King Fahd ruled Saudi Arabia from 1982 to 2005, leading it in a strong alliance with the United States and deep involvement in the affairs of the Middle East. In 1988, an unfortunate series of events led American Ambassador Hume Horan to provoke the wrath of the King and leave his post just nine months after he arrived. The American-born son of an Iranian Foreign Minister, Horan had a long diplomatic career throughout the Middle East and was well-connected in Saudi society.
In the spring of 1988, the United States learned that Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan had negotiated the purchase of medium-range ballistic missiles from Communist China in response to a U.S. suspension of arms sales to the country. Ambassador Horan received instructions to inform the King of Washington’s concerns about the deal. After confirming the strongly worded message with the State Department, Horan sent word to the Royal Household. However, he was soon told the U.S. had sent a different message to the Saudis at the same time and that the King was displeased with Horan’s comments. Former Under Secretary of State Philip Habib was sent to meet with the King and resolve the conflict. Instead, the King showed his anger toward Horan in a meeting with the American officials and the Ambassador decided to leave the country.
The career diplomat was further humiliated when the State Department asked him to request Saudi approval for his predecessor to return to the ambassadorial post. The experience also made it difficult for him to serve again in the Middle East. Horan was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in November 2000.
You can also read about Ambassador Sam Lewis’ run-in with Ariel Sharon, Ambassador Harrison Symmes’ dispute with Jordan’s King Hussein, and other Moments on the Middle East. You can read about how John Ferch was forced out of his post as Ambassador to Honduras and how April Glaspie was criticized for her meeting with Saddam Hussein shortly before Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
“There are moments when the State Department finds itself out of its weight class”
HORAN: In 1986 before I was there, Congress had upheld a Presidential veto on arms to Saudi Arabia. Later we told the Saudis, “After all, you can buy F-15s, but the ceiling is 60. You can’t have any more than 60 at any one time. Then the Saudis wanted to buy a supply of Maverick air-to-air missiles. The F-15 without Mavericks is like a knight in armor without a lance. We said, “No, because we know the Congress would never approve of a direct sale to Saudi Arabia.” That refusal really angered the Saudis.
In 1988 Prince Bandar (at left) informed us that his government could no longer regard the U.S. as a reliable partner in arms sales. His government was very concerned. Afterwards, I wondered if Bandar had just been putting his alibi in place. Which was the chicken, and which the egg?
Because in the spring of 1988, we discovered that the Saudis had bought (unknown to us), from the Communist Chinese, an intermediate range strategic missile system. The agent for the deal, which was worth hundreds of millions of dollars, was none other than Prince Bandar himself! The sale, we think, had its origins during Bandar’s visit to Beijing in the fall of 1987. This sort of missile had previously only been associated with the delivery of nuclear weapons.
The discovery that the Saudis had acquired ground-to ground missiles that could reach Tel Aviv produced a stir. Israel was very concerned. At that time, the missiles, stashed away in caves, were within weeks of becoming operational. We were shocked that our closest friend, the most anti-communist country in the region, should turn to Communist China for a sophisticated weapons system….
The missile system, per se, really doesn’t make sense. I’d note again, though, the agent for the sale was Prince Bandar. There are stories of his pocketing a large commission, which is sort of standard. When a big prince lands a major arms contract, there is usually at least a finder’s fee or something better. Bandar explained the purchase to us, saying, “You’ve been uncooperative. We are trying to get your attention. We are tired of constant admonitions about Congressional opposition to military sales. Frankly, what we’ve done makes us feel good. Self-standing. Like other nations in the area, we have our own missile system. We’ve kept up with the Joneses, or the Arabic equivalent.”
On March 12, I received instructions to see the King. I was to tell him that we welcomed his assurances (I guess passed through Bandar) that the missiles were non-nuclear. But we said we were not certain that other states would be fully reassured by such an assurance. Accordingly, we asked that all work on the missile training and launching sites be suspended. We wanted to be confident that this had been done.
The language was strong, so on the morning of the 15th I called Acting Assistant Secretary Peter Burleigh on the secure line. He said the message was, indeed, our policy. I should go ahead. So that day I asked for an audience, and provided the Royal Household with an outline of my intended talking points.
On March 17, however, the Department sent me an astonishing message. It said that at the time that I was presenting our position to the Royal Diwan on the 15th, the U.S. position being conveyed to Bandar the same day was different in both tone and substance. I was told to stop all discussions of the subject with the Saudis until I received further written instructions. I was also told the King was displeased with me. The Department said it was considering sending Secretary Shultz out. In the event, they sent [former Under Secretary of State] Phil Habib.
I guess there are moments when the State Department finds itself out of its weight class. Much of the action was going on at the NSC. I never got the sense that the State Department was “at the helm.” My understanding is that Bandar got in touch with the White House; he may have spoken with President Reagan. The edge was certainly taken off what the State Department was asking.
After his own demarches in Washington, Bandar apparently told the King that I’d been instructed henceforth to keep my nose out of the missile business, a plausible reading from him considering my instructions of March 17….
“The Royal Explosion”
Phil Habib (at left) came out. I remember how after he arrived I showed him my March 12 cable of instructions from the State Department. He handed it back, saying only, “That’s not our policy!” The next day… we went to see the King. With Habib came Bob Oakley of the NSC, Bill Kirby of NEA [Near Eastern Affairs], and Pol Counselor Alan Keiswetter (notetaker). I don’t remember the Saudi side, but Bandar was the King’s translator. The meeting was going all right until Habib said something like, “And now Your Majesty, we would like to take a look at those missiles. It is a matter of great concern to us.”
The King said, “They are non- nuclear, and there is no need for anybody to look at them.” Habib insisted, saying more or less, “Your Majesty, of course your word is gospel, but we would like for our own reasons to confirm that the missiles are non-nuclear and that the construction on them has stopped.”
At this point the King said, in so many words, “I guess the Ambassador has been meddling in this issue and he shouldn’t have. Prince Bandar was told that Horan had been instructed to stay out of it.”…
This was followed by what Bill Kirby later called “The Royal Explosion.” The King said that he had known American ambassadors for many years, and they had all been close friends of the Kingdom. He was deeply offended by the talking points he had received on the missile question. He then said, “If the Ambassador has Iranian blood, then let him keep it inside himself.” I’ll not forget that phrase! The meeting ended on that note.
Word of continued royal anger continued to reach us at the Embassy from various sources. So I cabled to the Department, saying in so many words, “My position with the Saudi government is compromised. In a religious autocracy, if you make an enemy of the King, your effectiveness is over. I’m afraid my continued presence here will only impede the work of the U.S. government.”
I recommended I be withdrawn, adding I hoped they would leave a nice long gap between my departure and the arrival of a replacement. I left the end of March….
The fact that my father had been a high official in the court of the Shah was known to the Saudis. He even came once on a visit to Jidda when I was DCM and he was… [Iranian] Foreign Minister. But now the Iran-Iraq [War] was going on. My ancestry must have been preying on the King’s mind.
It’s been surmised that I made the Saudis uncomfortable for other reasons, too. I called on all the cabinet in protocol order. Last on my schedule of calls was on the Minister of Religious Affairs. He was blind and maintained the earth was flat. He was widely respected and had a powerful intellect in his own domain. I recall that he actually laughed at some religious anecdote I told him! These meetings were always public, with Saudi and American note takers present. So the Saudis saw I was active. I had contacts from my earlier tour. I spoke Arabic. Did they maybe feel that here was an Ambassador who could not be confined along the same straight lines as other ones? The Saudis are an intensely private dynasty. Might it have bothered them that here was someone in a position to peek under their skirts?
What about Habib? He said almost nothing in response to the King’s outburst. Mumbled something about “Ambassadors communicate their instructions.” He wasn’t helpful. He seemed to be awfully full of himself and quick to side with, to nod approvingly, or suggest some sort of assent to whatever the King was saying. I strongly felt that the poor State Department had been outmaneuvered by Bandar, the NSC, and the White House. I was offended by the ethnic slur and, then and later, by the State Department’s weak reaction….
“Sometimes you just have to say ‘fuck it’”
My able staff did not dispute my decision that it was best that I leave. It was a happy Embassy. I’ll not forget that before I left the Embassy had a farewell for me. Over the recreational space they’d hung a large banner saying, “Farewell to our beloved Ambassador Horan.” I thought that was a nice choice of words for colleagues in a high-powered, impersonal post to apply to their boss. I suspected that Maryann Heimgartner, at several posts my strong right arm and superb personal assistant, had something to do with that….
Q: Did you get any reflection from circles within the Saudi government or from your contacts saying sorry or anything like that?
HORAN: It’s a monarchy. The Saudis keep their ducks in line. The King comes out against the American ambassador, and in a nanosecond people learn he is being withdrawn. Everyone huddles down in the grass. But one senior figure in the Foreign Ministry was an exception to the rule. He and I went out to the airport to say goodbye to Phil Habib and his staff. After the Habib party boarded, my Saudi friend turned and gave me a hug. I thought that was one of the most unusually personal gestures. The Saudis are not touchy feely at all.
Q: How did you find your reception back at the Near Eastern Bureau?
HORAN: It’s as if you’re a Russian specialist and you get PNGed [declared persona non grata by the host government] from Moscow. Thereafter, you might have great Russian but you assignment choices are, or were, limited. There was once was talk of maybe another Arab embassy, but no. Nobody in the Middle East wants to have as American ambassador someone who has drawn the wrath of King Fahd. It blots your copybook in the area generally.
Q: But I mean in a way the facts are that you were not made persona non grata, and you were not formally kicked out.
HORAN: Correct. Neither the Saudis nor Washington wanted to have a formal PNGing to deal with. But the word that we were getting from the Palace left me and the USG no alternative. I think, though, the Department could have left a certain gap between my departure and the arrival of a successor. That would have helped to show while we wanted to continue to do business, the missile deal, after all, was a very nasty surprise. It was not something normally done between old friends and allies. A gap at the Ambassador position would have helped to underline our displeasure.
It didn’t brighten my day when shortly before I left Riyadh, I was instructed to request agrement for my predecessor in the job! The Department was sending Walt Cutler back for a second tour! I was offended. I told Washington that to the Saudis, this nomination will be proof that the United States admits it had a rogue ambassador in Riyadh….
After I came back, Senator Paul Sarbanes had closed hearings on my departure from Arabia. He was supportive. Under such circumstances, you always appreciate a responsible person saying you’d done a good job and had conducted yourself in the manner expected of American representatives. Several other senators were there….
Afterwards, I ran into [Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs] Ed Djerejian, who was sympathetic. I said, “You know, Ed, sometimes you just have to say ‘fuck it.’” That was my attitude. Pissing and moaning and “Who struck John?” is all wasted breath. Life’s too short. I’d seen officers who took a reverse too much to heart, become crabbed and bitter.
There are certain things you should not let into your heart; one is righteous indignation. You should let go, and you should keep going, and should enjoy what life offers as long as you’re able to enjoy it.