but, even so, two elements have emerged. The first element, noted earlier, is that the Saudis are seeking an alternative to the U.S. as principal arms supplier—enter the French connection; the second element is Saudi interest in forming an alliance with other Islamic countries to pursue a non-aligned course. This new tack could include exploration of a new relationship between Saudi Arabia and the USSR in the reasonably near future.

The adoption of such a strategy—even if over the long term—would have a profound and injurious impact on U.S. vital interests. Heretofore, the U.S.-Saudi special relationship has largely traded oil for security. For the Saudis to decide that their security is now best guaranteed elsewhere would deprive us of what is, in the final analysis, the only card the U.S. can play effectively in a game where the stakes involved affect, to a significant degree, our economic and political well being.

The U.S. must not, therefore, permit our relationship with Saudi Arabia to deteriorate further. Instead, we must make the difficult politi[Page 700]cal decisions necessary to restore our credibility with the Saudis and the rest of the Arab world. The Saudis need to be reassured that close friendship and cooperation with the U.S. need not prejudice their own vital political and economic interests as they are now increasingly inclined to believe.

John C. West
  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 68, Saudi Arabia: 6–7/80. Secret. The letter is handwritten. Brzezinski sent the letter to Muskie and Brown under cover of a June 12 memorandum, in which Brzezinski noted: “The President asked me to share the enclosed letter and paper with you. It raises some very serious issues that are germane to our luncheon discussion on Wednesday.” The luncheon discussion in question refers to a Muskie-Brown-Brzezinski lunch, during which arms transfers to Saudi Arabia were discussed. The three decided “(a) that Multiple Ejection Bomb Racks (MERs) were out for now, (b) to leave open the issue of conformal fuel pods and (c) that we would go ahead with KC–130 tankers with booms provided there were advance intensive Congressional consultations and that Israel was also offered the KC–130/boom.” (Memorandum from Tarnoff to Muskie, June 12; National Archives, RG 59, Office of the Secretariat Staff, Subject Files of Edmund S. Muskie, 1963–1981, Lot 83D66, Box 3, 1980 Muskie Breakfast) Carter wrote the following handwritten notation on the first page of West’s letter: “Zbig—Let Ed & Fritz & Harold read.” A notation in an unknown hand reads: “Done.”
  2. See Document 217.
  3. The last Democratic primaries of the 1980 campaign took place in California, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Ohio, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and West Virginia.
  4. Secret.
  5. Reference is to the failed attempt by U.S. forces on April 24 to rescue the hostages being held in Tehran.
  6. See footnote 3, Document 212.
  7. Reference is to Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young’s resignation on August 15, 1979, due to a controversy that had ensued after he held a meeting in his apartment with a representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization. More information on this episode is in Carter’s memoirs, Keeping Faith, p. 491.
  8. See Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. IX, Arab-Israeli Dispute, September 1978–December 1980, Document 345.
  9. See Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. IX, Arab-Israeli Dispute, September 1978–December 1980, Documents 360 and 367.
  10. See Documents 213 and 215.
  11. Reference is presumably to Brown’s letter of May 10, 1978, addressed to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which gave assurances that the F–15s that the administration wished to sell to Saudi Arabia would not be equipped with auxiliary fuel tanks or MERs. (Bernard Weinraub, “Brown Says Saudis Will Accept Curbs on the Use of F–15’s,” The New York Times, May 11, 1978, p. A1)