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

4394. Subject: YAR Regional Dilemmas.

Begin summary: We are conducting “business as usual” in Yemen, per instructions, but questions about ability [stability?] within Yemen and particularly Ghashmi’s ability to survive deserve attention from Department. This is true not just in terms of internal politics of YAR but also in terms of regional developments in which YAR plays a role. These roles concern PDRY, Saudi Arabia, and Horn of Africa, and affect directly the efforts of radicals and Soviets in this corner of Peninsula. We face policy dilemma. Gains made under Hamdi have been endangered. Our policy should be to watch and wait, and seek Saudis to level with us. End summary.

1. I concur fully with instructions of Department to us to conduct “business as usual” if at all possible in place like Yemen. I have conveyed that impression to Yemenis here but privately I am concerned by after effects of assassination of Chief of State and possible succession crisis here. The Embassy and I have tried to convey reasons for our concern to interested parties in Washington and Jidda. The reasons are prospects of instability here and questions about Ghashmi’s ability to survive.2

2. We will continue to report on latter questions. During Sixties, Yemen became major and unwanted preoccupation of Middle East politics and US diplomacy. It threatened Kingdom3 directly in military terms and indirectly in terms of broader ideological conflict between conservative and progressive Arab states. Polarization of Arab world helped to frustrate any efforts which were undertaken to limit Arab-[Page 747]Israeli conflicts. Issue of Yemen was used in broader and rather successful effort to convince Arabs that Soviet Union was best friend, trading partner, development model. Yemen actually led to U.S. military deployments like Hard Surface and diplomatic efforts like Bunker Mission.4 Both of which were extraordinary moves at time. Finally, fighting here produced death and destruction on scale which—despite primitiveness of country—still rivals Arab-Israeli wars.

3. In absence of Egyptian Army to occupy country, we do not foresee scenario in 70’s like one in 60’s. Leftist military regime is possibility, given proximity of PDRY, and therefore we think bureaucratic temptation to treat Yemen as unimportant is probably not rpt not justified. For that reason we have not yet acted on request of Department (arriving while tanks in streets here and Ghashmi regime focused on possibility of shoot-out) to investigate alleged desecration of Jewish cemetery in Taiz and inquire (if we thought it appropriate) whether anyone here would object to removal to Israel of remains of locally revered Yemeni Jew who wrote poetry in Arabic.5

4. On other hand, we put aside questions we had about biding our time with new regime when—after routine condolence from Secretary—letter arrived from President Carter to President Ghashmi, congratulating him on his new appointment as Chairman of Command Council and saying we looked forward to close and friendly relations.6

5. While we can maintain “business as usual” posture, and “welcome Ghashmi’s assurances that US-Yemeni relationship will not be affected by al-Hamdi’s unfortunate death,” we will continue to report on potential threat here. Sana 43317 was our assessment of internal security and political situation. Situation is not matter of Yemen qua Yemen, however. In this cable we will try to step out of our preoccupation with local politics and trace links to region.

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6. First point concerns PDRY. Up until spring of this year this Embassy produced a series of cables suggesting that variety of forces in area were creating potential for change in PDRY.8 Among these changes were growing strength of moderate regime in YAR, Saudi blandishments to Aden, Iranian and British military forces in renascent Oman, eclipse of Soviets and radical Arabs in MidEast dispute, failure of Communism to provide for welfare of South Yemenis or success of revolution in Gulf. We thought that Salim Rubayya Ali was leading most important military and government factions in search for new ties with Arab moderates and new start on development. Radicals like Abd al Fattah Ismail, with ties to Soviets and party figures, were likely to lose out over period of time which might leave South Yemen socialist but not hostile. Key change which we cited was virtual abandonment of policy of export of revolution—in Oman, YAR, Gulf.

7. Pendulum now seems to be swinging in other direction, probably because of ability of Soviets and determination of Abd al Fattah to align PDRY with Ethiopia. South Yemeni equipment is being sent into Ethiopia along with some troops, while Soviets are replacing old equipment with new. PDRY speech in UN,9Abd al Fattah speech day after Hamdi killed, apparent resurgence of subversives in Southern part of YAR, and new support for PFLO all bespeak new efforts to export revolution. Terrorism is another possibility for increase at PDRY instigation. Fact that former Yemeni Prime Minister Abdallah al-Hajri was killed in London last spring10 by same man who hijacked Lufthansa airplane11 and that both incidents can be tied to South is ominous indicator of what South could do if it once again set its mind to task.

8. We think that Hamdi was going to Aden in mid-October with agreement of Saudis to try to pull Salim Rubayya Ali back toward Arab orbit, toward new initiatives toward Oman and reduced involvement with Ethiopians, and away from terrorism like Hajri murder. [Page 749] Hamdi saw Taiz summit last spring12 as forum in which PDRY could reorient its policy, so as not to be on losing side in Ethiopia and not to side with non-Arab side against self-determination and long term Yemeni interests in lower end of Red Sea. This would have been real meaning of new symbols of Yemen unity—like single flag and national anthem—which were supposed to have been announced during October 14 celebrations.13 Certainly no PDRY leader could have brought about reorientation of policy simply because Saudis offered to pay handsomely.

9. For these reasons we have by no rpt no means ruled out possibility that extremists in PDRY killed Hamdi, in part to check growth of strong YAR, in part to check Salim’s flirtation with YAR. Strong state in Yemen, economic dynamism, diplomatic initiatives by populous North and popular northern President were all threats to party officials in South. Pull exerted by YAR, plus bounteous Saudi aid, must have conjured up thoughts of Trojan Horse to leftists in their Adeni bastion.

10. Be that as it may, rapprochement between North and South Yemen has probably died with Hamdi. Ghashmi isn’t going to be interested. Saudi reluctance to proceed with aid—while understandable and probably necessary—may give radicals excuse to push PDRY even farther away from Salim’s earlier policy of relative moderation and may also mark the beginning of return to former Saudi policy of political and possible military confrontation with PDRY.

11. What PDRY and its backers do is of immediate concern for Saudi Arabia. This is second point in regional implications we trying to trace here. Only reason why radical state—even one as poor and backward as South Yemen—wants to topple state as poor and backward as YAR is of course that YAR could again be threat and distraction to Saudi Arabia. Latter is key to any MidEast settlement which the Libyans, Iraqis and radicals and South Yemen have long opposed. These rejectionists with their Palestinian cohorts cannot get at Saudi Arabia frontally. Yemen, however, provides a backdoor to the Kingdom. It is not difficult to imagine, therefore, an effort to move against Saudi Arabia through the destabilization of Yemen, by any one of he above, either alone or singly. This has already been tried, thus far unsuccessfully, in Egypt, Sudan and Syria, but primitive and underdeveloped Yemen may now appear to offer a more promising opportunity.

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12. The Soviets can be expected to move more circumspectly than their extremist Arab friends. It must be remembered, however, that for many years they have pursued an opportunistic and long term policy in the Middle East. In the short run, the Soviets will doubtless cooperate with the U.S. for an Arab-Israeli settlement, if it appears that such a settlement has never changed since the days of Molotov when he told Ribbentrop that Soviet interests lay to the south towards the Persian Gulf. If this was true in pre-OPEC days, it is certainly even truer in these days. In our view at least, the Soviets have hung on in North Yemen tenaciously over the last few years despite serious setbacks because they see, as they saw in 1927 when relations were first established with the Imam, that this Peninsular toehold holds promise for the future. The Soviets will, therefore, arrange to see that their friends are helped here and PDRY affords them an excellent surrogate.

13. Third point to be made here is that Yemen was also developing diplomatic role in Horn, role quite out of proportion to its wealth and power. As noted in para 8 it was one key to detaching PDRY from radical foreign policy. Its ties to Sudan and Egypt and Somalia and Saudis made it part of larger group which sought changes at expense of Soviets and radicals at lower end of Red Sea. Taiz conference and plans for further Red Sea conferences were major liabilities for South Yemenis, who depended on Arabism in their appeals much more than on socialism. This larger group is now facing blunt challenge from Soviet Union in form of massive arms shipments to Ethiopia, shipments we are apparently doing nothing to oppose, even with words. Somali defeat when PDRY is strengthened and YAR weakened will leave situation in Horn very much against our interests and favoring those of USSR. It could be other way around if we wanted. Anyway, prospects are that YAR will have to forego any further, useful diplomatic role in Horn.

14. In conclusion, while I do not wish to appear to be investing Yemen with more importance than it deserves, I want to underscore the fact that Yemen is a strategic, albeit a small, piece of the Peninsular puzzle which must be understood and considered seriously when looking at the region as a whole. We and our friends have come a long way in Yemen since the mid-60’s. With the assassination of Hamdi, however, this success is now endangered. Moreover, we are identified with Saudis and with Ghashmi government when Ghashmi may not survive and when Saudi purposes and actions here have not been made clear to us. For the moment, our policy should be, and frankly can only be, to watch and wait. There is nothing we can now do in Yemen to influence coming events, except expressing our moral support for the regime. Our Saudi friends, however, can and must play a subtle and careful role. The problem is that in the past they have not always [Page 751] been able or willing to play such a role. Moreover, they have not always told us what they were doing because they believe they know Yemen better than we do. This is a debatable point. Be that as it may, however, I think we must continue to provide the Saudis with our frank assessments about and our candid opinions on Yemen, while at the same time expecting the Saudis to level with us in the context of our so-called policy of regional cooperation. Only in this way can we maintain the heretofore successful momentum of weaning Yemen away from radicalism as the first step toward the eventual and necessary deradicalization of PDRY. In both the long and short runs, these goals are of critical importance for Saudi Arabia and by extension for us, if we wish to protect our interests in the Peninsula now and in the years to come.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770413–1083. Secret; Limdis. Sent for information to Jidda, Cairo, and London.
  2. See Document 233.
  3. Reference is to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
  4. In February 1963, Ellsworth Bunker undertook a mission to Saudi Crown Prince Faisal with the aim of ending Saudi support of the royalists in the Yemeni civil war in order to bring about Egyptian troop withdrawal from Yemen. In Operation Hard Surface, approved by President Kennedy in June 1963, a U.S. air unit was deployed to Saudi Arabia to provide a limited air defense capability to deter possible Egyptian air operations over Saudi Arabia. For documentation, see Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. XVIII, Near East, 1962–1963.
  5. The request is in telegram 249534 to Sana, October 18. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770381–1170)
  6. See footnote 4, Document 234.
  7. In telegram 4331 from Sana, November 2, the Embassy reported that threats from the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen and internal dissension within the Yemen Arab Republic Command Council were major sources of concern for the new al-Ghashmi regime. Scotes however believed that al-Ghashmi had bought himself a few months in power. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files, D770404–0982)
  8. Reference is to a series of telegrams from the Embassy in Sana updating the Department of State on positive developments in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. These include telegram 607, February 12; telegram 626, February 13; telegram 679, February 15; and telegram 700, February 17. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770051–0370, D770051–0568, D770054–1045, and D770056–1179)
  9. USUN summarized the October 3 address by Salim Rubayi Ali before the UN General Assembly in telegram 3488 from USUN, October 4. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770361–0049)
  10. Yemeni political leader Abdallah al-Hajri was assassinated in London on April 10. (Telegram 1388 from Sana, April 11; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770126–0246)
  11. A number of men hijacked a Lufthansa flight on October 13, forced the plane to land in the United Arab Emirates, and demanded the release of “comrades” incarcerated in West Germany. (“Hijackers Force West German Airliner to Mideast, Demanding Freedom for Terrorists in Bonn’s Jails,” The New York Times, October 14, 1977, p. 3)
  12. See footnote 2, Document 230.
  13. October 14 is the anniversary of the 1963 beginning of the South Yemeni revolution against British rule.