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Page 2

Uncle Sam
Supreme Guardian
of the
Saudi Crown

By Hermann Fr. Eilts

In 1962, Saudi-Egyptian relations worsened further after Nasser sent troops to bolster the newly-established Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), which much to Saud’s surprise, Washington recognized. In response, Saudi Arabia (and Jordan) gave covert aid to the Yemeni royalists. Nasser, in the context of his efforts to portray Egypt as the champion of progessivism in the Arab world, excoriated Saudi Arabia (and Jordan) as “reactionary,” and worthy of being overthrown like the deposed Yemeni imamate.

Subsequent Egyptian air attacks on Saudi border towns and villages in the Najran and Jizan areas, which the Saudis lacked the military capability to defend, prompted urgent Saudi calls for U.S. assistance. As Hart recounts, President John F. Kennedy became personally engaged with both Crown Prince (and later King) Faisal and Egyptian President Nasser in an effort to resolve the dispute.Washington worried that Saudi Arabia faced a Nasserist-inspired internal insurrection, which in Kennedy’s view could only be avoided if the Saudis engaged in internal economic and political reform and ended all aid to the Yemeni royalists.

In return for such Saudi reforms and restraints, Kennedy promised American help to protect Saudi Arabia and to mediate the volatile Egyptian-Saudi tensions. Though indignantly rejecting U.S. innuendoes about possible internal instability, a vexed but concerned Prince Faisal nevertheless recognized his need for tangible American support. On the diplomatic level, Kennedy dispatched Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, a distinguished former diplomat and businessman, first to Saudi Arabia and later to Egypt, to mediate between the two parties.

Hart’s account of Bunker’s several talks with Faisal (in which he participated), especially the lexicographical nuances of the evolving Bunker mediation, demonstrate the difficulty of the task. Bunker first proposed termination, later changed to suspension and still later back to termination, of Saudi aid to the Yemeni royalists in return for what he hoped would be an Egyptian agreement to withdraw its military forces from Yemen. Bunker (and Hart) eventually reached an agreement whereby Faisal promised to stop Saudi aid to the royalists in return for the expeditious withdrawal of Egyptian troops from Yemen and the cessation of Egyptian air attacks on Saudi border areas. Nominally at least, Nasser undertook a phased withdrawal of his troops from Yemen, though it became increasingly evident that much of what he was doing was rotation. The net Egyptian troop draw down was small.

Hart lauds the Bunker effort, but observes that Nasser failed to honor his commitment on troop withdrawal. The YAR, Egyptian commanders in Yemen openly admitted, was insufficiently strong enough to survive on its own; hence, continuing Egyptian military help was essential. In fact, not until Egypt’s humiliating defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war did Nasser finally withdraw all of his troops from Yemen. Paradoxically, at a subsequent Arab summit in Khartoum, Faisal shrewdly spearheaded a program of Arab financial assistance to Egypt to overcome the economic effects of the 1967 loss. Yet Faisal, as he told Hart (and later this reviewer), never trusted Nasser, even after their apparent post-1967 reconciliation.

As the Bunker mission was underway, and in an effort to placate the worried Saudi leadership, the United States, also at Kennedy’s orders, deployed a squadron of U.S.A.F. F-4s to the kingdom as a visible demonstration of U.S. security support for Saudi Arabia. U.S. naval visits to Saudi Red Sea ports were also increased, and U.S. training of the Saudi military was stepped up.

The Air Force mission, known as Operation Hard Surface, was opposed by the then-chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, General Nathan Twining, who sought to limit its duration. Twining professed incomprehension as to why the United States could not simply tell the Saudis what they ought to be doing! Hard Surface aircraft were positioned mainly in Riyadh, far from the Saudi-Yemeni border, the Saudis pointed out, and in part in Jidda.

In deploying such a U.S.A.F. unit, the United States ran into an immediate problem. Saudi policy forbade persons of the Jewish faith from entering the kingdom. The United States declined a Saudi request to give assurances that no Jewish personnel would be included in the mission. After much argument, Hart managed to resolve this by reminding Faisal that the United States, by law, could not seek to ascertain the religious faith of its military or other personnel. He ultimately obtained royal agreement for a blanket visa for all members of Hard Surface.

The U.S.A.F. planes were prohibited by Washington to fly closer than 20 kilometers from the Yemeni border, and Kennedy never did clarify their rules of engagement should they encounter Egyptian aircraft over Saudi airspace. If first fired upon, U.S.A.F. pilots could defend themselves; beyond that everything remained murky. He clearly hoped that the very presence of the U.S. aircraft would be a deterrent to Nasser, with whom Kennedy was also simultaneously trying to improve relations. That proved to be illusory. Egyptian aircraft continued to bomb Saudi positions, albeit less frequently, despite the nearby presence of the U.S.A.F. planes. In justification, Egypt contended that Saudi aid to the royalists covertly continued. In fact, a trickle of what the Saudis called “private” aid to the royalists persisted.

The Hard Surface U.S.A.F. personnel also engaged in training Saudi pilots. It was one such pilot, flying with a Saudi trainee, Hart recalls, who first observed unattended bundles on the ground in the area between Yanbu and Jidda. These, it was ascertained, had been dropped by the Egyptians. They were found to contain arms for use by Saudi dissidents. Over a hundred such packages were discovered by the Saudi authorities.

As these U.S. efforts were underway, Washington also sought to engage the United Nations in its peacemaking efforts. Despite Secretary General U Thant’s reluctance, a small U.N. peacekeeping force was deployed to Yemen and to southern Saudi Arabia, nominally to insure compliance with the U.S.-brokered disengagement agreement. Its commander, veteran U.N. peace keeper General Carl Van Horn, quickly concluded that in the vast area and difficult terrain to be covered his small force was inadequate for the mission. He subsequently resigned, due to constant disagreements with U Thant. These problems, together with Egyptian-imposed constraints (especially in preventing observation of Egyptian troop withdrawals and arrivals in Hudaidah), hamstrung the U.N. monitoring function. It ultimately petered into a symbolic but utterly impotent U.N. civilian observer mission.

Hart’s study is replete with revealing glimpses of the kingdom during the years that he knew it. These include the first U.S. agricultural mission al-Kharj in 1944, the Saud-Faisal rivalry, and the eventual deposition in 1964 by a Saud family collegium of King Saud in favor of Faisal, and the Saudi response to Iraqi Prime Minister Abd al-Karim Qasim’s abortive military threat to newly independent Kuwait in 1961. A small Saudi military contingent was at once deployed to Kuwait and served first with the British and then with the Arab League deterrent force. Hart’s narration of his many, sometimes contentious, talks with Faisal on Yemen and related issues sharply etch the strong character of that remarkable Saudi leader.

Hart’s own role in dealing with the Saudi government on these many issues deserves high commendation. Whatever their divergent views and Faisal’s frequent unhappiness with U.S. policy in the Middle East, the Saudi leader clearly respected Hart’s integrity, knowledge, and friendship for Saudi Arabia. That mutual trust enabled the ambassador to overcome numerous difficulties. Characteristically, too, Hart gives full credit to his subordinates, especially to Isa Sabbagh, the Palestinian American, whose mellifluous Arabic charmed us all — even the cantankerous Imam Ahmad of Yemen — and who so ably assisted the ambassador in his endeavors. In sum, Hart’s study is a significant contribution to our understanding of the first two decades of the U.S.-Saudi bond.

A postscript might be added to Ambassador Hart’s sterling account. King Faisal, whatever his initial appreciation of the Bunker mission and Kennedy’s concern for the security of Saudi Arabia, became disenchanted with what he increasingly considered to be the ambivalence of U.S. efforts to resolve the Yemeni problem. Even after the 1967 Egyptian withdrawal from Yemen and the aforementioned Khartoum conference, which Faisal had made a success, he delayed in recognizing the YAR. Not until August 1970 did he finally do so.

Faisal was likewise annoyed at repeated U.S. warnings of a possible Nasser-inspired Saudi military coup, particularly because the United States steadfastly refused to identify its informants. To be sure, a number of Saudi military officers were eventually arrested on the charge of having conspired with the Egyptians, and several others were cashiered.

In connection with Kennedy’s repeated pressure for internal reforms in Saudi Arabia, Faisal once expostulated to this reviewer, who succeed Hart as ambassador to the kingdom, “Does the U.S. want Saudi Arabia to become another Berkeley campus!?” Not until the Johnson administration did then-secretary of state Dean Rusk wisely discontinue all such exhortations for reform, which by then had become almost rote and counterproductive. The Saudi leadership, Rusk believed, was best qualified to judge its own best interests.

Over the years Saudi leaders have perennially carped about U.S. policy in the Middle East. Fortunately, through the efforts of Hart and his successors, much of the edge has been taken out of such disagreements. Putative external threats to Saudi Arabia remain a major factor in the Saudi leadership’s regional thinking. And there continues to be a Saudi recognition, however reluctant, that only the United States has the capability and the willingness to help the kingdom retain its independence in any such contingency. Ambassador Hart’s legacy in forging and nurturing that early U.S.-Saudi Arabian “partnership” endures.  

Herman F. Eilts enjoyed a distinguished 32-year career in the Foreign Service. He served as ambassador to Saudi Arabia (1965-70) and Egypt (1973-79) and retired as Professor Emeritus at Boston University.

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Saudi Arabia and the United States:
Birth of a Security Partnership
By Parker T. Hart
(Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998.
Pp. 283. $35 cloth.) 

Other reviews in this issue:

The Arabists: WASP Missionaries to Arabia
Michael Kolodner on Robert D. Kaplan's The Arabists:
Kaplan "skillfully exposes how the clique of WASP missionary Arabists goes on to become the core of the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau at the State Department and how their perspectives shape American foreign policy for good and ill throughout the twentieth century."

The Great Game: A Duel of Intriguing Imperialists
Michael Cotter on Meyer and Brysac's Tournement of Shadows:
"Their rendering of the tales of the explorers, adventurers, spies, and archaeologists who ventured deep into the Eurasian heartland during this period makes intriguing reading."

The American Metternich Remembers Realpolitik
Victor Fic on Henry A. Kissinger's Years of Renewal:
Kissinger’s supporters will invoke the memoirs as proof that he was the master conjurer behind magical diplomatic feats; his detractors will say that the book covers up his role as the evil warlock who destroyed Vietnam.

VENONA: The Cold War's "Smoking Gun"
Rorin Platt on
Haynes and Klehr's VENONA: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America
"The authors claim that most of the 349 Americans identified by the Venona transcripts to be Soviet agents were members of the Moscow-controlled CPUSA, an ‘auxiliary’ of Soviet intelligence, whose active collaboration facilitated Stalin’s espionage offensive against the United States."

Called to Serve: The Life of an American Envoy
Kenneth P. Vickery on Peter Bridges' Safirka: An American Envoy
"Indeed, it is accurate to say there is no such thing as Somalia, or at least a Somali state, anymore; rather, a congeries of breakaway regional movements and warlord-driven zones."


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