Arabs watching US on Saudi AWACS deal

Saudi Arabia's vast deserts, vacant coasts, and farflung borders soon may be patrolled by the kingdom's own American-built early warning airplanes -- if the United States Congress approve the sale.

But that is a big if, as the Saudis and other moderate Arabs know.

The Israelis, arguing that the US AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) could be used to spy on them, promise a stiff challenge in Congress.

Even though Israel itself has an earlier version of the AWACS, plus access to sophisticated US avionics (and is seeking help from US spy satellites), the Menachem Begin government on April 22 warned that the sale of five AWACS, plus extended range equipment for F-15 fighters, to Saudi Arabia could "create a grave danger to the security of the state of Israel."

The moderate Arab view of the AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia is one of public disappointment at the unseemly wrangling in Washington -- but private patience with the familiar tentativeness of America's power-sharing government. And the Israeli opposition was expected.

Because of Washington's relationships with both Israel and its foes, Arabs have watched these arms sale disputes in the past, even if they have not been involved in them.

In 1977, for instance, Congress turned down an attempt by the Carter administration to sell the AWACS to Iran. And in 1978, only after months of difficult lobbying was President Carter able to win approval for the sale of F- 15 fighters to Saudi Arabia and the lifting of the arms embargo against Turkey.

These White House victories overcame powerful Israeli and Greek interest groups on Capitol Hill.

The Saudi deal, approved by the White House April 21, is seen by many Arabs as testing both the US commitment to Mideast nations other than Israel and the strength of the Reagan administration in its first open conflict with Israel. There is some speculation that Israel's continuing military pressure on southern Lebanon may be a way of showing the Reagan administration that Israel can keep the region hot if it wants to.

Among less moderate Arabs, such as a recently interviewed Palestine Liberation Organization official, the fact that the military sale is being buffeted by opposition in Washington shows that "after all these years, the Saudis still can't buy arms from America without having to grovel."

Bolstering the Saudis, however, would seem to fit in with US Mideast policy since 1969, when the "Nixon doctrine" called for promoting self-reliance in the region by arming local powers. The Shah of Iran was the favored "policeman of the Gulf" during the Nixon, Ford, and half of the Carter presidencies.

When the Shah fell and the hostages were seized in Iran, the "Carter doctrine" served warning that US forces might be called upon to protect the area.

But in practice the Carter doctrine -- which proposed a 25,000-man rapid deployment force to bolster confidence in the US ability to respond to a crisis -- has been hamstrung by logistical and political problems. For the past year, the Saudis have stepped up arms purchases and hammered together a Gulf security pact in order to ensure their own defense. The Saudis view the AWACS as part of their self-defense.

One of the reasons for strenuous objections to US bases in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf is that they could give Washington an excuse not to supply allies in the Mideast, since they would be under the US defense umbrella anyway. Moderate Arab leaders argue that they have a right to protect their own nations and say the US would not use a rapid deployment force, even if it had one, except in a major crisis.

Saudi opposition to the rapid deployment force was repeated this week following a visit by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who f avors the concept.

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