230. Telegram From the Embassy in the Yemen Arab Republic to the Department of State1

1311. Subject: YAR President on MiG 21s to Yemen.

Begin summary. President al-Hamdi informed me April 4 that unless he has firm commitment from Saudis re provision of new aircraft to Yemeni Air Force he will be forced to accept Soviet offer of MiG 21s, if Soviet offer materializes. End summary.

1. During April 4 conversation (other subjects being reported septels)2 President al-Hamdi took initiative to raise subject of the possible [Page 734] arrival of MiG 21s in Yemen. Speaking in the context of this admiration for and support of the current Saudi policy of weaning PDRY and Somalia away from the Soviets, al-Hamdi noted that while Saudi leadership is wise and effective, in its lower echelons the Saudi Government is not of the same caliber. Al-Hamdi said that in Yemen, for example, the Saudi Embassy is manned by individuals who, instead of trying to understand Yemen’s problems and of trying to put these problems into regional context, see everything in a narrow manner and report in a similar manner to Jidda.

2. Al-Hamdi continued that recently the Saudi Embassy has been reporting the arrival of major Soviet arms into Yemen when in reality only a few armored vehicles and spare parts have been involved—items about which he had spoken to the Saudis over a year ago when he was in Saudi Arabia on the Haj.3 The Saudi Embassy has also been reporting the arrival of MiG 21s, which is not the case. Al-Hamdi went on to say, however, that he must be frank, as he has already been in the past, and state that if he is unable with Saudi help to provide new aircraft for the weak Yemeni Air Force, he will be obliged to accept new aircraft from wherever he can get them including from the Soviets. Al-Hamdi interjected to stress that Yemen’s arms are strictly for the purpose of establishing internal security in the country and not intended for use in any other manner. He stressed that Yemen is an enemy of no one. He went on to say, however, that he and his colleagues are working for the establishment of a strong central government in Yemen and that without a strong army the extremists on both the left and the right will be encouraged to continue their attempts at sabotage, cutting of roads and political assassination. The Saudis should understand this.

3. Al-Hamdi stated that the Saudis know if they can present him with a firm commitment for provision of aircraft for the Yemeni Air Force, as well as a time table for delivery, he has no intention of accepting Soviet aircraft. He said he is like a man in the desert who on the one hand is being promised a glass of orange juice, which never seems to appear, while on the other being told to refuse a glass of plain water which is almost in his grasp.

4. I told al-Hamdi that the Saudi Government has recently inquired of the USG about the possibility of supplying the Yemeni Air Force with F–5s. The USG has this question under study but no decision has been made and I had no idea when a decision would be made. I told him that as a friend I had to be frank and tell him that if the YARG [Page 735] goes ahead and accepts MiG 21s it is doubtful USG will ever agree to the sale of F–5s. I commented that apart from political considerations, it seemed to me unlikely that the Yemeni Air Force could absorb at the same time a squadron of Soviet and a squadron of American aircraft, given the lack of trained personnel in both the flying and the maintenance areas.

5. Al-Hamdi replied by asking the question what would the US do if it found itself in a situation of immediate need for equipment and had no idea as to when that immediate need would be filled, if ever. Al-Hamdi went on to say that he could always turn down the Soviet offer but he had to have something firm in hand in order to do so and not be simply told that aircraft will be provided after five years. Al-Hamdi also noted in an aside that thus far he has no idea when and if the Soviets will ever deliver on their promises either. He concluded, however, that if the MiGs are delivered and if he has no other firm alternative, he will accept them.

6. Comment: Al-Hamdi obviously spelling out rationale for eventual acceptance of MiGs. While no doubt there strong element of pressure in al-Hamdi’s presentation, his main concersssn has always been the internal security situation of Yemen. The loyalty of the armed forces figures highly in his assessment of that situation. Continued inability to modernize Yemen’s Air Force remains major preoccupation of Al-Hamdi which we and Saudis will have to take into consideration as we decide either to preempt acceptance of MiGs or to live with their eventual delivery. Further policy comment being made by septel.4

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770119–0512. Confidential. Sent for information to Jidda, London, Amman, Cairo, Moscow, USCINCEUR, COMIDEASTFOR, and CHUSMTM Dhahran.
  2. In telegrams 1312, 1313, and 1314 from Sana, April 5, the Embassy reported on Scotes’s discussions on April 4 with al-Hamdi. Telegram 1312 described al-Hamdi’s assessment of the March 22–23 meeting in Taiz of the heads of state of the two Yemens, Somalia, and Sudan to discuss Red Sea security issues and how to work together against Israel. In telegram 1313, the Embassy relayed al-Hamdi’s belief that Somalia “is now seriously considering making a major change in its foreign policy alignment away from the Soviets.” In telegram 1314, Scotes noted that he had conveyed to al-Hamdi that U.S. policy in the Horn of Africa was undergoing an intense review, while al-Hamdi pointed out that the Soviets were making a concerted effort to strengthen their position in Ethiopia and seek a rapprochement between Ethiopia and Somalia. In telegram 1345 from Sana, April 6, the Embassy reported that al-Hamdi had “asked for continued US efforts to impress on Saudis Yemen’s support for Saudi policies in region in context of full Saudi support for al-Hamdi’s regime.” The telegrams are in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770118–0394, D770119–0474, D770119–0480, and D770119–1177, respectively.
  3. The Hajj is the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The Hajj is a religious duty that every able-bodied Muslim must undertake at least once in his lifetime as long as he can afford to do so.
  4. In telegram 1315 from Sana, April 5, Scotes discussed the possibility of a Yemeni purchase of MiG–21s, warned that this could “entrench Soviet military mission in the Yemeni Air Force for next decade,” requested that a decision on arms sales to Yemen be made as soon as possible, and asked for guidance on any new policy decisions. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770119–0515)