Memorandum of Conversation Between US National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Saudi Arabian Prince Fahd on Camp David Accords and Other Regional Issues
President Carter and Saudi Arabian Prince Fahd at a meeting between U.S. and Saudi officials

(17 March 1979)

Zbigniew Brzezinski Historical Materials Collection. Box 36. Serial Xs (3/79). The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library

Nine days before the March 26, 1979 signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty, US National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Fahd carried out an extraordinarily frank conversation. It included discussions about their bilateral relations, common fears of regional turbulence, and Sadat’s building estrangement from Arab leaders. Brzezinski reminded the Saudis that local radicalism, instability in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, South Yemen, and Iran and the Soviet Union’s external intrusion posed regional threats. The US was addressing these issues in part by supplying advanced weapons to the Saudis and maintaining an enhanced American military presence in the region. Working with Arab states, not “to split the Arab world” was a core US foreign policy objective. Saudi economic support of Sadat was critical to this end. Brzezinski feared that undermining Egypt by limiting economic assistance might weaken Sadat and “see a pro-Soviet regime there.”

Prince Fahd concurred that a strong Egypt was in Saudi interests. “…it is essential to the security of the region…Egypt as the leader of the Arab world with moderate forces spreading… we would be harmed if Egypt were isolated,” Prince Fahd noted. Brzezinski made the case that President Carter was “the first president since 1948 to mortgage his political future to [resolving the conflict] and the administration’s effort at a comprehensive settlement “proved painfully that it would not work…with some pain,” Brzezinski acknowledged that “even getting two parties together is extremely difficult.” On the upcoming peace treaty, the Americans tried to assure their skeptical Saudi listeners that within a month of the treaty’s ratification, negotiations for a self-governing authority of the West Bank and Gaza would ensue. Brzezinski’s estimation was wildly optimistic. More reasonable, he acknowledged that the US “cannot guarantee a Palestinian state but it is important that the Palestinians be engaged more as partners,” the Saudis knew that neither the Jordanians nor the Palestinians were prepared to recognize Israel let alone join the negotiations. That had not changed since the Carter administration had taken office. Further, Prince Fahd emphasized that his country, like most Arab states, believed that Egypt made too many concessions in the negotiations with the Israelis. Saud chastised Sadat for not seeking the support of his Arab peers. Finally, Saud told the Americans that his country would draw a circumspect line between not undermining Egypt economically, but supporting moderate Arab states who wished to ‘punish’ Sadat for signing a separate peace treaty with Israel. The Saudi and Arab reprimand included Egypt’s suspension from the Arab League and removal of its headquarters from Cairo. Both US and Saudi diplomats made their cases for a strong US-Saudi relationship while acknowledging that the recently completed Egyptian-Israeli talks highlighted new and what would be sustaining frictions in their bilateral relations.

Ken Stein, September 2018

United States: Saudi Arabia:
Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski Prince Fahd al-Faysal al-Saud
Warren Christopher, Dep. Sec. State Minister of Foreign Affairs
Ambassador John West Prince Turki al-Faisal
Chip Carter Director of Intelligence
Michael Sterner, DAS/Near East Dr. Rashad Pharaoh
Gary Sick, NSC Staff Member Mr. Abd al-Rahman al-Mansuri
George Cave, Jidda Station Chief Note taker

Prince Fahd opened the discussion by noting that this was the first meeting in this room and in fact inaugurated the entire building. (There was a brief photo opportunity for members of the press) Prince Fahd continued that, especially during these times of great stress and strain, two countries with such good relations as Saudi Arabia and the United States should share an exchange of views, that they should know what is on each other’s mind. This is the way to understand each other. It will contribute to the security and stability of the area. Since the beginning of President Carter’s Administration, the areas of our mutual relations have expanded into areas not tackled before. The efforts of President Carter make our relations one of the factors we have to take into considerations in viewing the problems of the area. The leadership of Saudi Arabia has tried in every way to contribute to those relations, including the visit of Crown Prince Fahd to Washington, President Carter’s visit to Saudi Arabia, and King Khalid’s meeting with the President in Washington. There have been many other discussions in the interim. We have tackled together may problems in this region. He hoped that with complete trust and guided by our mutual interests, we can look forward to a fruitful discussion during this series of meetings.

Dr. Brzezinski said the President has asked the four of us to discuss with you matters of common concern. Chip Carter will later convey President Carter’s invitation to Crown Prince Fahd to visit Washington.

It is the President’s very deep conviction that the United States and Saudi Arabia share a certain common fund of interests. We wish to underline these common interests and the fact that they are not shared by all countries: belief in God and religious values, which affect the way in which we approach things and represent an important point between us; the feeling of the special relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States, a relationship we wish to maintain. That relationship is also important to achieve justice and peace for all parties in the Middle East, especially those in the destructive and tragic conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The President is absolutely determined to achieve a just settlement. He is the first U.S. President since 1948 to mortgage his political future to that issue. One may or not like every step he has taken, but it is important to remember that he is the first Democratic President to make such an effort, and you understand that that is not easy. We are now at a critical juncture for world affairs and for the region. We face a severe challenge. The fundamental condition of the world today is turbulence. The key question of concern for you and ourselves is whether the outcome is to be shaped by radical power helps the Soviets and hurts Saudi Arabia.

There are two basic threats in the region:

  1. The external threat is the Soviet Union. We have been concerned about the pattern of events which we have observed in recent years in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, South Yemen, Iran. Each of these may represent individual events in terms of their internal causality, but they are externally liked since they create a pattern of encirclement which constitutes a security threat. To the extent that we share common interests, this threat represents a threat to the United States as well.
  2. The internal threat is the threat of radicalism. Political conditions vary from country to country but cumulatively the growth of radicalism has the same effect, since it produces regimes practicing similar foreign policies and bringing to power similar types of leadership.

The United States is prepared to respond to both threats. If necessary, we are prepared to use our power responsibly. As of yesterday, the U.S. carrier Constellation arrived on station 200 miles south of the PDRY. It has on board a destruction power capable of taking care of any hostile air force in the rea, if that should prove necessary. This and other actions prove that we are prepared to respond quickly — in this case as a result of the request of the Yemen Arab Republic, supported by Saudi Arabia. We acted because our interests were threatened, but also on the basis of your request. The exercise of U.S. power has been hampered in the wake of Vietnam; however, the Vietnam malaise is now coming to an end. President Carter is a president of peace and resolve. He works for peace but is willing to use power if required to defend his friends. We also wish to promote moderation, but that is more difficult and must be done indirectly. We learned in the case of Iran how limited external forces can be and how dangerous the forces can be when released by incompetent leadership.

Our role in the Middle East has three broad aspects:

First, we are willing to promote, with those willing to work with us, a wider consultative security framework. In saying this, I am not intending to even hint at the concept of an alliance. We recognize the complexity of issues, the variety of pressures, and the historic sensitivity of this regime, and we do not propose the formal bonds of a formal alliance. Rather, we are ready to explore flexible multilateral and bilateral means to respond to the existing security threat. We need to think seriously about this concept and would like to have your ideas. This must be a mutual effort at establishing an appropriate intellectual framework for cooperation.

Second, we are prepared to cooperate with all Arab states. It is not our objective to split the Arab world. We recognize that beneath the historic difficulties of the present, there is an Arab renaissance at work. We welcome this development and believe that it will contribute to the world as a whole. We are prepared to work with all the Arab states, and any suggestions that you might have to improve our relations with Syria or Iraq, for example, would be welcome.

Third, our intent is to promote a process to shape a comprehensive and just peace in the Middle East. The Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty will soon be completed. We worked hard for this, and we see it as the cornerstone for a comprehensive settlement. The process of getting to this point was painful, even on a personal basis. Some of us have been accused of being anti-Semitic because of our efforts. We have learned some hard lessons. We have, through experience, come to understand that any attempt to solve all of the problems at once would simply mean that nothing gets solved. Frankly, we started with a different idea, but we discovered painfully that it would not work. I have now learned with some pain that even getting two parties together at this stage is extremely difficult. To try to add other parties would guarantee failure and a continuation of the status quo.

We see three results of the peace treaty:

  1. It will establish the principle of Israeli withdrawal and dismantlement of settlements. It would not be wise to boast too much too soon, but this is important as a precedent.
  2. The process is directed toward a comprehensive peace, publicly by President Carter in his in Cairo and Israel. Once the focus is on the modalities of elections, the registration of voters and other practical political problems, these clear-cut issues will make it easier to mobilize world public opinion. So we are willing, after the signing of a treaty, to undertake discussions with the Palestinians. We see the treaty as the only way the Palestinians have a chance to attain their legitimate rights.
  3. It will help cement Arab/American friendships. It is impossible to overestimate the way U.S. public opinion has been affected by President Sadat’s initiative. All of you have probably encountered American stereotypes toward Arabs, and perhaps you have been personally offended by these in the past. That view has now been shaken to the roots. Today, more Americans believe that the Arabs are committed to peace than they do Israelis. This provides a sound foundation for the extension of U.S.-Arab relations.

I wish to tell you in utter seriousness that anything which might be done to increase Sadat’s difficulties economically would have an adverse effect on our interests in this area. It would make it harder to shape a strategic design. This is not to imply that Sadat is our unique friend or that Egypt will somehow replace Iran, although he is a friend and could play an important security role. But undermining Sadat would help forces such as the Soviets. None of us wants to see a pro-Soviet regime in Egypt, and that would be the result of a change in leaderships. Actions to hurt Sadat would only help the radical forces in the region. It would also help those rigid Israelis who prefer the status quo of holding onto all the occupied territories while surrounded by radical states. It would also help anti-Arab elements in the United States.

All of this is said as a friend. We know that the peace treaty is causing you difficulties, that you are part of the Arab world and that means that you face pressures. We do not expect unanimity on all points, and we realize it would be difficult for you to provide a ringing endorsement of the treaty. However, we want you to understand the strategic thinking which underlies our own position. We understand and appreciate your pledge that you will do nothing to hurt Egypt and the people of Egypt. Our primary interest is to shape a wider relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia. He then invited Mr. Christopher to add his comments.

Mr. Christopher said that he would say many of the same things but perhaps from a slightly different perspective. He had liked Prince Fahd’s phrase that our relations had expanded into new areas. We recently saw a degree of security cooperation which would have been hard to imagine previously: the F-15 sale, Secretary Brown’s visit, the accelerated deliveries to Yemen, the Presidential waiver on military sales for the first time in our history, the offer to send U.S. F-15s to defend Saudi Arabia air space, the deployment of the carrier Constellation, and others. These events have been seen for their positive effects, though they have sometimes also been seen for the distraction they involve. I have heard it said that our response on security issues, together with our promotion of the peace treaty, might cause us to lose interest in going forward towards comprehensive peace. I think exactly the opposite is the case. The new U.S. activity in the security area, the confidence it has given to us–and I hope to you–now make it possible to conclude a treaty and give new impetus to move forward in the peace process. Our concept of that process is more specific than it used to be. In the course of seeking this treaty our ideas have changed. It took longer than we anticipated. We cannot see clearly down the road to the achievement of West Bank autonomy, but that does not lessen our interests. We did not come here to sing the praises of President Sadat, but should that be held out for a commitment to proceed with negotiations on the West Bank and Gaza, and it was agreed that one month after ratification of the treaty, negotiations would start on the West Bank and Gaza. Jordan is invited to join these. We also hope that Palestinian members will join the negotiations. We do not intend to place undue pressure on Jordan to join in but we hope that they will and that the negotiations will include Palestinians.

Our objectives are twofold: First, to define the responsibilities of a Self-Governing Authority; and secondly, to lead up to elections. These negotiations are to be completed within one year. These are concrete precise steps. Sadat fought long and hard for linkage and got it. There will be many immediate benefits such as family reunions. The United States will be prepared to talk with the Palestinians when they are prepared to discuss peace on the basis of resolution 242. Phase one of the peace treaty provides the precise means to move towards phase two. The alternative to this practical, identifiable process is so much worse, that we recommend that you look long and hard at what is being offered.

We need not come here to interpret for you American attitudes, but it is important to mention the tremendous welling up of support in the United States for the peace treaty. Significantly, this support is bipartisan. Senator Baker, in what may have been an inadvertent comment, pronounced the end of bipartisanship in American foreign policy. But, Senator Baker is also one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the peace process. The people in the United States take great pride in what has been accomplished. The American people also support what President Carter has done in this area in the past few weeks by waiving the 30 days requirement which was a legacy of the Vietnam era. Our response to your request was supported–such as sending AWACS, which invited an interpretation of the War Powers Act. These actions were taken out of a sense of strength and with the knowledge that they all involve some domestic risk.

As you know we have a tripartite form of government. The Executive is only one of three branches of government, and the vibrations of power move back and forth among them. It is important that the President retain the confidence of congress, and I would underline Dr. Brzezinski’s comment that any action to harm Egypt would have a bad impact on congress. That fact has been apparent in the attitudes of the senior committee chairman such as Senator Church. Any effort which undermines the peace process, which Egypt or which seems to penalize them would result in effects which are unfortunate and adverse.

We value our relations with Saudi Arabia so highly that we thought we could speak frankly of these matters and explore how we could expand our relationships. Friendship is a two-way street. We hope that you want to tender our friendship in response. We note particularly that your actions over the past year in the monetary field have been responsible and conservative in the very best sense of that word. We want to keep our relations that way. So, we came here, in that confidentiality of this room, to raise issues important to the peace process.

Prince Fahd responded with thanks for these presentations and noted that they had no fear of speaking frankly. That is the only way people who are friends should talk. The opposite of frankness is deceitfulness. The relations between our countries are so fundamentally strong that they are not affected by transitory elements. We think that our relations can withstand stresses. We are obliged to be frank with you.

We have a belief in the relations between our two countries. Many years ago, this Kingdom decided that the cornerstone of its policy involved good relations with United States. This was a specific decision by the founder of the Kingdom. He chose to place this country on the side of the free world and the United States. Some say that the Saudis were often too much of a good friend of the United States when U.S. activities worked to our own disadvantage. We have faced greater stresses in the past than what we face today–times when the United States felt that this Kingdom was not a trustworthy ally or that it was an anachronistic social order.

There was a new beginning with the inauguration of the Carter Administration. Since then, we have achieved many areas of understanding which were not previously possible.

The basic component in that relationship has been confidence. Stable, constant relations provide the essential background for our discussions, and with that in mind I would like to tackle the issues that have been raised.

Our discussions recently with Secretary Brown achieved some understanding in the security area and how to pursue further efforts. I would like to mention some things about the threat; we share the view of an ever present Soviet threat. It is indeed external but it uses internal forces to spread itself through subversion. The Soviets entered this region because of Israel–into Egypt through the arms supply channel in opposition to Israel–through cooperation on the using the leverage of the Israeli problem. They used the conflicts and contradictions in the area to spread themselves and they still do. A new model of the threat is now becoming the use of client states in Africa, Asia and elsewhere to extend Soviet influence, using political forces for strategic gain. (Dr. Brzezinski interjected client states and proxy forces.)

Continuing, Prince Fahd said they have asked the United States to create a just and lasting peace. The Israeli problem is not just a political problem. It has deep roots which cannot be avoided. Why do we want a solution? To bring peace and stability. A peace which does not resolve the basic issues does not lead to peace and stability. We hope and pray that it will be brought about and we hope that this will happen through the efforts of the United States and President Carter.

No country wishes for peace more than Saudi Arabia. Our country is part of the world and is inexplicably linked to it. We identify ourselves with the future of the Western world. We are convinced of this and we need not be persuaded. The cornerstone of our situation in the Arab world is that we must cooperate with moderate elements. We have built strong relations with Egypt. We have pursued them and we believe in them. Egypt is essential to the security and stability of the region. No country wishes for the success of President Sadat more than Saudi Arabia. No country would be more hurt by his failure. Not indirectly but directly. We would like to see Egypt as the leader of the Arab world, with moderate forces spreading. We would be harmed if Egypt were isolated.

With respect to a peace settlement there have been many discussions. Starting with Secretary Vance’s visit last summer, there have been constant talks. We have consistently given our opinion. We have constantly said that an agreement which does not tackle the central Palestinian issues or a total settlement would be difficult for the Arab world to accept. There is a minimum degree of solidarity needed to have this accepted. We know it is not a single step process. President Carter said that the problem would be viewed in its totality. We have no problem taking it step by step or putting it in stages. We gave our views on this subject as friends to the United States when you undertook the heavy burden of leadership.

These efforts must tackle the important obstacle which is Israel. The visit of Sadat to Jerusalem was undertaken to break through that obstacle. After that there was a transformation in attitudes. When President Carter was here, he thought that the Sadat visit was a good thing but was a little angry about not knowing about it in advance and thus not being able to use it to the utmost.

There are limits to what any Arab country can do. We must act according to our perception—not only one person or two people but what the entire country of Saudi Arabia can accept. When we hold that Jerusalem is an important point, we do so not because we are more religious. It is an important issue to any Muslim country. Arab opinion, it can be said, is biased against Israel; however, that was not true in Iran. Yet, the first issue raised by the new Arabia does not want to be difficult, does not want to harm your interests or hurt Sadat. We have constantly expressed our opinions which we hold because they reflect the minimum levels required for Arab support. Even though we differ about the way to achieve a peace settlement nothing we have done in the past few years could be interpreted to make life more difficult. Rather we have tried to assist within the limits of our capabilities. We pray that President Sadat and President Carter will succeed in their efforts. U.S. relations with Egypt are no threat to Saudi Arabia or to any other Arab country except perhaps South Yemen. We have certain perceptions of the danger to the approach to peace: there are two parties, Israel and the Arab world (or Egypt) and we perceive that the United States gives complete support to Israel both economically and militarily. Israel increases its demands and Egypt is forced to make concessions to overcome the obstacles of Israel. This is our perception, and in the final analysis it is hard to bring the Arab world to support this. Whether it is true or not is arguable. Does strengthening Israel actually lead to compromises? We think our position is correct. The perception exists, which we cannot hide, that Sadat agreed to more than the minimum acceptable to the Arabs. Jordan is a country most interested in peace. It is safe to say that they see themselves incapable of following Sadat, although they tried at every step.

We talked to Sadat and we need to extend efforts to get their views accepted. There are thirteen moderate countries in the Arab League all wishing Sadat success. They hope he will bring something that they can grab and fight for. As Crown Prince Fahd said when the Ambassador brought in a stiff or stern message, ”Give us something we can hold onto.” We tried to get Arab support. Why does Egypt not go and seek the support they need, stressing the positive elements of the US/Egyptian partnership? Egypt should reflect the Arab view, but we see a lack of that. We hope that the Egyptians will undertake such an effort. After the signing of a peace treaty it will become more difficult.

We would not wish to do anything whatsoever to hint at the punishment of Egypt. We do not want to see it become Soviet state. However, there are some limits on our independent as of the Arab when a signs an independent peace treaty. There will be actions on the part of the Arab League. These results’ include: (1) suspension of the membership of that country in the Arab League; (2) removal of the headquarters of the Arab League from Egypt; (3) the application of Arab boycott rules to Egyptian companies dealing with Israel. These are not decisions to be taken, but rather the result of Arab League statutes and the fact of the Egyptian signing of a peace treaty with Israel. These are protective measures not sanctions. They apply not just to Egypt but apply to other entities as well. They are joint measures in accordance with the statutes of the Arab League and the Joint Mutual Defense Pact. We will hold the position that we will not support any effort to punish Egypt. Rather we will use every effort we can exert to bring about the understanding that we have with Egypt.

With regard to regional security affairs, we talked extensively about this with Secretary Brown. We established a joint committee to look at all bases of the threat and develop a common understanding. We agreed in principle on this, and Mr. Murray has since come back for discussions. Thus far, it has involved the South Yemen issue primarily, but we think that it is a good exercise. I would like to express the gratitude of my government for the extended in the past two months in achieving common understanding and taking the necessary response to the threat. We work well together. We hope this cooperation will continue and that this kind of quick response will govern our actions in the future. We must face up to the Soviets.

These issues will not be solved in one meeting. We appreciate your presence here not only as a sign that the President wants us to know your views but that you want to know our views. I may have roamed in the course of this presentation.

Dr. Brzezinski said that Prince Fahd had made a clear, concise presentation. If there was time, the President had asked him to be as responsive as possible in explaining our position on many other issues such as SALT, and he hoped that you will not hesitate to raise these. We agreed with Prince Fahd’s final observation that this has been a good beginning, made up partly of your ideas and partly our ideas.

Given the fact that the concrete test which arose was certainly not planned, nevertheless, I think that the message was understood by those to whom it was addressed.

I welcomed and was heartened by the statement that Saudi Arabia would not be a party to punishing Egypt and would maintain every effort to maintain normal relations with Egypt. If you should do anything tangible beyond those technical issues, it would harm us. We will be helping Egypt, and that effort would be vitiated.

You say that the Arab League’s reaction is technical or symbolic (Prince Fahd starts to interrupt)–the movement of the headquarters from Cairo is certainly a symbolic move. But, it is important that the peace process not be inhibited by an isolated or weakened Sadat. You are very important in that regard.

Your point that Sadat should use more salesmanship is a good one. We will tell Sadat to do more to make his case. This effort is not one of instant miracles but rather shaping a political process to lead to a particular objective. Prime Minister Begin has been in trouble since his proposal of autonomy, return of land, and self-government was perceived as leading to something more than that. It is impossible to predict what the outcome would be.

We cannot guarantee a Palestinian state but it is important that the Palestinians be engaged more as partners. We will talk to Hussein about this. He may not be able to participate early in the process, but we hope he will not block it. That plays into the hands of those in Israel who want to stay where they are. U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt represent a threat to the hardline elements. The Camp David accords are built on a twin structure of a peace treaty and then moving on to negotiations on the West Bank and Gaza. The treaty is just the beginning of a process but it could gain momentum, especially if the Palestinians begin participating in growing numbers. This will take political sophistication, but we see it as an equitable beginning.

Prince Fahd asked what would happen in the Arab world in the meantime. Dr. Brzezinski replied that isolation has to be avoided.

Prince Fahd wondered how? Arab perceptions have gone askew at the efforts of Egypt. We thought that Sadat would take on the Arab mantle, but he has achieved self-isolation even from his friends. When he was going to Camp David he told us formally that, “As long as this man (Begin) lives I cannot put my name on any document; so I go there only to get the U.S. position.” There have been a series of constant events, surprises. That may move some people but that rule does not apply in this part of the world.

Dr. Brzezinski said that maybe President Sadat had not articulated his position enough or had not tried enough. It was important to remember the progress, however. Two years ago, Israel had said they would never give up the Sinai, they would never return to the original lines. There are different kinds of peace settlements. One is a peace dictated by the victors. The alternate is accommodation, where both sides have to give something. The Arabs are not a vanquished nation. They performed brilliantly in 1973. However, Israel also is not defeated, so compromises are required. After my recent visit to Israel, I am convinced that Begin’s political problems are real. The anguish there is real. It was apparent in the Knesset with the great spectacle of political opposition.

Prince Fahd wondered whether it would be possible for the United States to announce the end result of the peace process.

Dr. Brzezinski replied that would kill the process from the beginning. We would have three choices:

  • First, we could announce a result fully satisfying to the Arabs in which case the Israelis would never join the process;
  • Secondly, we could announce an outcome favorable to Israel, in which case the Arabs would not join the process;
  • Thirdly, we could announce an outcome involving serious concessions by both sides, in which case both sides would probably refuse to join in.

Prince Fahd wondered why we could not go to an international forum; why not further refine the definition of Resolution 242 in the Security Council?

Dr. Brzezinski replied that at this time a certain measure of ambiguity was needed in order to move forward. He pointed to the speech by Mr. Peres in the Knesset recently, half of which dealt with the rights of the Palestinians. He thought this was extremely important since Peres could conceivably be the next Prime Minister.

Prince Fahd said, why not wait until he becomes Prime Minister?

Dr. Brzezinski said he cited Peres’ speech as an example of the kind of change of attitudes that can occur when one is not too precise. That is especially true when the objectives are irreconcilable.

Prince Turki noted that Mr. Christopher had referred to the checks and balances among the three different sections of the U.S. Government. He thought there was a fourth element –the press. Saudi Arabia is anxious that its actions not be interpreted in the United States on the basis of their reporting by the Washington Post. America has an Ambassador here to find out what Saudi views are.