King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who is to arrive in Washington today, brings a shopping list for arms totaling at least $3 billion. He is asking for F-15 fighter airplanes, Sidewinder missiles, M-1 tanks, Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), and a great many lesser weapons. The Reagan administration has decided to institute a comprehensive review before responding to his request.
What will follow should the United States agree to sell the king what he is seeking? Paradoxically, the two countries' ties will not improve; more likely, they will be damaged.
This is exactly what happened after Saudi Arabia won the right to purchase five AWACS in October 1981. Although supporters of the sale predicted an upturn in relations with Saudi Arabia, the reverse took place: the Saudis immediately undertook unfriendly steps. They charged $2 more per barrel of oil just one day after the Senate vote, forcing the price to an all-time high of $34 a barrel. Within a month, they gave more than $28 million to the Palestine Liberation Organization and participated in an urgent campaign against Oman's agreement to cooperate militarily with the United States.
These three policies — raising oil prices, aiding the PLO, and sabotaging American defense efforts in the Persian Gulf — were then repeated many times in subsequent years.
Saudi leaders also went out of their way to associate themselves with America's enemies, including Syria, Libya, and the Soviet Union. They supported the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and called for the withdrawal of American forces. Diplomatic relations with Libya were resumed in January 1982; contact with Soviet Union began in mid-1983 for the first time in many years.
In addition, the Saudis obstructed the Reagan administration's two major initiatives for the Middle East. They pressured Jordan not to accept the Reagan plan and they endorsed Syrian opposition to the Lebanese-Israeli agreement of May 1983.
In return for the United States agreeing to sell its most advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia, the latter responded with an outpouring of unfriendly acts. Why?
Ingratitude and perfidy are not the explanation. Rather, the answer lies in the contrary needs of the Saudi and American governments.
In Riyadh, maintaining a distance from Washington has critical importance. Too close identification with a superpower makes a Moslem ruler vulnerable to the accusation of dissipating his sovereignty. Few things arouse a Moslem populace against the authorities so much as this. If the shah of Iran and Anwar Sadat forgot this lesson, Saudi monarchs remember to keep their distance, publicly at least, from the United States. For King Fahd to retain legitimacy, he cannot allow himself even the appearance of taking orders from Washington. Thus, he demands that cooperation between the countries be limited and very quiet.
In the normal course of events, the American government goes out of its way to accommodate the Saudi needs for secrecy. For example, the Saudis and other Arab states were granted the unique privilege of having the record of their investments in the United States kept confidential.
But because it requires congressional approval, sale of major weapons system cannot be made quietly. Controversy over Saudi Arabia's friendliness toward the United States prompts intense debates — and publicity — about the wisdom of sharing with it the most advanced arms.
Congress initially balked at the Reagan administration proposal of the AWACS sale in 1981. To win approval, President Reagan assured the Senate that the AWACS would be transferred only after he certified that "initiatives toward the peaceful resolution of disputes in the region have … been accomplished with the substantial assistance of Saudi Arabia." In short, he publicly proclaimed that Saudi Arabia would continue to serve American diplomacy in the Middle East.
This helped in Congress, but it threatened Saudi leaders in their own country. In response, the king asserted Saudi independence by taking a great number of unfriendly acts against the United States, and the two countries' relations sharply deteriorated.
The downward spiral that took place after October 1981 will presumably be repeated should the current Saudi arms request be granted. Again, the president will emphasize the Saudi government's utility and again this will provoke hostile Saudi actions.
If a steady partnership is ever to be built with Riyadh, it will be based on modest and discrete relations, not on weapons spectaculars.
Daniel Pipes is associate professor of strategy at the U.S Naval War College Newport R.I and is editor of the Harvard Middle East Papers.