Several nations have done well out of the October war: the Egyptians and the Syrians, exulting in their new “self-respect”; the Soviet Union, posturing once again as the great protector of the Arabs. And, of course, Henry Kissinger, accorded by the forgetful world a reputation cleansed at last of the stains of Indochina. The true victors of the war, however, are none of these but rather the oil monarchies whose territories ring the waters of the Persian Gulf-Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Gulf sheikdoms.

While the number of casualties the Arab principalities suffered during the war can be counted on two hands, the benefits which they and Iran have derived from it are monumental. They have exploited the war to extract nearly $40 billion in additional oil revenues from the rest of the world. The industrialized nations bow down before them, ready to indulge any whim in the desperate hope that in response plentiful oil supplies might be forthcoming. The Egyptian and Syrian war effort has largely depended on their money, and in return they can demand immunity against revolution from within and aggression from without. Never were these potentates more comfortably seated on their thrones.

Ten years ago their prospects seemed less assured. In 1965 there were reasons to believe that a significant change in the regional balance of power was about to take place and that it would be a shift away from the monarchs and their Western protectors and in favor of Egypt, Iraq, the Soviet Union, and the revolutionary movements which each supported. By 1965 it was clear that the British, who for the past hundred years had been the dominant force in the region, had neither the money nor the will to bear the imperial burden for much longer.

Who would take Britain’s place? There were many policy makers in Washington and in London itself for whom it was axiomatic that all vacuums must necessarily be filled, and when they looked around to see who might fill this particular one, they found that the enemies of the established order seemed better placed to move in than its friends. Grave predictions were made that Southeast Asia was not the only place where the dominoes were going to start falling. With the Egyptians and the Iraqis fomenting revolution at opposite ends of the Arabian peninsula, were not the sheiks destined to be trapped in the shrinking space between? Moreover behind both these radical powers lurked the Soviet Union, with its expanding naval power and its ambition of achieving hegemony throughout the Arab world.

In the intervening years these gloomy prophecies have not come to pass; one by one the threats which were thought to be so dangerous have faded and disappeared, and the Royalist supremacy has survived intact. Egypt’s revolutionary involvement in Arabian affairs came to an abrupt end after the June, 1967, defeat, when President Nasser was obliged to withdraw his expeditionary force from the yemen. Moreover as President Sadat has turned more and more to King Faisal for both economic and diplomatic support, the Egyptians have acquired a vested interest in the survival of the Arab monarchies: they have withdrawn their support for the Dhofari rebels in Oman, ignored the smaller revolutionary groups operating in Bahrain and the Trucial States, and said very little about the Shah’s arms build-up.

The Iraqis in contrast have maintained a high degree of ideological hostility to Iran and the Arab Gulf states, but this militancy has not been backed up by any willingness to intervene actively on the side of revolutionary movements in the Gulf. Indeed the Ba’athists who have ruled in Baghdad since 1968 have survived because they have generally avoided the kind of rash adventurism which has been the doom of previous Iraqi regimes: internally this has meant that the Ba’athists have consistently tried to reach a settlement with the Kurdish minority; externally it has meant that their support for revolutionary groups in the Gulf has been very limited.

The Iraqi incursion against Kuwait last March was an exception to this cautious strategy and for a few days it seemed that the Iraqis might be trying to repeat General Kassem’s disastrous 1961 invasion of Kuwait. However the main Iraqi objective turned out to be the capture of a single Kuwaiti police post which was thought to be too close to the important port and naval base of Umm Qasr.1 When this very limited task had been accomplished, the Iraqis halted. Their diplomatic aim may have been to put pressure on the Kuwaitis to cede to Iraq two small islands which command the channel to Umm Qasr; but the islands still remain part of Kuwait and the Iraqis have not pressed their claim to them for almost a year. Compared with Kassem’s determined offensive thirteen years ago, this was a very half-hearted affair, indicative of the restraints which now inhibit the Iraqi leaders.


The extreme caution and even conservatism of Soviet behavior in Arabia and the Gulf during the past six years prove once again that the alarmist predictions of the Pentagon and its ideological allies have little value. In the Arabia/Persian Gulf region, as in many others, the Soviet leaders have reached conclusions about their strategic and economic interests which lead them to adopt policies quite different from those predicted by the cold war dogmatists: the ideological crusade of the Soviet Communist party has been sacrificed to the need to placate “bourgeois” and even “feudal” regimes, and the alleged expansionist ambitions of the Soviet state have been put aside in the face of an extremely cautious analysis of Soviet security interests.

The alarmists have drawn attention to two developments which they believe have the most sinister implications: first there has been the growing Soviet-Iraqi alliance, symbolized by the friendship treaty of April, 1972, and more concretely by the steady flow of arms between Moscow and Baghdad, which between 1965 and 1972 was worth approximately $1 billion. Secondly, since 1967 the Soviet Union has been providing military and economic aid to the radical Marxist regime in Southern Yemen (officially the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen), and indirectly to the rebels in the Dhofar province of Oman.

The Soviet Union has strengthened its alliance with Iraq and maintained its relationship with Southern Yemen for very concrete reasons. As Soviet influence in Egypt has declined, the Russians have sought new Arab allies and the Iraqis have been their first choice, not least because the Russians may have to rely more and more on the Iraqis as a source of oil for their own domestic consumption. In the case of Southern Yemen and Dhofar, Soviet policy is strongly influenced by the fact that China is established there as a supplier of military and economic aid to the Aden regime and as a source of ideological inspiration for the Dhofari rebels. The Soviets must compete with the Chinese or face the possibility that Southern Yemen might become the Albania of the Arab world.

But there are also reasons why the Russians have not exploited these relationships to further their alleged expansionist ambitions in the region, and these inhibitions are as powerful as the incentives which led the Russians to establish themselves in Iraq and Southern Yemen in the first place. First and most important there is the Soviet Union’s strategic concern with Iran itself. It is a major objective of Soviet foreign policy to prevent the United States or any other enemy of the Soviet Union (i.e., China) from gaining a monopoly of influence in Iran. The Russians fear that, were this to happen, the United States might eventually be able to install missile sites in Iran, with the result that the strategic balance along the southern borders of the Soviet Union would be upset. There is also Russian concern about the impact of an unfriendly Iran on the loyalties of the Muslim populations of the Central Asian republics. As the Soviet leaders themselves see it, therefore, it is in their interests to avoid the kind of provocative actions which would drive the Iranians into the arms of the US, and for this reason their freedom of action in Arabia and the Gulf is limited.

The Russians are further restrained by the exigencies of energy policy. The Soviet government has already informed the Eastern Europeans that when the current Soviet five-year plan is completed in 1975, the volume of crude oil supplied to them by the USSR will decline, and they will have to make their own arrangements. The Soviet Union’s closest allies will be entering the market not only for Iraqi oil but for Iranian, Kuwaiti, and even Saudi oil as well.

Soviet planners themselves must also allow for the possibility that the Japanese and American capital and technology needed to exploit the Siberian oil and gas fields will not be forthcoming, so that the Russians too might have to join the Eastern Europeans as supplicants for Gulf oil. On both counts it is clearly in the interest of the Soviet Union and of its allies to avoid antagonizing the oil-producing states. The Russians and the Eastern Europeans also have a vital interest in maintaining a high volume of their own oil exports to Western Europe—in 1972 these reached a level of almost one million barrels per day, the Soviet bloc’s largest single source of foreign exchange. If Soviet policy in the Gulf were to jeopardize the security of the conservative oil states on whom the Western Europeans heavily depend, it would be very likely that the Europeans would retaliate by reducing their own purchases of Soviet oil. Here too the price of adventurism would be very high.


The Soviet Union’s need to maintain a working relationship with Iran, its increasing interest in the Gulf as a potential source of energy, and its need also to protect its growing energy market in Western Europe—all are reflected in the caution of its Gulf diplomacy. The Soviet Union has not taken sides in the border dispute between Iran and Iraq, and it has kept quiet about the Shah’s arms build-up. It has not supported the Iraqi claim to Kuwait, and when the Iraqis carried out their incursion against Kuwait last March, the Russians, according to well-informed diplomats in the Persian Gulf, made it clear to the Iraqis that they did not approve; nor have they joined the Iraqis in their bitter polemics against the Gulf sheikdoms. The Russians have also urged the Ba’athists to come to terms with the Kurds. Their general purpose here seems to be to establish a stable, nonadventurist regime in Baghdad, which would be a reliable economic partner for the Soviet Union and which would not embarrass its relations with other Gulf states.

In the case of the Dhofar rebellion in Oman, the lack of Russian enthusiasm for a movement which, if successful, could become a serious embarrassment, is suggested by the modest amount of Soviet military aid which the guerrillas have received. In 1970 the leaders of PFLOAG (Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman and the Arab Gulf) complained about the “tokenism” of Soviet aid, and thereafter there was a slight increase of it. But there has been no attempt by the Soviet Union to match the large increases in aid which the Sultan of Oman has been getting from Iran, Britain, Saudi Arabia, and Abu Dhabi. For this reason alone the rebels have been losing ground.2

The strategic and economic calculations which have been a moderating influence on the Soviet Union’s diplomacy toward Arabia and the Persian Gulf are also likely to affect its future naval strategy in the area. According to Drew Middleton of the New York Times (January 25, 1974) Pentagon strategists are already predicting that with the opening of the Suez Canal the Soviet naval presence in the entire Indian Ocean region may come to equal current Soviet strength in the Mediterranean. This would mean that the number of ships deployed would increase from the present twenty, including small craft, to about sixty.

Given the Pentagon’s vested interest in exaggeration this figure is probably much too high. But assuming that some increase in Russian strength does take place, it is highly unlikely that it would be concentrated in the Arabia/Persian Gulf region. Such a deployment would undoubtedly antagonize Iran and the other Gulf states, and it would be precisely the kind of provocative act which so far the Russians have been careful to avoid. Instead the Russians would probably want to divide their ships between the several areas of the Indian Ocean which are of strategic importance to them: South-east Asia, India, East Africa, and the vast stretches of the Ocean itself, as well as Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Barring a radical change in Russian policy, the Soviet naval presence in the Gulf specifically would be only marginally increased.



Given the passivity of Soviet, Egyptian, and Iraqi policy in the Persian Gulf, there has been no need for free world gendarmes to police the region because the troublemakers whom the gendarmes would keep in order have been few and far between. Instead, since 1968 a new kind of political order began to emerge in Arabia and the Persian Gulf. What little power there was became widely diffused between the three regional powers—Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq—and three external powers—Britain, the Soviet Union, and the US. The local powers were all increasing their defense budgets, but their capacity to intervene beyond their own borders was still very limited. The capacities of the external powers were equally modest: Britain kept military advisers in Oman and the Trucial States, which was important for discouraging local insurgents but had no wider strategic significance. The US kept (and still keeps) two aging destroyers in Bahrain, whose only conceivable mission was to reassure the American employees of ARAMCO, based twenty miles away on the Saudi mainland. The Soviets sent an occasional warship to Aden and Umm Qasr to show the flag. If peace could last, it was because there was no single power strong enough to disturb it.

It has recently become clear that this fragile balance is not going to survive; it has been upset not by any intrusion of outside powers, nor by any sudden spate of rebellions in the sheikdoms, but by the rising strength of two regional powers—Iran and Saudi Arabia. For both, the source of this new strength is oil. The huge increases in oil revenues which began with the Teheran agreement of 1971 and which have not yet ended with the second Teheran agreement of December, 1973, provide the Iranians with the capacity to turn themselves into a major military power, and the Saudis with the vast surplus funds which can be handed out to poorer Arab brothers. The best description of Iran’s arms program is the Shah’s own, describing as it does the spirit of the man as well as the size and scope of his purchases:

We now have 80 Phantoms which cost $2.5 million each, and another 100 coming in that will cost $5 million each that will give us a fighter bomber force of well over 300. We’ve ordered 700 choppers, including 200 gun ships plus 18 large Chinooks and 18 asw Sikorsky’s…. We’re also buying 800 Chieftain tanks from Britain which will cost us another $480 million and meanwhile we’re modernizing 400 M-47 tanks that we have. That will give us a tank force of about 1,700.3

With his 700 helicopters and the 25 British Hovercraft which he already has or is buying, the Shah will be able to dispatch a powerful force to any Persian Gulf state within hours.

The Saudi build-up, though less spectacular, is still huge by non-Persian Gulf standards: according to Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, pending US military sales to Saudi Arabia as of May, 1973, were worth $1 million,4 while in recent weeks the Saudis have been offering the French assured oil supplies in return for an as yet undisclosed number of tanks and fighter bombers. Britain also has a $600 million program to provide the Saudis with an air defense system. Saudi power does not rest on arms alone: with billions of dollars of cash to spare, the Saudis and other oil sheikdoms can compete with the Soviets as benefactors of the Egyptians and the Syrians, and they can impose an embargo on oil shipments to Western Europe and the US without having to worry about the financial consequences.

The mere possession of these resources means nothing if their use is inhibited by internal weakness and disunity. The Iraqis will soon have the financial resources to become a third regional superpower—this year their oil revenues will total $5.8 billion. But the attention and energies of the Ba’athist leaders are constantly absorbed in an unending fight for survival against rival factions in the army, the secret police, and the Ba’ath party itself: in 1969 and 1970 nearly 100 persons, including fourteen Jews, were executed for plotting to overthrow the government or for alleged spying on behalf of Israel or the United States,5 and in June last year the regime narrowly survived a coup d’état attempted by army and secret police officers. More executions and purges followed in this grim and shaky police state. King Faisal and the Shah however preside over powerfully entrenched regimes and in neither country does there exist an opposition strong enough to interfere with their conduct of foreign policy.


The history of the Shah’s rise to power over his 30 million subjects is the history of most emerging dictatorships of the right. During the past twenty years the Shah has neutralized or destroyed every political group or social class that has stood in his way. He has created in their place those “new classes” to be found in all dictatorships: a powerful secret police, a political elite wholly subservient to his will, and a bureaucracy concerned only with technique. He has held the loyalty of the army by enlisting it in his struggle against domestic communism, and during the past eighteen months he has rewarded it with an avalanche of new weaponry. The loyalty of all these groups has been strengthened by the success of the regime’s economic policies: since 1967 the Iranian economy has been expanding at an annual rate of above 10 percent, between 1967 and 1970 the number of Iranians owning cars and radios has almost doubled, and between 1959 and 1969 the number of savings accounts in Iranian banks increased from 1,409 to 2,986,000.6 This growth has created a newly affluent middle class which has a strong vested interest in the survival of the present regime and which will benefit even more from the vast rise in Iran’s oil revenues, now increased from $3 billion to $16 billion annually.

Each of these achievements has revealed the Shah in a different role. In dealing with the left he is the ruthless killer who liquidated most of the leadership of the Tudeh (communist) party after Dr. Mossadegh’s fall in 1953, and who last year sent seventy urban revolutionaries to the firing squad. In eliminating those elite religious and landowning groups whose interests conflicted directly with his own, he becomes the conservative reformer, the statesman who forges a temporary alliance with the masses in order to isolate the common enemy among the privileged: from the early Sixties onward he weakened the aristocracy by confiscating most of their land, and simultaneously he created a new source of support among the peasants to whom the land was distributed.

In 1963 he moved to destroy the remaining secular power of the clergy, and was immediately supported by most of the middle class, for whom any vestige of clerical control was intolerable. When choosing the leading members of his regime he employs the criteria favored by all dictators: leaders of independence and integrity—men like Mr. Hasan Arsenjani, the architect of the land reform—are weeded out. The deferential court politicians and the professional time servers, men such as Mr. Asadullah Alam, the minister of court, and Mr. Amir Abbas Hoveida, the prime minister, thrive and prosper. The same methods are used to prevent any Iranian Nasser from emerging among the officer corps.

The Shah’s present supremacy is proof of how well he and his acolytes have performed these roles: the secret police (SAVAK) have destroyed the Tudeh party, denied the urban guerrillas a mass base, and terrorized dissenting students and intellectuals. The aristocracy and the clergy have been outmaneuvered and neither is any longer an active political force. The ambitious generals and politicians have been removed before they became too powerful. The new bureaucratic middle class has been seduced by rising salaries and by the novel attractions of a mass consumption society. The Shah’s complete control of foreign policy therefore is simply a reflection of this political strength. What the Shah wishes to do, he does. No group or individual can stop him.

King Faisal dominates the five or six million Saudis as completely as the Shah dominates Iran, but the sources of his power are wholly different. In Iran the Shah was obliged to neutralize the traditional power groups which commonly surround a monarchy: each of them possessed an independent source of authority and all of them had opposed the Shah during the first two decades of his reign. The Iranian aristocracy owed its position to the previous Qajar dynasty and most aristocratic families regarded the Shah himself as an upstart, merely the son of an officer of the Persian cossacks. The religious hierarchy had little sympathy for a monarchy whose ambition was to create in Iran a modern secular society. Leading tribes such as the Qashquais had never been fully integrated into Persian society and were often as loyal to their own tribal leaders as they were to the Shah. Each of these groups was a competitor for power, and in order to emerge supreme the Shah had to neutralize them one by one.

In Saudi Arabia these contradictions between the monarchy and the other traditional power groups do not exist. All the elements of the traditional ruling class are fused together into a single monolith which is dominated by the royal family, Ever since the conquests of King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud, Faisal’s father, unified the tribes of Arabia during the first two decades of this century, this oligarchy has ruled Saudi Arabia. The Saudi monarchy is the focal point of the system because it combines within itself several different functions each of which commands the loyalty of a particular segment of the traditional ruling class. The religious hierarchy acknowledges the king as the Imam of Islam within Saudi Arabia, the ultimate authority on all spiritual questions. The tribal sheiks acknowledge him as the sheik of sheiks, the supreme leader of all the tribes, the judge to whom the most serious disputes must be submitted. The king commands the loyalty of the aristocracy, because in Saudi Arabia the aristocracy is the royal family itself: with an estimated 2,000 princes, of whom approximately 200 are active in government, the House of Saudi is so enormous that it is a social class in itself, and those aristocratic families which are not actually part of the royal family are invariably related to it by marriage.

King Faisal is a conservative with a strong sense of self-preservation. He has kept power in the hands of this established ruling class, and he has preserved the alliances which have sustained the Saudi monarchy since the turn of the century. The royal family itself still controls the ministries of finance, interior, defense, and foreign affairs, as well as the governorships of all the major provinces. As head of the royal family the king presides over all the institutions of the state and makes the major policy decisions. The tribes provide the leadership of the White Guard, the armed militia whose specific task is to protect the royal family. The conservative and puritanical religious hierarchy is responsible for the administration of justice and controls much of the educational system. Moreover, in a society in which the influence of Islam is still pervasive—whether among the Bedouin, the urban middle class, or even the small Western-educated elite—the king’s own religious fundamentalism is in itself a source of political stability.

In the best Tory tradition King Faisal has also seduced the most able members of the Saudi middle class, and these have willingly surrendered to the aristocratic embrace. Sheik Yamani, the petroleum minister, is the best known member of this group, but commoners also head the Central Planning Organization, the Saudi national oil company (Petromin), and the ministries of commerce, health, agriculture, and information. Most senior positions in the regular Saudi army and air force are occupied by officers drawn from this middle class; in the past it has been this group which has posed the greatest single threat to the survival of the monarchy: in 1969 between 200 and 300 officers were arrested for plotting a coup d’état against the royal family, and in 1963 nine air force officers defected to the Yemeni republicans. During the past four years however the Saudi generals have remained loyal to the throne for much the same reasons that the Iranian generals have supported the Shah: they are being rewarded with vast quantities of new weapons, they are being paid higher salaries, and the social status of their families and themselves has risen dramatically.


How will the Saudis and the Persians use their accumulating power? The judgments and calculations likely to govern their behavior are affected as much by the pessimism about the future of the region that was in vogue ten years ago as by what has actually happened since. Neither country has allowed the tranquility of recent events to erase its more long standing fears: the Shah has never forgotten that the Soviets tried to establish a communist regime in the northern Iranian province of Azerbaijan immediately after World War II. He still believes that they are inspired by a dream of “reaching the Indian Ocean through the Persian Gulf”7 and he thinks that they will eventually “fill the vacuum” in the Gulf unless he himself fills it first. The Saudis remember how near the Yemen came to becoming an Egyptian satellite on their southern border, and relations with Egypt are still their main preoccupation.

Those caring to read through the Shah’s rambling discourses on foreign policy may well be overwhelmed with a sense of déjà vu. There is a striking similarity between how the Shah views Soviet behavior now and how American policy makers regarded it at the peak of the cold war. Events which are highly complex in their origins and which have little to do with one another are thought to be part of a giant conspiracy aimed at one’s own country, required by the enemy’s “master plan.” During the past two and a half years the Shah has been alarmed by a sequence of events which he believes to have the most serious implications for Iran. First there was the Soviet-Indian friendship treaty of August, 1971, then the India-Pakistan war over Bangladesh during the final months of 1971, then the Soviet-Iraq friendship treaty of April, 1972, and finally the coup which got rid of the Afghan monarchy in July, 1973. And throughout this period the Soviets were supporting the Dhofari rebels against the Sultan of Oman.

Some unexceptional conclusions about the objectives of Soviet foreign policy can no doubt be derived from this random collection of events: the Russians want to increase their influence in countries like India and Iraq and in the Persian Gulf generally, and the signing of “friendship treaties” is a means of doing so. Developments such as the Afghan coup or the India-Pakistan war will be welcomed if they give the Soviets a chance to improve their position. The Shah’s interpretation of their meaning however is infinitely more sinister: he believes that they are all part of what he calls “the USSR’s pincer movement”8 and he believes that the intended victim of the pincer is. Iran, because the existence of Iran frustrates the Soviet dream of “reaching the Indian Ocean through the Persian Gulf.” It makes no difference either that Soviet-Iranian relations have in fact been reasonably good for the last ten years, or that strong economic ties now link the two countries.9 The Shah remains convinced that the Russians are as obsessed about him as he is with them, which tells us more about the Shah’s sense of his own importance than about the shape of the real world.

How does the Shah come to believe that Soviet support for, say, Bangladesh implies an ambition to encircle Iran? The sequence of cause and effect is tortuous: the Russians encouraged the Indians to attack East Pakistan because they knew that if the Bengalis seceded from Pakistan, then the Baluchi minority in West Pakistan would want to secede too, and if the Pakistani Baluchis wanted to secede, then the Iranian Baluchis would want to join them: ergo Iran would suffer. One is reminded of Dean Rusk trying to explain why Soviet maneuvers on the Plain of Jars were a sure sign that a Berlin crisis was in the offing.

In the case of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Oman, the Shah’s interpretation of what is going on is equally distorted, and in each instance reflects his obsession with the Soviet Union. The new Afghan regime has been more sympathetic to the Baluchis than was the Afghan monarchy before it, which is evidence enough for the Shah to conclude not only that it is the Soviets who have encouraged the Afghan colonels to adopt anti-Iranian policies but that it was actually the Russians themselves who got rid of the pro-Iranian monarchy and installed the anti-Iranian colonels in its place. In Iraq the Soviet objective, in the Shah’s view, is to acquire a base which can be used both to harass Iran from the south and to encourage revolutionary movements along the southern shore of the Gulf; the signing of the friendship treaty was an ominous sign that the Soviets were making progress.

In Oman the Soviet design is nothing less than to stage an Arabian Cuba: “Take the Dhofar rebellion in Oman. If it ever succeeded just try to imagine what we would be faced with in Muscat, the [Oman] capital right in front of the Strait of Hormuz. At first a few rifles. And then naval guns and missiles. It’s a familiar pattern.”10 In each case the truth is less dramatic: the Afghan colonels seized power on their own and have supported the Baluchi separatists for reasons of domestic politics, and not because the Russians have told them to. In Iraq the Soviets have in fact been a restraining influence and in Oman their influence with the Dhofari rebels is extremely marginal.

It is characteristic of the Shah’s bizarre world view that the obscure and monumental are linked together in a single paranoid synthesis: just as American policy makers from Dean Acheson onward really believed that the Viet Cong guerrillas were a vanguard for the Chinese hordes bent on finding Lebensraum in Southeast Asia, so the Shah believes that the motley band of rebel tribesmen who might one day trudge through the dusty streets of Muscat would be nothing less than an advance party for a Soviet missile brigade. Given such a contorted vision of the outside world it is not surprising either that the Shah should be arming himself to the teeth, or that he should be talking extravagantly about intervening here there and every-where with his expensive new toys. For if the fall of the Sheik of Bahrain or the loss of a Pakistani district town to the Baluchis is perceived as being an integral part of the grand Soviet strategy to strangle Iran, then it makes sense to send in tanks, helicopters, and Hovercraft to prevent it from happening.

But having a motive for doing something and actually doing it are not the same thing. However much the Shah would like to intervene at all points of the compass, there are still obstacles which restrain him, and luckily for Iran’s neighbors no amount of tanks and helicopters can completely overcome them. The Shah would very much like to send an armored column across the Iraqi border, destroy a few border towns, and show the Iraqis who is in charge; but the fact that the Soviet Union is both Iraq’s closest ally and Iran’s northern neighbor makes it very risky. The Shah sees himself as the protector of the Gulf sheikdoms, but with the single exception of the Sultan of Oman the sheiks themselves have a traditional Arab dislike of the Persians and look to the Saudis as their ultimate protectors.

The Shah would be quite happy to join President Bhutto in putting down the Baluchis, but in playing the General Westmoreland role against the Baluchis of Pakistan he would have to consider the effect on the Baluchis on his side of the border. None of these restraints is absolute: he could ignore the Russians, attempt to rescue the sheiks against their will, and press on against the Baluchis come what may. But in each case the price that might have to be paid for such recklessness could be the outbreak of a conflict far more dangerous than anything the Shah had originally tried to suppress. Whether the Shah himself sees it that way is still an open question.


Until Saudi Arabia emerged as the moving force behind the Arab oil embargo, its importance had been universally underestimated. The Saudis, unlike the Persians, had done nothing to advertise their new position in the world. While the Shah struts about like some latter-day Mussolini, King Faisal stays silent and quiet amid the desert obscurity of Riyadh, acting more like some Arab pope than the leader of a rising Middle East power. While the Iranians frequently show off their new hardware to the admiring panjandrums of the press, for which they are duly rewarded with reams of sycophantic ballyhoo,11 the Saudis have kept quiet about their arms build-up and it has gone unnoticed.

Clever public relations however are no substitute for real power and it is already clear that the Saudis have a power to influence events in the Middle East and beyond far greater than Iran will ever have. Whereas Iran will always be inhibited both by the overwhelming presence of the Soviet Union, and by its cultural and ethnic separation from the Arab world, the rise of Saudi power has come at a time when most of the obstacles which in the past have blocked its increase no longer exist. While Nasser’s leadership inflamed the conflict between “progressive” and “reactionary” regimes the Saudis found themselves maneuvered into a diplomatic ghetto from which they could not escape. But since Nasser’s death these ideological distinctions have had less and less to do with how Arab states actually behave toward one another, and the Saudis have exploited this “end of ideology” skillfully. By handing out surplus dollars to old enemies and by denying oil to old friends, by executing simultaneously a diplomacy of some shrewdness, King Faisal has become the new Arab hero, as indispensable in war as in peace.

Ever since the June, 1967, defeat forced Nasser to calm down the intra-Arab cold war and to withdraw his troops from the Yemen, the rising fortunes of the Saudis have been intimately linked with the declining fortunes of the Egyptians. Although King Faisal has exploited every opportunity that has come his way, the opportunities themselves have been created by the trails of the Egyptians. The June, 1967, defeat itself, the death of Nasser three years later, Sadat’s expulsion of the Soviet military advisers in July, 1972, and the Egyptian decision to go to war, taken sometime during the spring of last year—all have been milestones in the rise of Saudi influence. Collectively they have transformed the despised reactionaries of 1965 into the indispensable allies of 1974.

The Egyptians discovered that the Saudis were their most compatible allies only after a long search. Until the summer of 1972 the Egyptains still believed that the Russians were the saviors who would deliver them from the humiliations of the Six Day War and of the war of attrition that followed. Soviet advisers were allowed to swarm through every branch of the Egyptian armed forces in the hope that their presence would somehow kindle the self-confidence and technical skill previously lacking. The Soviet Union was expected to provide the ultra-sophisticated weapons which not even the Israelis could deal with; and the Soviet Union would champion the Egyptian cause and somehow force the Israelis to evacuate the occupied territories.

By the summer of 1972 however it was clear to the Egyptians that the alliance with the Russians was not yielding the expected dividends. The Russian advisers, far from stimulating their Egyptian counterparts, had demoralized them still further; the sophisticated weaponry, most notably the MIG-23 fighter bomber, had not been forthcoming, and the complete stalemate along the Suez canal was proof enough for the Egyptians that Moscow was not prepared to damage its relationship with the US in the interests of Egypt. Disillusioned and frustrated, the Egyptians got rid of most of their Soviet advisers in July, 1972. Of the 5,000 military advisers who had been active before July, only a few hundred remained at the end of the year.

These experiences convinced the Egyptians that as long as the Soviet Union was their sole source of support, their freedom of action would be limited. The remedy was to seek new allies, and the Arab oil states, with their accumulating reserves of unspent cash, were the most obvious choices for this role. Moreover, once preparations for war with Israel got under way during the spring of 1973, the need to forge an alliance with one or more of the oil states took on a new urgency.

Having decided on war, the Egyptians had to petition the Soviets for the weapons with which to fight it; only the Soviet Union could provide the missiles, tanks, and fighter bombers which the Egyptians needed. Russian advisers would have to show the Egyptians how to use the most sophisticated models, and Russian advice would be indispensable in drawing up battle plans. The Egyptians therefore were obliged to ask the Russians to come back: in February, 1973, an important Soviet military mission visited Egypt, the first to do so since July, 1972. Soviet advisers began to return soon after, and when war broke out there were 1,000 in Egypt.12 From July onward the Russians were operating an “accelerated resupply effort” 13 in preparation for the war, and they went to extreme lengths in resupplying the Egyptian army during the war itself.

It was no coincidence that just as the Russians were re-establishing themselves, the Egyptians for their part were making overtures to the oil states: there were the negotiations for an Egyptian-Libyan merger which dragged on during the spring and summer of last year, and during the same period there was evidence of a developing entente between the Egyptians and the Saudis. Beyond the need to find some counterweight to the growing Soviet presence, there were two further reasons why the Egyptians sought an alliance with the oil states: first, they needed money to pay for the Soviet hardware they were acquiring, and secondly, they wanted to persuade the Libyans and the Saudis to brandish the oil weapon once the war began.

During the crucial period between January and October, 1973, Egyptian diplomacy toward the oil states passed through two phases. For at least the first five months of the year the Egyptians believed that the best way to gain access to the new oil wealth was to accept Colonel Qaddafi’s proposal that Libya and Egypt should merge. For Qaddafi the union was to be the first step toward the creation of an ideal Islamic commonwealth which would eventually embrace all the Arab nations. For Sadat it was something rather less: if Qaddafi could eventually be maneuvered out of the way and a more pliable successor installed in his place, then Egypt would have full control of Libya’s oil revenues, and its financial problems would be over for good. But as the negotiations on the final terms of the merger progressed during the spring and summer of 1973, the Egyptian leaders found that Qaddafi’s Islamic pan-Arabism had considerable appeal among the Egyptian masses. They saw that Qaddafi was acquiring a power base of his own within Egypt itself, and they realized that if anybody was going to lose out from the merger it was themselves.

With the Libyan union looking less and less desirable, an alliance with Saudi Arabia and the sheikdoms emerged as a better alternative: the Saudis and their allies produced six times as much oil as the Libyans, and disposed of cash reserves at least ten times as great. There was no danger that the extreme Islamic conservatism which pervades the Saudi regime would have any appeal in Egypt, and in any future negotiations with Israel Saudi Arabia’s close ties with the US might come in useful. Throughout last summer therefore the Egyptians were playing a diplomatic double game: in public they went through the motions of discussing the merger with the Libyans, in private they were talking to the Saudis about the use of the oil weapon, the availability of Saudi funds for arms purchases, and the kind of economic assistance which Egypt could expect in the event of war.

The Egyptians have got what they wanted. At the end of August the Saudis and the other Gulf sheikdoms pledged $600 million in military aid to the Egyptians. During the first week of the fighting alone Egypt received $750 million from the Persian Gulf states (and $170 million from the Libyans), and according to a report in the New York Times, total Saudi aid to Egypt for the duration of the war came to $3 billion. After the war had ended the Kuwaiti National Assembly voted the Egyptians a special subsidy of $750 million (250 million Kuwaiti dinars).14 There are undoubtedly other contributions which have gone unreported.

For their part the Saudis and their allies have been willing to cut their oil production and subscribe these billions of dollars to the Egyptian war effort for some of the same reasons that the Nixon Administration is ready to invest billions of dollars in risky Soviet development projects. Nixon and Kissinger regard the present “moderation” of Soviet foreign policy as being a passing phenomenon, contingent on the existence of restraining influences which might at any moment disappear. The Saudis suspect that the current parochialism of Egyptian policy might be nothing more than a temporary retreat imposed upon them by past setbacks.

In both cases the function of financial altruism is to impose new restraints on the opponent which will continue to operate even when the original restraints have disappeared; thus even if the Soviets patch up their quarrel with the Chinese and are able once again to adopt a “forward” strategy in Western Europe, they will think twice about doing so if the development of, for example, the Siberian economy is dependent on the availability of Western funds and technology. Similarly, if ever an Egyptian leader feels confident enough to resume the crusade against reactionary regimes, he will find it difficult to do so if much of the economy of his country is underwritten by those very regimes themselves.

Whatever happens at the Geneva peace conference, the Egyptians will continue to depend on the Saudis and the sheiks: if the talks break down and the war is resumed, the Egyptians will need Saudi money both to buy more arms and to protect the Egyptian economy from the strains of another war. They will also want the Saudis to reimpose the full oil embargo, and they may wish to draw on the air power which Faisal and the lesser sheiks are accumulating. If, on the other hand, there is a final settlement, the Egyptians will desperately need oil money to rehabilitate their bankrupt economy. Either way the Saudis are indispensable.

From the Saudi point of view a settlement should be infinitely preferable to a continuation of the confrontation with Israel. Peace would transform the Egyptians into less alarming neighbors: the size of the armed forces would be reduced, Soviet influence would decline, and as economic conditions improved, the possibility of any Nasserite restoration would fade. Peace would also open Egypt to economic penetration from the US, Western Europe, and Japan. The $400 million project of the Bechtel corporation of San Francisco to build a pipeline from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, with the assistance of both the US Export-Import Bank and the Saudis, is indicative of what the future Western and Saudi role might be.

A final settlement would clearly be in Saudi Arabia’s economic interests: it is less wasteful for the Saudis to spend money on Egyptian development projects, where there exists at least some possibility of a return on investment, than to squander it on Egyptian armaments, where there can be none. Moreover Sheik Yamani has already indicated that Saudi Arabia would be willing to boost its oil production to twenty million barrels per day in exchange for huge investments from the West and Japan, which would transform Saudi Arabia into an industrialized power based on petrochemical and steel production.15 (Whether the Saudi culture could stand the strain is another question.) And while the Palestine question remains unsolved this lucrative relationship cannot be fully consummated. Lastly, as long as the crisis obliges the Saudis to brandish the oil weapon, there is the possibility, however remote, that the US might use force against them. A final settlement would remove that threat.

Whether such a rational analysis of Saudi interests will actually guide Saudi foreign policy during the next few months is still unclear. If the conduct of Saudi foreign policy were in the hands of men like Yamani or Hisham Naser, the head of the Central Planning Organization, there is little doubt that it would. But King Faisal will make the final decisions, and when he does so, an entirely different set of values might prevail. On most issues King Faisal has been willing to follow the Egyptian lead, but on the question of Jerusalem he has adopted an extreme position from which he has not deviated. He has said that he will not tolerate any Israeli presence in the Arab sector of Jerusalem. He has denied that the Wailing Wall has any special status, and he has suggested that the Jews should build a new wall somewhere else. He has vowed that he will pray in the Mosque of Omar before he dies. He believes moreover that communism and Zionism are the same thing, so that it is atheism as well as Zionism that menaces Jerusalem: “Dear brothers, who are the leaders of communism, who sponsors its doctrines and assumed its responsibilities in the world? They are all Zionists who endeavor to destroy humanity in order to realize their aspirations for the domination of the world.”16

Behind these astonishing beliefs lurks a religious fanaticism which may be so strong that not even the best interests of the Saudi state can moderate it. If this is so, and if the Saudi position on Jerusalem continues to reflect the extremism of King Faisal’s views, then the present flexibility of Arab diplomacy could be the first victim. It is already clear that the future of Jerusalem will be the most intractable issue to be discussed at Geneva, and that on this issue, above all others, each side must be willing to compromise. The great danger is that the Saudis will be able to impose their extreme line on moderate regimes, which, if left to themselves, would eschew it. Unlike the Iraqis and the Libyans, the Saudis may well possess such power: Egypt and Jordan in particular are so deeply indebted to King Faisal that neither would find it easy to ignore his demands. Moreover the fate of Jerusalem is a concern of all Muslims; were King Faisal to undertake a crusade for its complete recovery, the response among the Arab masses might be so powerful that no leader could afford to ignore it. All the good works of Kissinger, Sadat, and Golda Meir may yet be undone by the bigotry of a single desert prince.

This Issue

March 21, 1974