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

7858. Subj: U.S. Saudi Military Assistance Program in YAR—Meeting With President Salih on November 14. Ref: State 281817.2

1. (S-entire text)

2. Summary: During meeting with Ambassador and DCM on November 14, YAR President Salih defended his recent acquisition of new Soviet equipment by saying that he had been forced to take this action because of failure of U.S. and particularly Saudi Arabia to provide sufficient arms and to give total support for arms they had delivered. He insisted that presence of new Soviet arms would not lead to increased Soviet influence and that no repeat no more Soviet military advisors would be coming to the YAR. Salih reiterated his commitment to the U.S./Saudi program and his interest in strong U.S.–YAR bilateral relations. End summary.

3. Accompanied by DCM Gnehm, I had one and half hour meeting with President Salih morning of November 14. After initial exchange of courtesies, I told President that I would like to review U.S.–YAR bilateral relations in military assistance field. I briefly mentioned our [Page 880] initial agreement to provide Phase II arms, the expedited deliveries in March of this year as a result of YARPDRY border war, and arrival of all F–5s in time for National Day. I said that DASD Murray’s visit3 was in context of these efforts to develop our bilateral cooperation in military field and to see what more could be done.

4. I said that in light of these efforts to assist the YAR in strengthening its defensive forces against the Soviet supported threat from the PDRY, the United States was deeply concerned by persistent reports that YAR was acquiring significant amounts of new Soviet equipment. USG had made clear that our aid to YAR was not dependent on complete elimination of Soviet military assistance efforts; we intended to complete our present military assistance program in the YAR. Nevertheless, USG was seriously concerned about these reports for three reasons:

A. Additional new Soviet arms would mean an extension of Soviet influence in the YAR which was not in the interest of the YAR’s independence and stability;

B. YAR acquisition of such arms would make it harder to get public support in the U.S. for the U.S. program;

C. Acquisition of Soviet arms similar to those being supplied by the U.S. would inevitably affect the ability of the YAR to absorb the U.S. supplied equipment. I then asked the President for an explanation of the YAR’s current policy.

5. Salih replied by first thanking the USG in general and President Carter specifically for the efforts made to assist the YAR in facing the threat from the PDRY. He insisted that he turned to Soviet bloc for additional weapons because although the American weapons were good, they were inadequate to meet Yemen’s defensive needs. Given the military strength of the South, he needed several hundred tanks in addition to the 64 M–60s to protect the Bab al Mandab, Quatabah and Al-Bayda areas. During the Asnaj visit he had asked for a direct military relationship with the U.S.; this request had been ignored.4 Since the Saudis were paying for all the U.S. weapons, he had asked them for more; they had refused. Furthermore, after the Kuwaiti communique of March 30,5 the Saudis had deliberately slowed down the Phase II arms program that had been already agreed upon. Salih said he was convinced that the shortages of ammunition and spare parts [Page 881] and the slow progress being made in development of repair and maintenance facilities for the F–5s in Sana were part of a deliberate Saudi policy following the Kuwaiti declaration, to keep the YAR totally dependent on Saudi Arabia.

6. I replied that the problems were practical and described several of the deficiencies on the Yemeni side; ammunition had been damaged by mishandling, spare parts were not properly stored and accounted for, etc. Salih acknowledged some of these failures but insisted that the basic problem was Saudi unwillingness to wholeheartedly support the program. Under these circumstances, he said, he had no choice, given his responsibility for the defense of his country, but to buy additional Soviet arms. He said (as he had to DASD Murray) that all newly arrived Soviet bloc tanks had been sent to southern border, as defense against PDRY.

7. Salih insisted that he had signed no new “agreement” with the Soviet Union but had purchased arms and ammunition for cash. He said that his intention was to replace obsolete equipment of Soviet origin now in the YAR inventory—MiG–21s for MiG–17s and T–55s for T–54s and 34s. He implied this would be done on a one for one basis. When I asked how many MiGs were coming, he dodged the question by saying he was sure that American intelligence had complete information on this subject.

8. In response to my questions, he said he was well aware that Soviets would give PDRY 40 tanks for every ten they gave YAR. As for Soviet support in case of war with the PDRY, he was not counting on it. His army was familiar with Soviet tanks and would not need training or maintenance support. As for aircraft, his people were now transitioning to MiG–21s. He had also purchased ten years worth of spare parts (sic) so he would not be dependent on the Soviets in case of emergency.

9. Regarding Soviet technicians, Salih insisted that no more would be coming as a result of his recent arms purchases; he said we could take this as an official statement from the head of state. In response to my question, he said that there were no “less than 20 Soviet advisors” working with the YAR military. When we questioned this figure, he repeated it and said again that this number would not increase. (He did admit later in the conversation that two or three additional experts might come to help assemble the MiGs but insisted they would be leaving as soon as this job was done.) We could reassure the USG, Salih said, that YAR had no intentions of increasing Soviet presence.

10. Salih also insisted that he remained committed to the successful implementation of U.S. program and would do whatever was required to make it a success. We pointed out that sending Yemeni pilots and technicians to Soviet Union for transition training on MiG–21s would [Page 882] inevitably draw off manpower that could have been devoted to the F–5 program. Salih brushed this aside and said he had repeatedly asked USG to provide additional training in Yemen for Yemenis on F–5s but nothing had been done. As soon as training program could be set up, he would supply the students.

11. I said that despite President’s assurances, YAR had a limited pool of educated military. It was hard for USG to understand why YAR had turned to Soviets for more aircraft after efforts we had made, and hard to believe that U.S./Saudi military assistance program would not suffer as result of arrival of new Soviet arms. Salih repeated that acquisition of new Soviet equipment would not repeat not slow down implementation of U.S.-Saudi program and offered to send a special delegation to the United States to explain why he had purchased arms from the Soviets. I said I would consult with my government to see if they thought such a mission would be useful.

12. In response to my question about the recent PDRY-Soviet treaty, Salih said that YAR was convinced that there were some secret clauses that were aimed at his country. They were now trying to find out what these articles contained. Salih said “we are against the Communists.” He said he was well aware that the Soviets would back the PDRY in any dispute with the YAR. It was for this reason that he had insisted that the Soviets supply him with ten years supply of spare parts for the new arms he was buying from them and that he was not accepting any additional Soviet technicians. Salih said that YAR had had relations with USSR for 50 years and had not gone Communist. He was well aware of Communist danger. We reminded him times had changed and threat of Soviet influence under present circumstances was much more dangerous than in the past. Salih said he was well aware of this and that we could assure USG that he was taking every precaution to prevent it. If U.S. would guarantee YAR’s security, he would not need Soviet weapons. If USG would provide him with all the military assistance he needed, he would kick out the Soviets completely, with all of their military equipment. However, USG had not done so; therefore, he had had to turn to Soviet Union for more arms.

13. In response to my question about Saudi-YAR relations, Salih said they were good. He said that Prince Turki had arrived that morning (November 14) to discuss YAR’s recent acquisition of new Soviet arms. Salih said that he intended to tell Turki that it was the Saudis’ fault; if Saudis had not deliberately slowed down ammunition and spare parts deliveries after March 30 Kuwaiti communique, if they had not insisted on retaining control of F–5 maintenance in Saudi Arabia, and if they had not refused to supply additional arms to YAR, Salih would not have felt compelled to buy additional arms from the Soviet Union.

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14. Comment:

A. Salih was in a good mood. After initial exchange of courtesies, he listened to my opening presentation quietly and calmly. He displayed some nervousness at the beginning of the meeting but his explanation of what he had done and why became more forceful and confident as he went along. His general position was that the Saudis were to blame for his decision to buy Soviet arms because they had not been sufficiently understanding and responsive to his needs.

B. Despite my efforts on several occasions to make clear to him that his decision to acquire MiG–21s could cause a real problem in our future bilateral relations, I am not sure that he really believes it. I suspect that his offer to send high level delegation to the United States to explain what the YAR had done and why was a spur-of-the-moment idea. Although I doubt whether this delegation will have any additional information to provide, it might be useful to accept Salih’s offer to send them as a way of indicating our concern over his recent actions.

C. Further comments follow septel.6

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790533–0044. Secret; Immediate; Exdis. Sent for information Immediate to Jidda and USLO Riyadh; sent for information Priority to Moscow.
  2. See Document 289.
  3. See footnotes 25, Document 289.
  4. Al-Asnaj visited Washington in June, meeting with Vance on June 11 to request a more direct military relationship with the United States. (Jim Hoagland, “N. Yemen Appeals for Military Advisers From U.S.,” The Washington Post, June 13, 1979, p. A25)
  5. See Document 281.
  6. In telegram 7857 From Sana, November 14, the Embassy highlighted Saudi-YAR tensions due to the new arms deliveries from the Soviet Union to the Yemen Arab Republic. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790524–0676)