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hermann f.eilts

Hermann Eilts was U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1965 to 1970 and later served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt. In this interview, he talks about his observations and dealings with King Faisal, King Saud and King Fahd. He also offers an overview of U.S.-Saudi diplomatic relations over the years and the geopolitics of the region, including the '56 Suez crisis, King Faisal's reactions to the Kennedy administration's demand for internal reform, the '67 Arab-Israeli Six Day War and the '73-'74 Arab oil boycott. As for the impact of political reforms on Saudi society, Eilts has reservations. "The religious element has from the beginning of the state played a major role in legitimizing the actions of the rulership, and that continues through this day. ... I don't see any way the ulama, can be just pushed aside." This interview was conducted by producer Jihan El-Tahri on June 23, 2003 in Boston, Massachusetts.

When you first arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1948, what was it like?

I came from Tehran aboard the air attache's plane, and when we arrived at Jeddah Airport, there was simply a Quonset hut. There were no buildings or anything of that sort. ... There was an immigration officer who sort of looked and wasn't particularly interested. And as I remember, some of the employees in this Quonset hut, the airport, had a tame baboon, and that baboon sort of looked everybody over, and if the baboon approved, then one got through. That's my first recollection of Jeddah. ...

[At our home] there was a water tank. The water had to be brought every day, hauled by somebody to a tank on the roof, and by about noon the water had run out. So it was a rather primitive place. ...

It was shortly after the FDR/Abd al-Aziz visit on the U.S.S. Quincy. Were people still talking about that?

It was three years after. I did not discuss it with any member of the royal family. Occasionally the issue came up -- not so much with the king, but with the deputy foreign minister who handled the Foreign Ministry -- what President Roosevelt had said to Abd al-Aziz about "We would take no action with respect to the Palestine Mandate without consulting with the Arabs," [and] that President Truman had failed to honor that. There was some distress about that.

photo of eilts
Those who say that if you have more democracy in Saudi Arabia  this will push the religious leaders aside -- I think that is absolutely wrong to believe that.

On the part of some of the oil company people, Aramco, at the time, there was worry that the king might seize upon this to cancel the oil concession. But our minister at the time raised it with him on one occasion, and the king said he was unhappy with what the U.S. had done with respect to the Palestine Mandate and the recognition of Israel, but this had nothing to do with oil and that he had no intention of canceling the oil agreement. ...

At that time, in 1948, it's still sort of the very beginnings of the Saudi state.

... Oil had been discovered, but oil could not be commercially exploited yet because of the war. So in a sense, in the immediate aftermath of the war, Saudi Arabia in 1946, '47, '48 was a state that was just beginning to feel itself. At the urging of the United States, King Abd al-Aziz had declared war on Germany so Saudi Arabia could be a participant in the United Nations conference and had joined that organization.

Oil was, again, being not drilled, but was being exported first in small quantities. I remember the great jubilation when 200,000 barrels a day had been produced. Now it's nine million barrels a day, but [then it was] 200,000.

So it was in the process of development. ... The day-to-day work was [done by] the king who, in Riyadh or wherever he might be, held his daily majalis, public sessions in which people came and presented petitions to him. Most of those he answered himself, either orally or sometimes with a direction to a clerk who was kneeling nearby, who would write something and give the answer to the petitioner. It was a very unusual kind of a scene. There were, of course, shari'a courts, but we had no contact with them, and when there were criminal or other cases, I'm sure people went to them, but more seemed to be handled by the king's majalis. ...

But it was a very leisurely kind of operation. People worked from, oh, say, 10:00 to maybe 2:00. That was the working day. The afternoon was spent on the beach or elsewhere. Evenings there were parties, including Saudi parties, and one must remember that the Hijaz is not as pristinely Islamic as the Najd was. ...

Did you ever meet King Abd al-Aziz?

Oh, yes, I had. I was present at a good many meetings with him that our minister at the time had. ...

The king -- how did he strike you?

Well, the king was by then an elderly man, I guess -- not by the standards of our present age -- but it was clear that he was in charge. He was broad-shouldered even though he was stooped at the time, and he already spoke in a high, squeaky voice. But when he said something, everybody jumped. There was no question about that. And he was the boss, no doubt about it. You could just see what kind of a charismatic man this must have been in his younger days, when he was building the kingdom. ...

The king made his views very clear, including his sense of disappointment at what he felt had been a failure on President Truman's part to honor the Roosevelt commitment [regarding Palestine]. But his main concern at that time was encirclement. He felt with the Hashemites in Iraq and in Jordan, and with Imam Yehya in Yemen, where there had been a war, and the British in Kuwait and the Gulf states, that he was encircled.

This was very much on his mind. He had earlier been very close with the British; then gradually that relationship with the British had weakened, in part because the British were supporting the Gulf Emirates and Oman, particularly with respect to the [Al] Buraymi Oasis, which Saudi Arabia claimed. And so that soured him on the British.

And now he looked to the U.S. to be his protector, so to speak. And we did in '49 begin a military assistance program, sent a military mission there which replaced the British military mission. ... It wasn't that they were not concerned about the Palestinians and the Israelis -- they were indeed; they made themselves clear on that. But the relationship with the United States was based [not] on oil, that was a private thing, private company -- but on the United States' security assurance, which every American president from Truman on down gave, and the political independence and the territorial integrity of Saudi Arabia. This became a major factor in our relationships that started with Abd al-Aziz and persisted all the way to the present. ...

By the 1956 Suez War, what did Saudi Arabia represent to the U.S.?

Well, Saudi Arabia, during the Eisenhower administration, represented two things. One, oil. The importance of Saudi oil was already recognized. Production had not yet reached the levels it has now, but it was seen as the major oil producer, and as American oil reserves were being depleted, the increased reliance on Saudi oil, not only for the United States, but for its Western European and Japanese allies as well, that was always a part of every American position paper.

The second thing in '56 was the concern that with the Anglo-French defeat in the Suez War, a power vacuum was developing in the Gulf which the Soviets might seek to exploit. You must remember that during that entire long period of the Cold War, the worry in Washington was that the Soviets were seeking to move into the Middle East, and of course they had developed relationships with [Egyptian president Gamal Abd al-]Nasser, so that was a source of worry.

The Eisenhower Doctrine was developed because the British were no longer prominent now after '56, and certainly the French weren't. Somebody had to fill the power vacuum, and President Eisenhower got from the Congress what's called the Joint Resolution on the Middle East, which came to be called the Eisenhower Doctrine, which promised American military assistance ... as well as economic aid for those states of the Middle East who might need it. ...

Now, I don't think [King] Saud ever thought there was a real Soviet threat. His worry was his neighbors. But by signing on, this fit it into the security umbrella that I was speaking about before. And for a time, the Eisenhower administration had the idea that perhaps King Saud could be built up in a political fashion that might make him a contender with Nasser, who was close to the Soviets, who was seen as close to the Soviets in terms of leadership in the Arab world.

That, I think, was a mistaken view, but nevertheless, in that period immediately afterward, and especially after Saud signed on to the Eisenhower Doctrine, it was very prominent in the thinking of [then-Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles and Eisenhower and the people around them. ...

Now. it very quickly developed that that was not going to be so, that Saud did not have the stature either at home or in the Arab world as a whole to assume a role such as Nasser, the apostle of Arab nationalism, did. And after that high point -- right after '56 and his signing on to the Eisenhower Doctrine -- our relationships quickly went down, not to a point where the oil concession was threatened, but where there was not that much belief any longer that Saud was somebody who could be a factor in the overall Middle East scheme. ...

Saud in general certainly was not charismatic as his father had been, and there was a recognition already that the power was in Faisal's hands. It might not be officially so, but Faisal was the prime minister. Then, for a period of time, he bowed out of that, but it was Faisal that people went to. And one heard more and more of a Faisal-Saud rift which was in part the result of other members of the family fostering that.

And then came the Kennedy administration.

Yeah, well, the Kennedy administration is, of course, the Faisal period. Kennedy believed strongly in personalized diplomacy. His letters to Nasser and to leaders everywhere -- and there were some letters to Faisal as well. In the case of Saudi Arabia, Kennedy very quickly developed the idea that there had to be more openness in Saudi Arabia, more participation, public participation. That was one aspect.

The other aspect of the Kennedy period is the Saudi dispute with Egypt over Yemen, Saudi assistance to the Yemeni royalists, Egyptian assistance to the Yemeni republicans and Egyptian attacks on Najd and Jizan. With Faisal coming and asking under the security agreements that we had, the ones I've already spoken of, for assistance. And the United States, Kennedy deployed a number of ships in the Red Sea, deployed an air squadron that was flying along the Yemen-Saudi border to deter Egyptian aircraft.

It didn't work very well, and Faisal became very disillusioned with the nature of the American response to his appeal for assistance against Nasser. Kennedy did work out the [Ambassador Ellsworth] Bunker mission to try to work out a peace between Saudi Arabia and Egypt: disengagement by both sides. Neither side really fully honored that.

But the Kennedy period was the Yemen problem, and this business of the Saudi government has got to allow more participation. Kennedy felt very strongly that this was essential. He somehow got the idea that Saudi Arabia was a politically unstable state, because there had been arrests of military officers who had presumably been spurned by the Egyptians. A number of the princes had gone to Egypt, a number of Saudi air force people had defected with their aircraft, and Kennedy saw this as the result of a closed political system in Saudi Arabia.

So my predecessor [Parker T. Hart] and [I], when I came, we were getting the same kind of instruction: Press the king to open up the system more. Exactly how you open it up, well, the king must decide that. The king himself spoke of establishing a ... consultative assembly, and he spoke of provincial assemblies and various other reforms, [a] 10-point reform program, but he never really did much about it, because, from his point of view, the kind of thing we were suggesting was not what he felt was needed in terms of the stability of the country.

I remember one day making this pitch about "You've got to open up more, Your Majesty" to him, and he was ready for me. And he threw on the table a series of pictures of some of the buildings at the University of Southern California -- this was the period of the student riots -- which had been broken into by rioting students and burned, etc., and he said to me, "Is this what he," meaning Kennedy, "wants this country to become?" Now, it obviously didn't follow that if you opened up this would happen, but that was his view of what we were asking him do. ...

In any case, with Kennedy's assassination and President Johnson taking over, Secretary of State [Dean] Rusk ... came into his own. And one of the first telegrams I got from Rusk was [to] stop pushing the Saudis on internal reform; the king knows what is in his own best interest and will do it accordingly, which I must say I was pleased about, because I thought we were getting nowhere in this constant hectoring that Saudi Arabia should open up more. ...

King Faisal is sort of known to be the modernizer. What he was like?

Faisal was an extraordinary man, in my view. He did not exude the charisma of his father. Yes, he had been [a] military leader in the 1934 war in part, one of the two leaders against Yemen, and had been involved in other military things, but his principal claim, I think, to prominence was his excellent mind. ... He was an alim [singular form of "ulama"]; he was a religious leader in his own right, one who recognized the need for progress and who recognized the nature of the country he was ruling. You couldn't try to impose this on the country. You had to do two steps forward and one step back, and this is what he constantly did. Sometimes he sided with the ulama on matters. I remember there was an American school problem in which he first sided with the ulama, and then we worked out a way of having the American school reopen, which was essential to us.

He felt very deeply about the Palestinians and the Arab-Israeli problem. In any meeting with Faisal, you could count upon it, the first half hour would be a tirade about American policy with respect to the Palestinians and the Arabs in general. Having made his point, whatever it was, then we would get to other matters of business, and they would be handled very, very expeditiously.

He, too, conducted a public majlis and would hear every day whoever came with [a] petitioner. I remember once having a meeting with him, and I saw on his desk afterward a big pile of papers. I said, "Your Majesty, I'm sorry to take you away from your work, but you've got a big pile of papers." "Oh," he said, "these are all petitions that I've done." And I said, "Well, can't some of these be sent to your Cabinet ministers?" "No," he said, "they were given to me; therefore I must answer them, and I will answer them." He was very, very meticulous.

Of all the Saudi kings, leaders that I have known, Faisal was the most hardworking. Faisal was at his office early, and he would be there until late at night.

He was also very frugal. He did not like to spend money. He had a palace built for one of his wives that took years to build in Jeddah. And when it was finished, he didn't want to move into it. It was, as far as he was concerned, too lavish. He preferred a plain building, ... much to his wife's distress. And it was finally turned over for use by the Saudi government for conferences.

In Riyadh, he had a nice office -- I wouldn't say a huge one -- and he would work at that, and his advisers would sit with him, and the king would work. And then every once in a while, he would throw out a question to the assembled people -- three, four, five, whatever the number might be at that [time]: "What do you think of this?" And they would express their views, and then he would perhaps respond, or he would just nod his head and make his own decision. ...

He had great tolerance. ... Of course, he had an ijaza, ... a religious degree, which meant that he could handle the ulama, the conservative religious leaders of Saudi Arabia on their own turf, because in a sense, he was one of them. He knew as much about Islam and the Quran and the Hadith and everything else as any of them, and they knew that. They knew it. So they were talking to somebody one of their own. And it was in that way that Faisal was able to establish much of his modernization and why he gets the credit for the modernizing, and of course also because much of the physical structure of Saudi Arabia -- roads, things of that sort, airfields -- were built during Faisal's time.

Do you remember when television was introduced to Saudi Arabia in 1966?

Yes, I remember it. It did not cause the kind of problems in many circles that one would have thought it would, because very quickly they used it for religious broadcasts, and anything that had a religious content obviously could not be regarded as bid'a, even though it was bid'a -- innovation. And more and more people became interested in it.

Television made a great impression on the Saudi populace, certainly in the cities. More and more sets were bought. Unlike the earlier problems in Saudi Arabia in connection with the telephone and things of that sort, one did not hear ulama objections to the TV, except an occasional one in Buraydah. There was a problem, and that led to some riots and some police actions.

But that was also connected with something else, and that had to do with the opening of [a] girls' school in Buraydah, which the king ordered mainly because [his wife] pushed very hard for this. And I must say Fahd also, as in his role as deputy minister and before that the minister of education, pushed women's education. [Buraydah has always] been ultra-conservative. And there, this mixture of the TV and at roughly the same time the girls' school -- even though the king said those who don't want to send their daughters to the girls' school, that's fine, too -- it led to revolt on the part of the Buraidahans. The police were brought in. There were shootings. Some people were killed, and one of them was the brother of the man who eventually assassinated King Faisal as a revenge for the shooting of his brother. ...

What really is the relationship between the Saudi king and the ulama?

Well, political legitimacy in the Saudi state goes back to the covenant that an early Saud, Muhammad [ibn] Saud, back in 1745, signed with the religious reformer [Muhammad ibn] Abd al-Wahhab. And together they apparently divided [the state so] the Sauds would be the temporal emirs, [and] the members of the Abd al-Wahhab family, the Al Sheikh family, would be the religious people. With that combination, the Sauds were able to expand into all of Najd and into eventually all of the [Arabian] Peninsula.

That compact, even though this is the third Saudi state, has persisted throughout. It has given the ulama major authority and the determination of ways of life, what is proper, what is not proper. And at various times in Saudi history, the rulers have accepted this or not. As a rule, they have had to accept it because they counted upon the ulama to persuade the public to go along, and the public -- by that I mean also the tribal people.

When you had a ruler who was either charismatic and a military leader like Abd al-Aziz or who was himself a religious leader like Faisal, then management of the ulama was possible. You had to compromise at times, yes; you could not order, but you could compromise, and the religious leaders respected you. In more recent years, what has been missing is the religious cache of being an alim, of being a religious leader, which has meant that the rulers have had to try co-opt the ulama, the religious leaders. ...

So the religious element has from the beginning of the state played a major role in legitimizing the actions of the rulership, and that continues through this day. Now, those who say if you have more democracy in Saudi Arabia, one person, one vote, that this will push the religious leaders aside, I think that is absolutely wrong to believe that. But that is the sort of naive belief that those who say, "Well, all the Saudis have to do is open up their system, and then everything will be fine," that's the mistaken belief that many have.

But it goes back to the beginning of the state. Now, in the '60s, because of increased oil income and because the government became a welfare state and Saudis benefited from this -- housing loans, everything of this sort, free education -- the political legitimacy of the ruling family got that additional respect. ...

[But] with the economic problems that the kingdom is facing now, it is no longer a welfare state. ... Therefore the role of the ulama, of the religious leaders, becomes so strong again. And it's not an easy thing for any leader unless he is charismatic or is himself a recognized religious leader to handle them. And I don't see myself any way in which this prominent role of the religious leaders, the ulama, can be just pushed aside. It's not too dissimilar in a sense to the situation in Iran, in Shi'a Iran, where the religious leaders play such a prominent part. But there it is enshrined in the constitution. Saudi Arabia says the Quran is our constitution.

Do you personally remember any moment where you were faced with this relationship between the ulama and the king?

[There was] one having to do with the American School in Riyadh that I spoke of. It was a coeducational school. And one day a senior alim, religious leader in Riyadh, came by, and he saw somehow -- I don't know why he didn't see it before, but he saw that there were boys and girls together. And he went to the king, and he complained. And the king immediately ordered the school closed.

Now, this was a source, as you might imagine, of great concern to the American community in Saudi Arabia and to the ambassador, because if we were going to have Americans in Riyadh doing the functions that they had been hired to do, if they didn't have a school for their children, they wouldn't want to come. It was not feasible to open separate schools for boys and girls. But the king, in response to the religious leader's objections, closed the schools.

So I negotiated with him for several months on this business, and we finally worked out an arrangement whereby separate entrances would be used for the boys and the girls, but they would be in the same classroom, because you couldn't see the classroom -- the outside alim, the outside religious leader, couldn't see that -- and we worked that out. But it took months. ...

How did you hear of the outbreak of the '67 [Six-Day War]?

I heard of the outbreak of the war within minutes after the Israelis had attacked. ... I got orders almost immediately from Washington to move out the American community. I didn't want to do that because I didn't think there was need for it. ... Saudi Arabia was not going to go into the war.

In fact, in the first three days of this five-day war, the Saudi radio was broadcasting all kinds of things from Palestinian commentators -- Egypt shoots down 50 Israeli planes; Syria shoots down 20 Israeli planes; even Lebanon shoots down two Israeli planes -- so there was the belief that victory, Arab victory, was there. And the message that I was getting was quite the opposite. And I said to them: "Look, these radio broadcasts that you're issuing here [are] simply wrong. And you're making a mistake in making people believe that this is an enormous Arab victory." I managed to persuade Washington to hold off on evacuating the Americans.

And then Faisal came back on the third day. And I went to see Faisal right away. And I told him: "I've been ordered to get the Americans out. Do you feel there's any need for that? I'd rather not have them out." He said: "I'm grateful to you for not taking them out. We're not going to go to war on this thing." And Faisal, having been abroad in Europe, knew the real facts of what was happening. ...

Now, there was an enormous anti-American backlash, because the belief was that we had assisted the Israelis in their military victory. And particularly upset was the Saudi army, Saudi military in general, but mainly the army, because they had wanted to get into this to be part of the victory. And I was pressing in these first three days, "For goodness' sake, don't deploy troops there, because then you, too, will suffer the consequences."

And as I say, by the fifth day it was over, and by the fourth day Faisal was back. But the army was still furious. For several months, their military people would not deal with our military people, our military mission, and some of my best Saudi friends would not deal with me. There was a great feeling against us.

Just after the war was over, we had an explosion at the embassy compound and a nearby military mission headquarters. ... The oil embargo was also placed upon us, although [with] the king, we worked out a system whereby the Saudis would bunker our warships in the Red Sea offshore. In any case, Faisal said: "It's very important that we retain diplomatic relations, close diplomatic relations, and the American community remain. And never mind the army -- they'll get over it; the military people will get over it."

And his concern then was that the United States press Israel, do something to press Israel to get out of the West Bank, Gaza and Sinai and East Jerusalem, which we promised to do. We undertook to do that. ... In due course we got U.N. Resolution 242, which as you know has been a source of dispute ever since it was passed. ... Well, the Israelis developed broader ambitions in the ensuing years. But in the early period, Faisal was perfectly happy that we would be pressing the Israelis to get out. And then, of course, it went on, and he became increasingly disillusioned on that score. ...

How did the 1967 War change King Faisal's role towards the Arab-Israeli conflict?

I don't think it changed his role toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. I think two things developed as a result of all of this: one, that Nasser had been defeated, Syria had been defeated, Jordan had been defeated, [and] Faisal's role, Saudi Arabia's role, correspondingly increased. Now, true, Saudi Arabia hadn't lost any territory, but, in fact, the Israelis occupied two little islands at the entrance to the [Straits] of Tiran, Tiran and Sanafir islands, unoccupied, that belonged to Saudi Arabia. So the king could say that "The Israelis have taken some of my territory, too."

We pressed the Israelis to return it, these two little islands -- President Johnson did -- and when they offered to do so, the king said, "No, I'd rather not have them back at the moment," because he wanted to be able to say that [the Saudis], too, had lost territory. But anyway, it made Faisal a more important figure in overall Arab counsel, particularly since he had money and was offering it to the states that had been defeated. That was one.

The second was something he had already begun earlier: trying to organize an Islamic collectivity of states beyond the Arab world but that are Islamic states that might be a factor on the world scene. Initially this was intended as a counter to Nasser and the Arab nationalism, Arab unity business, but then it developed into something that was also possibly to be used in the United Nations context and in support of Arab causes. So in both of those ways, Faisal, in that post-'67 period, his influence increased. ...

Who are the Sudayris, and how did they come to power?

Sudayr is a district in the Najd, and it takes its name from the town of Sudayr, the village of Sudayr. And the emir family, it has been there since the Saud family started; it's one of those many small families that are in Saudi Arabia. One of Abd al-Aziz's wives was from the Sudayri family. She is the one who had seven children, maybe more -- I don't know how many girls, but seven boys certainly. ... They are the most powerful sibling cluster in the kingdom. ... Politically they certainly are, because they hold the military, they hold the security forces, they hold the principal emirate in Riyadh, and there is no sibling cluster that has as many members in senior government circles.

And why do they keep the army small on purpose?

I think initially the population of Saudi Arabia was not that great, so there was a limited manpower base. Second, army service is not something that appeals to many people, and there is no draft or anything of that sort. And third, because the government, whoever the king might be, has always been aware that there is a pattern in the Middle East of military coup d'etats; therefore it is unwise to have a large army and to have too many generals. ...

The oil embargo -- what did it mean for America?

Oh, it was a great problem, because first of all, it lasted a long time. Second, it escalated gasoline prices. Third, there were long lines. Now, I wasn't here -- I was in Egypt at the time -- but from everything I heard, there were long lines at the gas stations, so it created considerable difficulty, short-term difficulties, perhaps, [which] might have been in due course corrected by getting additional oil from Venezuela, Canada or what have you. But for some months, it was a considerable problem, and it was recognized as such.

At first we thought Faisal agreed that once we had an Egyptian-Israeli disengagement agreement he would lift the oil thing. But then Assad visited Faisal, President Assad of Syria, and Faisal added, much to [then-Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger's unhappiness, that we had to have something similar to Sinai 1 [Sinai Separation of Forces Agreement] for Syria, which required Kissinger to get involved in that negotiation, which was much more difficult than the one with Egypt, took a much longer time. ...

Did the Saudis trust Kissinger?

I don't know the answer to that. I think, and this is surmise, the Saudis would always have residual doubts about someone such as Kissinger with his background, but they had no choice but to work with him. ... Kissinger on one occasion gave an interview to the American journal BusinessWeek in which he said the Unites States cannot stand having its oil supplies disrupted, this will hurt the entire economy, and if it should become necessary, the United States would be prepared to intervene in Saudi Arabia to take over the oilfields.

That article, as you might imagine, caused great distress. It was not a wise thing to say politically because it just annoyed the king, and the king had already said the conditions on which the oil embargo would be raised. And second, the idea of invading to make sure oil would be flowing -- the Saudis could have set fire to all of the wells. It was just a foolish thing to say. I don't know why Kissinger said it, but he did, and it did create quite a commotion in the whole Middle East area. Some believe that it was that tough statement by Kissinger that caused the king to agree to lift the embargo. I don't buy that. ...

There was a famous tiff between King Saud and Faisal.

Well, we were hearing from reports from our embassy that there was growing unhappiness with Saud's rule among the senior princes, brought about by a number of things: one, King Saud's profligacy. He would make trips around and would just scatter money all over the place for the villagers, who of course loved it, but the country could not at the time afford it. So this was a source of great concern.

Two, that the king was not consulting the family enough. There has been a history of consultation within the family. [The family believed] that he was looking too much to his sons and … that this was causing unhappiness. And that three, he was beginning to move too close to Nasser, getting away from this other thing. Now, it wasn't that the Saudi princes felt that good about us, but they had doubts about Nasser's objectives in Saudi Arabia. ...

They pressed Saud to withdraw. He did not abdicate at that time; he withdrew, and Faisal was named prime minister. ... Now, it was not long before Saud reverted to the earlier patterns that had caused his being pressed to withdraw, and again the family did it, and this time they pressed him to abdicate. And they got a fatwa from the religious leaders sanctioning the abdication and sanctioning Faisal's taking over the throne as the next in line. Organizationally, then, Faisal said he would continue to be prime minister. ...

When Faisal initially took over, there was some concern that he was strongly anti-American because of his unhappiness with our policy toward the Arab-Israel thing, Palestine. But that had nothing to do with the stability of the state. That had more to do with what the nature of his relations with us would be. But very quickly, very quickly, Faisal indicated that he accepted this proposition that I spoke of before; that the security factor was the important thing in our relationship; that however unhappy he might be with our Palestinian and Arab policies, so long as we continued to give security assurances and military equipment, that outweighed the other. That didn't mean he did not constantly speak to us about the other, but he never threw us out or anything of that sort. ...

What about King Fahd?

... Whenever one talked to him, he would talk about progressive ideas: We have got to implement reforms; there must be provincial councils; there must be a consultative council; there have got to be other openings. This was important to him. He and the people around him gave the impression of being the progressives, using that term relatively. It's always been a source of disappointment to me, then, when he came into office as king, that most of these things weren't done, at least not until many years later. ...

When I brought him to the United States on an official visit, he had very little to say. We took him to meet the president and the secretary of state. Of course there were official dinners, but he had very little to say. I was a little surprised because I thought he might say in Washington the kind of things he was saying to me about opening up the system, more reform. But he had very little to say. I think he was abashed.

I remember a luncheon at the Cosmos Club in Washington attended by Kissinger, who arrived late for something, and [Robert] McNamara at the time. And I don't think throughout the luncheon he said a word. Now, in part this is because his English is very poor. But I think he was just overwhelmed, quite frankly. When I was with him alone, he was always very friendly and very pleasant -- I would not say a great intellect in terms of ideas, but I have no complaint about that. There were princes who just didn't say a word to you. This was not so with Fahd. Fahd was very, very nice.

I've gone on several missions, since leaving the foreign service, to Fahd, one having to do with Saud bin Faisal when he was deputy minister of petroleum. [He] had said Saudis were going to cut oil production. This was also the time when the hostage crisis in Tehran was taking place. ... On the hostages, Fahd said, "Well, I don't know -- I'm happy to do whatever I can, but I don't know what I can do."... And [about] oil, Fahd said, "You tell President Carter I'm the one who makes policy around here, not anybody else." And he referred rather scathingly to Saud bin Faisal as the kid, the boy. And he said, "We will not reduce oil production." ...

Why has Iraq always been important for Saudi security? Did you ever talk to Fahd about Iraq at the time?

No, because there was no problem with Iraq at that time. [But] the Saudis have always had a frictional relationship with Iraq. ... Now, during the 1980s war, Iran was seen by the Saudis as a more important threat than Iraq. And the Saudis and the Kuwaitis provided large amounts of money to Iraq to meet the Iranian threat. ... The Saudis were worried that the Iranians were denigrating monarchy. Khomeini was sending broadcast messages saying that monarchy is illegal in Islam, and this was seen as an effort to undercut the Saud royal family.

So of the two, just like [during] the Reagan administration, Iraq, even under Saddam Hussein, was seen as the better of the two. They provided large amounts of money to Iraq. Then, with the end of that war in '88, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia wanted their money back -- it was, after all, a loan -- and the Iraqis said, "We're not in a position to do so."

The Saudis were also worried that Iraq was raising their oil production and might try to compete with Saudi Arabia in terms of oil, [was] not following their OPEC quotas. And Iraq organized an Arab group, which included Yemen and Egypt and Jordan. Saudi Arabia saw this as encirclement, and Fahd made a trip in 1989 to Baghdad, where he signed with Saddam a nonaggression pact -- the first bilateral nonaggression pact in the Arab world -- which upset the Kuwaitis very much, because this had not been discussed in Gulf Cooperation Council. ...

And then, of course, the following year -- and Kuwait was very upset with this -- Kuwait tried to get a nonaggression pact, but the Iraqis said no, not unless you agree to the several islands that were part of the controversy and to stop oil overproduction and to stop drilling into the Rumailah fields, which they were doing slantwise.

And the Saudis tried to work out something. They had a meeting in late August or late July in Jeddah on the issue of the money that was to be repaid. The Iraqis broke that up, much to Saudi unhappiness. It was a tri-part meeting: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The Iraqis broke that up and three days later marched into Kuwait. And instead of just moving in five kilometers or so as had been expected, they moved all the way in to the border.

At that point, the United States took the position that this is also a threat to Saudi Arabia. And they were on the border. And [Dick] Cheney, who was secretary of defense, went out and persuaded Fahd to allow American troops in, in order to drive the Iraqis out of Kuwait. And so the Saudis did so. ...

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posted feb. 8, 2005

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