238. Memorandum Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1

RPM 78–10006


  • Saudi Arabia-North Yemen—Ambivalent Relations

Saudi Arabia’s ambivalent policies toward the Hamdi government reflected its mixed feelings about North Yemen in general. While Crown Prince Fahd dominated policy towards the Yemens for the past few years, the Saudi government appeared to recognize that Hamdi was probably the most moderate national leader they could hope for in Sana and that his efforts to modernize and strengthen the central government deserved their support. This fairly enlightened policy of Fahd’s, however, never erased the other strain in Saudi thinking about North Yemen: deep suspicion—dating from the prolonged Yemeni civil war of the 1960s when Saudi Arabia supported the royalists—that any non-tribal government in Sana could not be trusted because it had too many close ties with leftists and other opponents of Saudi Arabia. As a result, while they kept the Hamdi government afloat financially, the Saudis also kept it weak by never giving it enough aid and support to defeat or control the independent northern tribes which resisted any central control from Sana.

Several factors color Saudi thinking about the Yemens and have contributed to their desire to keep their hand in North Yemen’s internal affairs. Because it is their “backyard,” the Saudis have always felt free to meddle in North Yemen and have traditionally used the northern tribes as their instrument. The Saudis also remember the series of leftist regimes in Sana before Hamdi took power in 1974 and fear a united North and South Yemen dominated by the Marxist regime in Aden. Powerful elements in the Saudi government believe that the best insurance against such an unpleasant eventuality is to keep the central government in Sana perpetually weak by supporting the tribes.

In retrospect, it is evident the Defense Minister Sultan—a hardliner who always distrusted Hamdi and strongly supported the tribes—began to seriously challenge Fahd’s moderate policy last July.2 [6 lines not declassified]

[Page 757]

Sultan’s campaign to prove that Hamdi was soft on the Yemeni left undoubtedly received powerful support from Khalid ibn Sudayri, an uncle of Crown Prince Fahd and Sultan. The Sudayris, a powerful tribe long closely aligned with the House of Saud, have traditionally governed Najran Province, on the North Yemen border, provided the ambassadors to Sana, and have been the conduit for Saudi support to the Yemeni tribes. Involvement of the Sudayris is, and undoubtedly will remain, an inescapable element in Saudi-Yemeni relations.

Hamdi’s Assassination and its Implications

We do not know who, if anyone, was behind the assassination of Hamdi, but it is widely believed in North Yemen that the Saudis were involved.3 [2 lines not declassified]

[1 paragraph (7½ lines) not declassified]

What is more important than who actually killed Hamdi, however, is the implication of his murder for Saudi-North Yemeni relations. In late October, Sultan took back control of Saudi relations with the Yemens from Fahd and his supporters. Ironically, Sultan may well find that while dealing with Hamdi was frustrating, he was probably preferable to the period of upheaval that may lie ahead in Sana.

The Saudis appear to be concerned that Ghashmi lacks popular support. Should they begin to distance themselves from Ghashmi, he will lose his major pillar of outside support and his downfall might become a self-fulfilling prophecy for the Saudis.

The Saudis, meanwhile, are maintaining close contact with an old favorite of theirs, Abdallah al-Ahmar. Ahmar, a conservative [less than 1 line not declassified] tribal leader from the north, is totally unacceptable to the moderate and leftist portions of the North Yemeni population. Sultan may find that his tougher policy towards North Yemen does not produce any more satisfactory results than did Fahd’s more moderate one.

  1. Source: Central Intelligence Agency, Office of Support Services (DI), Job 80T00634A, Production Case Files (1978), Box 13, Folder 3, Saudi Arabia-North Yemen—Ambivalent Relations. Secret; [handling restriction not declassified].
  2. In telegram 2662 from Sana, July 13, 1977, Scotes reported on the meeting between al-Hamdi and Saudi officials. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770248–1179)
  3. In telegram 15 from Sana, January 2, the Embassy reported the latest information concerning al-Hamdi’s assassination and the question of Saudi involvement, noting that “Embassy Sana is now prepared to go on record as saying that former YAR President Hamdi was killed by fellow officers in coup.” The Embassy also reported that President al-Ghashmi played a part in the assassination, and that Lieutenant Colonel Ali Abdallah Saleh was one of the killers. The Embassy commented: “Motive was belief in Hamdi’s waxing relationship with South and waning one with Saudis.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P840139–2529)