35. Interagency Intelligence Memorandum Prepared in the Central Intelligence Agency1
NEW REALITIES IN THE MIDDLE EAST
[Omitted here is the table of contents.][Page 124]
Since 1973 the United States has become heavily dependent on oil from the Middle East, and has seen US interests in the area increasingly affected by events and regional politics that are not subject to US control. US relations with Israel, the Arabs, and some of the South Asian states have experienced repeated strains as these states have pursued their national interests independent of the great powers. US influence in the area has declined, and manifestations of anti-American feeling have increased, in part because the United States is seen as irresolute, but basically as the result of a historical trend that is not likely to be reversed.
These changed circumstances are primarily the result of dramatic developments that have occurred during the 1970s: the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the rapid increase in oil prices, the revolution in Iran, the resurgence of a politicized Islam and a rejection of Western culture, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Together, these developments have reoriented the politics, the economics, and to a lesser extent the military balance of the region. Egypt is isolated within the Arab world, Iran is militarily weak and nearing anarchy, and the pro-US Arab states often called moderates are taking a more independent course, seeking new allies in the area, and cooperating more often with radical, anti-Western Arab governments.
The Soviets, of course, have attempted to expand their influence in the Middle East during this period of fundamental changes, instability, and increasing difficulties for the United States. They have suffered some setbacks, but their arms deliveries have enabled them to strengthen relations with a number of Arab states; their military position in the area has been maintained; and they are abetting the growing instability in the region. Soviet gains have come more in the indirect form of the reduced US role in the area than through direct expansion of Soviet influence. The greatest potential for substantial Soviet gains in the near term is in Iran, where continuing serious instability could give way to a leftist regime more sympathetic to the USSR.
In the increasingly significant Persian Gulf region, recent developments have left Saudi Arabia and Iraq more important in both Arab and international politics, and have increased the vulnerability of all Persian Gulf states to internal disruption and foreign meddling. The impact of Shia unrest in Iran, Iraqi nationalist aspirations, [3 lines not declassified]. The stability assumed under the Saudi-Iranian hegemony has collapsed, and the smaller Gulf states’ search for accommodation with Iraq is likely to restrain their interest in security cooperation with the United States.
Additional and perhaps equally fundamental changes are likely in the coming year. The leaders of Israel and several Arab states—espe[Page 125]cially Syria, Morocco, and Sudan—face serious domestic challenges, and the socioeconomic strains associated with rapid modernization could stimulate serious unrest in others, primarily among the traditional monarchies of the Gulf. Bilateral disputes have the potential to lead to armed conflict in several areas—including in the Maghreb, the Yemens, and between Iran and Iraq—but these appear unlikely in the near term to provoke a general Arab-Israeli war or a direct military clash between the superpowers.
The security of Israel and the internal stability of the Arab states most critical to US interests—Saudi Arabia and Egypt—seem as nearly assured as is possible for the next year. The Saudis and Egyptians will remain unreconciled, however, and their bilateral dispute will continue to impede the United States as it pursues its two immediate aims in the area: progress in negotiations on West Bank autonomy, and ensuring the supply of oil for the West.
The Egyptian-Israeli negotiations seem all but certain to extend beyond the time frame originally envisaged, and there is some danger that domestic politics in Israel or Egyptian frustration with limited Israeli concessions could lead to tougher demands on either side or even to suspension of the talks. It is more likely, however, that the two sides ultimately will reach an agreement that meets their minimum needs but is not acceptable to the Palestinians, Syria, Jordan, or Saudi Arabia. These other Arab parties, therefore, are unlikely to participate in negotiations. This will increase further the tendency of the Arab oil producers to introduce political considerations into their decisions on oil prices, production levels, and marketing strategies.
THE NEW REALITIES
1. The period from 1973 to 1979 has brought to the Middle East changes more fundamental than any since Israel and several Arab countries with their independence in the years after World War II. This period has also seen a significant increase in the United States’ stake in, and vulnerability to, the policies of area states. Israel and the key Arab states of the region now display a heightened determination to pursue their national interests independent of the superpowers.
2. The 1973 Arab-Israeli war irrevocably altered the outlook of the major actors in the area. The Arabs—despite their weakened military position vis-a-vis Israel overall—regained their sense of pride and no longer view Israel as invincible; they view their success as the product of coordinated political-military action. The Israelis, for their part, feel less secure in their belief in the superiority of Israel’s capabilities and the inability of the Arab states to mount a successful unified attack. This has led to an enhanced state-of-siege mentality. The Israeli perception of the erosion of US support has magnified this conviction.[Page 126]
3. Since the early 1970s we have seen the rapid increase in oil prices and the growth of immense oil wealth among the Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia; the reordering of the military and political balance in the critical Persian Gulf area following the collapse of the Pahlavi dynasty; a revolutionary change with the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel; and a substantial increase in the margin of Israeli military superiority over the Arabs. Ironically, these far-reaching changes have occurred during a period of unprecedented and generally overlooked stability in the leadership of the Arab world. With the exception of the two Yemens, no Arab state has experienced a violent change of regime since 1970.
4. These developments have given rise to a number of seemingly anomalous political trends:
—Fundamental changes have occurred in the relationships among the principal Arab states.2 The traditionally most important Arab country, Egypt, has been isolated as never before.
—The eastern Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia and Iraq, have become more important in regional and international politics. Saudi Arabia’s increased prominence rests on its central role in international oil and financial matters, and on its ability to tip the Arab political balance against Egypt. Iraq’s importance derives primarily from its heightened military capabilities.
—The outlook and role of the Arab moderates—such as Jordan, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia—have changed, and their policies now are less congruent with those of the United States. The word “moderation” is increasingly irrelevant in describing the attitudes of Arabs toward the superpowers, or toward the desirability of a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli dispute.
5. Over the coming year these trends can be expected to continue—and perhaps more fundamental changes to occur—as a result of pressures growing out of several currently dynamic or atypical situations, each with uncertain ramifications:
—Revolution continues in Iran, threatening the integrity of that country and fostering regional instability that could threaten the security and stability of other Persian Gulf states.
—Ideologies that have a radical impact on area politics (ranging from Islamic to Marxist) will continue to exert a powerful appeal in the area. The clash of ideologies is most graphically represented in the case of Afghanistan, but potentially serious situations exist even in such currently stable countries as Egypt, where a variety of Islamic [Page 127] groups are testing the security services and competing for a political following.
—The constancy of leadership in the Arab world, virtually unchanged throughout the 1970s, seems unlikely to endure for long; the leaders of Syria, Morocco, and Sudan, for example, face especially serious domestic problems. Similarly, Prime Minister Begin’s problems with his health and his coalition government suggest we may soon see a change of leadership in Israel as well.
—Continued Arab pressure for Palestinian self-determination and for a revision of US policy toward the Palestinians will ensure strains in US relations both with the Arabs and with Israel.
—Israel’s continued military actions in Lebanon and lack of flexibility in West Bank negotiations will reinforce present political trends in the Arab world. These factors have the potential to spark wider hostilities on Israel’s eastern front and to further strain both US-Israeli and US-Arab relations.
6. A socioeconomic revolution has been under way in many countries of the Middle East since the escalation of oil prices began in 1974.3 This, along with the perennial problems of frustrated expectations in such countries as Egypt, also has the potential to further social and political instability in the area. Such concerns contributed in a major way to the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, and—although the situations are dissimilar in many important respects—constitute a latent threat in virtually all oil-producing Arab states in the Gulf. Their rulers are aware that rapid economic development, especially with concomitant modernization and Westernization, may stimulate social and political unrest. Most rulers also recognize, however, that there is no assured way to avoid this challenge. Political liberalization and political repression each solve some problems, but intensify others; vacillation between these strategies virtually ensures political trouble.
7. The altered balance of forces in the Middle East—caused by the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, US and Soviet weapons sales to Israel and some Arab states, the policies of the Marxist government in South Yemen, and the effective disappearance of Iran as a stabilizing force in the Gulf—also serves to increase the prospects of area instability and regional conflicts, despite the sharply diminished likelihood of war between Egypt and Israel.4 The most likely areas for renewed hostilities having the potential to involve US interests in the coming year include the dispute between Iraq and Iran; the tension between Morocco and Algeria over Western Sahara; the conflict involving Israel, [Page 128] Lebanon, and Syria (where war through miscalculation will remain a possibility); the dispute between the two Yemens; and the Egyptian-Libyan border problem. Over the next year it is less likely, but possible, that subversion in Oman or an Israeli reaction to an Iraqi or Iranian troop movement into Syria could also result in military clashes.
THE PERSIAN GULF
8. The area of greatest political uncertainty in the coming year almost certainly will remain the Persian Gulf, where the collapse of the Pahlavi dynasty has left Iran weak and unstable, and where the changes in Iran and in Arab politics generally have increased the prominence and importance of Iraq. Under any foreseeable circumstances, US influence in the region is not likely to regain its former level.
9. In Iran, internal turmoil and strife are likely to continue for at least the next year, with the possibility of more widespread bloodshed among the religious/political factions and between the government and ethnic minorities seeking autonomy. Given the disruption of the Iranian security and military forces, there is little likelihood that the government of Ayatollah Khomeini will be able to impose domestic order or deploy sizable forces beyond Iran’s borders in the near future.
10. If stability is restored to Iran, it may only be the precursor to more determined efforts to export the revolution. Khomeini has already called for all Muslims to attack US interests throughout the Islamic world, and for revolution in some area states. Many in Khomeini’s inner circle believe they are the only truly Islamic leaders in the world and that their revolution must be followed by others, especially in Egypt, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. If a leftist regime were to emerge in Iran, it too would probably be committed to exporting revolution and might well be aligned with the USSR.
11. The revolution in Iran has created new uncertainties for Iraq, raising especially the possibility that Shia unrest might spread from Iran to the majority Shia population of Iraq. On the other hand, the collapse of the Iranian armed forces has left Iraq the dominant military power in the Persian Gulf. Additionally, Iraq more than any other Arab state has gained from the reorientation of Arab politics that has followed the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The Iraqi leadership shows every sign of attempting to build on these two areas of strength to expand the influence of its Ba’thist ideology both in the Persian Gulf and in the Arab world generally. The Iraqis are in no hurry, believing time will work against Egyptian and US policies and against Iraq’s moderate opponents in the area.
12. The traditional regimes in the Gulf have generally disdained close contact with the Iraqi Ba’thists but now have little choice but to come to an accommodation, which will further increase Iraqi regional [Page 129] influence. Although some states such as Saudi Arabia apparently hope that improved relations with Baghdad and its involvement in regional security matters will lead to moderation in Iraqi actions, we believe it unlikely that there will in fact be any alteration of basic Iraqi aims. If Iraqi influence continues to grow, any increased identification of the smaller Gulf states with US interests will become a political liability and a focal point for extremists.
ISSUES OF CURRENT CONCERN
13. Apart from the crisis in Iran and the difficulties it has created in the area, Middle East issues of greatest concern to the US Government in the coming year will continue to include: progress in the ongoing negotiations on West Bank autonomy; the supply of oil to the industrial states and the use of oil as a political weapon; and the security and stability of governments sympathetic to the United States, especially in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco. The political, economic, and military developments of recent years bear directly on each of these immediate US interests, and on such additional basic US concerns as the protection of US and Israeli security and the minimizing of Soviet influence in the region.
14. The outcome of the ongoing Egyptian-Israeli negotiations on West Bank autonomy will probably be the most significant independent variable in determining the course of near-term political developments in the Middle East. Failure of the negotiations to result in sufficient progress could jeopardize the present relatively favorable Saudi policy on oil production levels. Such a failure over time could have much more serious additional repercussions: stimulating the further growth and spread of anti-American attitudes and actions in the area (conceivably including the use of oil sanctions as threatened by the Libyans and Iraqis), weakening the domestic position of Egypt’s President Sadat (leading possibly to an eventual Egyptian turn away from close identification with the United States), and intensifying the pressure on Arab regimes normally close to the United States to move still closer to the radical Arabs. Alternatively, success in the negotiations might help slow the implementation of oil price, production, and marketing decisions detrimental to US interests, contribute to the domestic security of pro-US states in the region, arrest the movement of generally pro-US Arab states toward positions espoused by the radicals, and help forestall any resurgence of Soviet influence in the area.
15. Progress in the autonomy negotiations to date and political developments in the West Bank itself provide little hope that the Egyptians and Israelis by themselves will reach agreement on the establishment of a genuinely self-governing authority by 25 May 1980—the [Page 130] target date Prime Minister Begin and President Sadat set for themselves in their joint letter to President Carter in March 1979.5 Apart from the intractable nature of the substantive issues involved, delay is almost certain to result from the serious internal divisions within the Israeli Government and its negotiating team, the prospect of early elections in Israel, and the Israeli conviction that time will increase President Sadat’s political need for an accord, thereby leading him to reduce his demands. Israel in fact perceives no need for a West Bank agreement except insofar as one may be necessary to prevent Egyptian backsliding on the peace treaty already signed, or to protect against new strains in US-Israeli relations. The Israelis see Egyptian noncompliance with the treaty as a real possibility, and this may induce limited flexibility in the Israeli position; with US elections approaching within the next year, however, the Israelis will be less apprehensive and less influenced by potential American pressures.
16. On the Arab side, Egypt will continue to press publicly for progress on Palestinian issues to relieve Arab political attacks on Cairo and, ideally, to prompt Palestinian participation in the talks. These goals motivated the Egyptians at the outset to seek an agreed statement on the overall aims of the negotiations; ironically, they were also behind Egypt’s subsequent willingness essentially to sacrifice that strategy and to accept the Israeli approach of focusing on more specific, concrete issues. Egypt hopes that this latter strategy will allow at least some demonstrable progress that will soften the opposition of the other Arabs.
17. The Palestinians, Jordanians, Syrians, and Saudis believe that the current process will not result in a peace agreement acceptable to them. None of these Arab parties, therefore, appear likely to support or participate in the peace process during the next year. In the case of some, notably Jordan, increased and more regular financial assistance from the wealthy Arab states provides an important incentive for avoiding peace negotiations. Over the longer term, substantial Israeli concessions on the settlements issue and on territorial autonomy, and US recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organization are likely to emerge as necessary conditions for wider Arab participation.
18. In the probable continued absence of wider Arab participation in negotiations, the likelihood will grow that President Sadat will accept an autonomy agreement essentially on Israeli terms in return for minor Israeli concessions. Such an accord almost certainly would include [Page 131] various marginal gains for Arabs in the occupied territories, and Israeli pledges to negotiate more basic issues with the Palestinians or Jordanians if those parties elect to become involved. This would enable Sadat to say that he had accomplished everything possible and that, as a result of Egypt’s actions, further gains for the Palestinians were available for their taking; this might satisfy the Egyptians but not the other Arabs. The result would be an agreement protecting Israeli and Egyptian interests but leaving the United States accountable to the other Arabs for achieving real progress on Palestinian issues.
19. Given President Sadat’s psychological and political investment to date in the negotiating process, we believe it less likely that he will react to the continuing slow pace of negotiations by reversing course and withdrawing from the talks. It is quite possible, however, that he may adopt a significantly tougher negotiating stance as the May 1980 deadline approaches and as he regains Egyptian control of much of the Sinai.
20. Middle East oil-producing states over the next year are unlikely to increase production significantly, and there is a good chance that their output may fall. During most of 1979 the Saudis allowed production to exceed their preferred ceiling of 8.5 million barrels per day. This increase brought Saudi output to its maximum sustainable capacity of approximately 9.5 million b/d. Iran is producing 3.5 million to 4 million b/d, but continued instability could cause that country’s production and exports to fall sharply or even temporarily to cease. The Persian Gulf producers with large reserves—Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia—all believe that their long-term national self-interest, including the important question of how rapidly to deplete their resource base, dictates that they limit output. All but Iraq have already imposed ceilings on production. Any near-term production increases will be small.
21. As for oil-pricing policy, Middle East members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries are virtually certain to push for (Iraq, Libya, Algeria, Iran) or agree to (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar) another increase in prices in December 1979. Kuwait has become more aggressive in pushing for price hikes, and Saudi Arabia has lost most of its former ability to limit increases. Several principal producers—notably Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq—have expressed concern about the impact of price increases on the economies of the industrialized states and on the less developed countries, but neither consideration is likely to weigh heavily enough to constrain OPEC as a whole. There is an apparent belief within the organization that the West can afford higher prices, and that the LDCs should be afforded relief through [Page 132] special programs. The size of the December OPEC price increase will depend heavily on market conditions prevailing just before the meeting, and could be substantial. There seems to be virtually no chance of a price freeze.
22. Decisions of the Arab states on oil production and price during the coming year will primarily respond to market forces, but they will be influenced by political factors as well. The oil weapon—in the sense of an embargo of the United States such as occurred following the 1973 Middle East war—is unlikely to be used by the Arabs except in the circumstances of renewed Arab-Israeli hostilities, the accession to power of more radical regimes in key producing states, or possibly US support for an Israeli-Egyptian agreement ending the autonomy talks in a manner that left the Palestinians with no significant gains. Some Arab states would be likely to join Iran in an embargo of the United States if Iran were to take such action as a result of a US-Iranian military confrontation.
23. The oil weapon is in fact a continuum of possible actions, however, and oil policy decisions are already being made with political considerations in mind—despite the ritual protestations of some Arab leaders that oil and politics are unrelated. The Arabs’ political leverage will increase as the tight market makes marginal shifts increasingly critical to importing countries. Libya has already raised the possibility of cutting back its oil exports to the United States, and Iraq is expanding exports to France in return for access to French technology and arms. The political factor will become less important only if the industrialized states suffer an economic slowdown sufficiently severe to reduce market pressures.
24. Political considerations are virtually certain for the foreseeable future to remain central to Iran’s decisions on oil pricing, production, and marketing.
Security of States Sympathetic to the United States
25. The important pro-US Arab regimes that appear to face the greatest threats over the coming year are those of King Hassan of Morocco and President Nimeiri of Sudan. In neither case are the regime’s problems primarily the result of the strains in inter-Arab politics surrounding the Arab-Israeli issue; each faces political challenges growing out of economic difficulties and unique security problems with neighboring states. Because these problems will not go away in the near future, the continuation in power of both governments is likely to depend primarily on the ability of the individual leader to demonstrate consistent and vigorous leadership. During much of 1979 both Hassan and Nimeiri seemed to appreciate the need to provide such leadership but to be uncertain what policies to follow. Hassan [Page 133] wavered most noticeably on how to deal with his weakening position in Western Sahara, and Nimeiri shifted between conciliatory and repressive policies toward labor and student unrest.
26. The security of the two Arab states of critical importance to US interests, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, is (unlike the situations in Morocco and Sudan) directly entwined with the inter-Arab political disputes that have resulted from the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. Moreover, their security is directly related to the two other paramount interests of the United States in the area—peace negotiations and oil. At present, neither Egypt nor Saudi Arabia faces a serious external threat, and neither President Sadat nor the Saud family appears to face a serious near-term domestic challenge.
27. In each case, however, circumstances could develop that would create a much less stable domestic situation. If the autonomy negotiations should collapse, for example, Sadat’s position would be much less secure as a result of the substantial deflation of the Egyptian popular pride that so far has protected him from the opposition of Egyptian intellectual, leftist, and Islamic groups. If negotiations end in an agreement unacceptable to the other Arabs, Sadat’s position may also be jeopardized by the likely invocation of additional Arab sanctions. In Saudi Arabia, the anachronistic nature of the political system and the effects of socioeconomic modernization make it likely that the royal family at some point will face a challenge from groups within the society that do not share political and economic power. There is no basis, however, on which to predict with confidence when such a threat will materialize.6[Page 134]
THE SOVIET ROLE7
28. Soviet objectives in the Middle East region are to gain greater political leverage, reduce US influence, increase access to Middle East port and air facilities in order to support naval deployments in the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean, further hard currency earnings through arms sales, and increase access to the energy resources of the area. The USSR’s successes, although significant, have been limited in recent years by its inability to convert its activities and support to Arab countries into permanent influence. This has resulted from the limitations of its political leverage over major states in the region, from basic Arab antipathy for Communism and suspicion of Soviet intentions, and from an Arab preference for the hard currency and civilian technology of the West.
29. The Soviets have made a number of gains in the region:
—They have established relations with a number of Arab states based on arms supply.
—They are backing a variety of forces in the region that are seeking to destabilize established governments and replace them with leftist regimes.
—They have reestablished in South Yemen and Ethiopia many of the naval, air, communications, and intelligence facilities previously held in Somalia.
—Since the mid-1960s, they have deployed and maintained a significant naval presence in the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean.
—They have recently signed a Friendship Treaty with South Yemen, thus formalizing the presence they have built there over the past year;8 and they have reached a new arms agreement with North Yemen.
—Their military involvement in Afghanistan and Ethiopia may, in the future, increase their ability to influence events in neighboring countries such as Iran, Pakistan, and Sudan.
30. The Soviets undoubtedly view the past year’s events in the Middle East favorably, although they have not been able to convert the new situation into direct gains for themselves. They are certainly gratified that the polarization resulting from the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian treaty has isolated Sadat and strained US relations with the moderate Arab states. But their own efforts to capitalize on these strains by courting Jordan and Saudi Arabia have not yet been productive. Their attempts to strengthen ties to their clients have made little con[Page 135]crete progress, except in the case of South Yemen, and, to a lesser extent, Libya. Although the Soviets have made large-scale deliveries of arms to Syria, for example, they have apparently received no political concessions in return, and their relations with Iraq remain strained.
31. The fall of the Shah and the decline of US influence in Iran were welcomed by the Soviets, although they have not been able to work out a satisfactory relationship with the Khomeini regime. The new regime’s rejection of past ties to the United States and Israel, its withdrawal from the Central Treaty Organization, and its rejection of a security role in the Gulf region were considered setbacks to the United States and thus relative gains for the USSR. Iran’s November 1979 moves against the United States have been perceived as a further gain by the Soviets, who have renewed hope that the Iranian revolution will assume a shape and direction favorable to Soviet interests. The Soviets are probably optimistic that, over the long term, forces that they are backing in Iran may establish a secular, leftist regime that will adopt a pro-Soviet policy.
32. There are a number of other possible events that could strengthen the USSR’s relative position in the area over the longer term. Should Sadat be overthrown, for example, the strong anti-Sovietism of the current Egyptian regime would probably be mitigated to some extent. A successful reunification of the Yemens under the aegis of the South would be an extension of Soviet influence and would pose a threat to Saudi Arabia’s security. The undermining of any of the pro-US regimes in the area, such as Morocco, Sudan, or Oman, would be an important advancement of Soviet interests.
33. Any one of these developments would encourage destabilizing trends in other Middle East countries, which would benefit the USSR. However, even though disillusioned with US policies, most Arab states would hope to avoid moving closer to the Soviets. Arab nationalism and the new tide of Islamic sentiment militate against dependence on any outside power, and Arab rejection of Communism as a philosophy is still an inhibiting factor. The Soviets have little, except arms, with which to tempt these nations, which prefer Western technology and civilian products. In general, therefore, the Soviets must hope that US failures will redound to their benefit or that instability will eventually lead to more pro-Soviet regimes. Further instability in the area, combined with Soviet influence and military presence in peripheral countries, may cause some accommodations to Soviet interests in traditionally Western-oriented Arab states.9
- Source: Central Intelligence Agency, History Staff Files. Secret; [handling restriction not declassified]. Drafted in the Office of Political Analysis, National Foreign Assessment Center, and coordinated with the Departments of State and Energy, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and the Intelligence Staffs of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps. A note on the title page reads: “Information available as of 29 November 1979 was used in the preparation of this memorandum.”↩
- See also annex A (Political Reorientation Among the Arabs). [Footnote is in the original. Annexes A–E are not printed.]↩
- See also annex B (Socioeconomic Revolution). [Footnote is in the original.]↩
- See also annex C (The Changed Security Situation). [Footnote is in the original.]↩
- Reference is to the March 26 letter from Begin and Sadat to Carter included as part of the documentary package accompanying the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty and signed by the three leaders in Washington the same day. The text of the letter is printed in Public Papers: Carter, 1979, Book I, p. 515.↩
The occupation in November 1979 of the Great Mosque of Mecca—the holiest shrine in Islam—was a violent protest by fundamentalist Sunni Muslims unhappy with the growing modernization and Westernization of Saudi Arabia. Although the incident was apparently an isolated act by religious fanatics, the seizure of the supposedly well-guarded shrine seems certain to have reinforced an already strong sense among the Saudi leadership of the country’s basic weakness and the pressures on the Saudi Government to shun foreign influences. Social conservatives point to the incident as an indication that the modernization process has moved too rapidly and has undermined social cohesion. The strength of the attackers illustrated the danger posed by the numerous arms being smuggled into the country and highlighted the weakness of the Saudi internal security and intelligence apparatus.
The initial Saudi effort to conceal the attack and the Saudi Government’s subsequent repeated false claims that the situation was under control while fighting was still in progress pointed to the leadership’s lack of confidence. The incident, combined with recent events in Iran, Pakistan, and the Yemens, seems certain to weaken Saudi credibility in the area and to heighten Saudi fears of foreign—particularly Iranian and Yemeni—subversion. It could also lead to serious divisions within the Saudi royal family as its members assess responsibility for the problem.
For the United States, the most disturbing political consequences of the Mecca siege will be to make it more difficult for the Saudi Government to maintain a visibly close relationship with Washington. The Saudis will now have to balance their needs for US security support with the fear that too close an identification with the United States could undermine their status in the Muslim world. [Footnote is in the original. See Documents 201 and 202.]↩
- See also annex D (The Soviet Role). [Footnote is in the original.]↩
- See Document 290.↩
- See also annex E (Key Factors in the Coming Year). [Footnote is in the original.]↩