292. Memorandum Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1


North Yemeni President Salih, in his continuing efforts to maintain his hold on power, has moved his regime substantially to the left. Convinced that Saudi Arabian plotting with North Yemeni tribesmen is the most immediate threat to his position, Salih has attempted to draw closer to Marxist South Yemen. He has also concluded a major arms agreement with the USSR, and the US defense attache reports that MIG–21s, T–55 tanks, and artillery pieces have arrived in North Yemen since November. Salih still claims to fear a threat from South Yemen, but his maneuvering has severely restricted his options. He may be coming close to a point of no return in his relations with South Yemen, the USSR, and Saudi Arabia. The Aden-backed opposition National Democratic Front, meanwhile, is strengthening its position in all parts of the country. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

Since taking power in July 1978, following the assassination of his predecessor, Salih has had to contend with continued meddling by Saudi Arabia and South Yemen. When the South Yemenis seemed more threatening during a brief border war last February, Salih turned to Riyadh and obtained strong Saudi political support as well as financing for US weapons. Now that he believes Saudi plotting is a more immediate danger, he is seeking a rapprochement with Aden. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

When the fighting between the two Yemens ended last year—and with it the heightened threat of a Marxist takeover in Sana—Saudi policy quickly reverted to its traditional ambivalence: The Saudis [Page 885] wanted a regime in the North that was strong enough to fend off the South, but that posed no threat to Riyadh and was subject to its influence. Traditional fears that the leadership in Sana might make a deal with South Yemen also reappeared. To help preserve their leverage, the Saudis exploited their ability to control the flow of US arms, ammunition, and spare parts they bought for North Yemen. They also continued their subventions to pro-Saudi tribes in North Yemen as a means to limit the power of the central government. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

Soviet Arms Deal

Salih soon became convinced that he could not rely on the Saudis to supply arms. This, coupled with his frustrations over Saudi meddling with the tribes, severely strained Saudi-North Yemeni relations and contributed to Salih’s decision last summer to accept new Soviet arms as a way to reduce Saudi leverage. The Soviets, who had been the major arms supplier to North Yemen prior to 1978, had persistently offered to resume large-scale arms deliveries. MIG–21s began arriving in November. [4 lines not declassified] The US Embassy in Sana has already received reports of more Soviet military advisers in North Yemen; last fall there were approximately 120 such advisers. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

The Soviets recently have adopted a much higher profile in North Yemen. Besides the new arms and additional advisers, two official delegations and several cultural groups have recently toured the country. In addition, substantial numbers of Yemeni military personnel have been sent to the USSR in the last three months for training. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

Other Signs of Shift

The arms deal with the Soviets is the most visible sign of Salih’s move to the left, but there are others.

—Pro-Saudi officials have been replaced with men of more leftist leanings. These include the current Foreign Minister and Ministers of Information and Development. Most important, on 3 January, Salih sacked his pro-Saudi Director of National Security2—a strong opponent of closer relations with the USSR and South Yemen—and three of the Director’s top aides. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

—Since talks in Sana in early October between Salih and the South Yemeni Prime Minister,3 the number of delegations traveling between [Page 886] the North Yemeni capital and Aden has increased sharply. [3½ lines not declassified] [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

Salih has recently had a number of significant contacts with members of the opposition National Democratic Front. [7½ lines not declassified] [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

—In recent weeks Sana has taken a more left-leaning foreign policy stance. It has not, for example, publicly condemned the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It has also taken a more militant position on the Palestinian question and against the peace process. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

South Yemen: Tactics

South Yemen has used Salih’s mistrust of the Saudis to limit the North Yemeni President’s ability to maneuver. President Ismail has urged Salih to dismiss his pro-Saudi advisers for disloyalty. Ismail reportedly has also demanded that the Front be brought into North Yemen’s governmental and military structures as a precondition for unity. At the same time, Ismail has appealed to Salih’s vanity by promising that once this condition is met, Salih will become the first president of a unified Yemen. Salih may well be intrigued by the offer. According to one report, he has instructed his officials to conclude a unity agreement with the South Yemeni team now in Sana for negotiations on a joint constitution. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

Salih probably has overestimated his ability to control the unification process. The National Democratic Front, for example, reportedly continues to infiltrate both men and arms into North Yemen. Whereas the group was formerly restricted to regions bordering South Yemen, it now has extended its organization and influence into the northern tribal areas. It has avoided a direct confrontation with North Yemen’s army and seems to have adopted a carrot-and-stick approach toward the government. It reportedly has cooperated with the government’s attempts to reduce Saudi influence in the northern border region. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

The Front’s appeal has grown partly because of its diverse makeup. There are nationalist as well as Communist elements within the group, and several of its leaders were associates of a popular North Yemeni President assassinated in 1977. Although the Front now is the willing tool of South Yemen, whether it would remain so once in power is not clear. In any event, it has become a serious contender for power in North Yemen. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia confronts an unpalatable dilemma in its present relations with North Yemen. The Saudis have probably concluded that [Page 887] their ability to deal with Salih is minimal. A move to replace him, however, could easily result in expanded South Yemeni influence or even a takeover. [5 lines not declassified] [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

Salih, not wanting to lose the Saudi card completely, has indicated [less than 1 line not declassified] his acceptance of Riyadh’s proposal, and a North Yemeni delegation that is to meet with Saudi leaders in Riyadh on 12 January will probably relay this message. Salih probably views his acceptance as one more way to maneuver between the conflicting pressures, and the Saudis may see it as a temporary solution. In the meantime, however, the mutual trust necessary for a workable alliance between Sana and Riyadh has largely evaporated, with a concomitant rise in the influence in Sana of South Yemen and the USSR. [classification and handling restriction not declassified]

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Middle East, Subject File, Box 94, Yemens: Meeting: (1/15/80): 1/80. Secret; [handling restriction not declassified]. Prepared in the Near East South Asia Division, Office of Political Analysis, National Foreign Assessment Center, and coordinated with the National Intelligence Officer for Near East South Asia, the Office of Economic Research, the Office of Strategic Research, and the Directorate of Operations. Brzezinski wrote at the top of the page: “DA, we need a mini-SCC on this today—and add it to the SCC agenda on Mon. ZB (1/12/80).” A mini-SCC meeting was not held on January 12. In advance of the January 14 SCC meeting, Hunter and Sick sent Brzezinski and Aaron supplemental materials, including a copy of this memorandum and a paper summarizing key policy options, under a January 13 memorandum in which they noted: “The ad hoc meeting on Saturday afternoon [January 12] reviewed our objectives and options in Yemen in preparation for the SCC meeting on Monday at 10:00 a.m.” (Carter Library, Brzezinski Donated Material, Subject File, Box 41, [Trips]—Paris: [1/80]) No record of the ad hoc January 12 meeting was found. For the January 14 SCC meeting, see Document 40.
  2. Mohammed Khamis.
  3. See Document 287.