After a decade of apparent smug indiference about its own defense, Saudi Arabi a now wants to buy sophisticated United States military hardware. The request is fueling a savage debate over Saudi intentions, particularly toward Israel.
The escalating controversy largely ignores the fact that, regardless of popular myth, Saudi Arabia has never been unrealistic about its vulnerability. Much of the kingdom's nonchalance about its defense grew out of the conviction that its position as the United States' major oil supplier guaranteed its security.
But now that comfortable relationship is caught on the thorns of the Palestinian question and Saudi doubt about America's ability to land enough men and machines in the Middle East to repel a Soviet attack. Among the Saudi hierarchy, there is a chilling perception that the US basically lacks the will to confront either the Israeli or the Soviet in the Middle East.
From Saudi Arabia's emergence into regional politics in the 1962 war in Yemen to the current behind-the-scenes moves to defuse the situation in Lebanon, the Saudis' first concern has always been their own national interest. A large part of that national interest is to keep Israel off of its borders.
In spite of its vitriolic attacks on the Jewish state, Saudi Arabia is content to let the confrontation states wage the Arab cause.
Saudi Arabia's current insistence on a solution to the Palestinian question is due to the rising fear that the Arabian Peninsula is the next target of Soviet expansionism. Saudi policymakers believe that the Arabs must unite because, unlike the 1970s, they must now provide for their own defense.
Saudi Arabia's confidence in the reliability of the American defense commitment began to collapse when the Soviet began their moves on the Horn of Africa. Despite dire warnings from the Saudis, the Carter administration essentially ignored the introduction of troops and supplies from the Soviet bloc into Ethiopia in 1977. By the following year, the Marxists had control of vital real estate directly across the Red Sea from the Arabian Peninsula.
By 1979, the Russian bear was pawing at the peninsula itself. Saudi Arabia was forced to put its army on an unprecedented full alert because of war between North Yemen and the Soviet-controlled Yemen People's Republic. In the end, it was Saudi money and not its military might which won a ceasefire. But the episode erased all doubt, in Saudi minds, about Soviet intentions in the Arabian Gulf.
The alarms bell son Afghanistan rang in Saudi Arabia long before the message reached Washington. The blatancy of the attack finally got the attention of the Carter administration as to the realities of Soviet power politics. Regardless of the success in arousing the American giant, Afghanistan remains a frightening reminder of the Saudis' own vulnerability.
In Saudi eyes, the lack of US concern about Saudi Arabia's vital interests is only one of the factors undermining relations between the two countries. A largely overlooked result of the Iranian debacle was the Saudi royal family's reaction to the Shah's plight as a homesless exile. There was not comprehension among the Saudi hierarchy of US motives in refusing to grant the Sha immediate asylum. The ruling Sauds came to believe that by tying themselves too closely to the United States they were guaranteeing neither the throne nor personal protection in case of political control.
The fall of the Shah also shook the near monopoly of political and economic power that Saudi Arabia exercises over the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Oman. The defense interests of the sheikdoms rested in Saudi Arabia's commitment to the US. Since that guarantee proved illusory, the rulers were not anxious to embrace the Saudi military establishment as their guardian angel. As one Dubai official bluntly stated, "Saudi power is oil money." In an attempt to refute the charge of impotence, Saudi Arabia's defense budget jumped close to $6 .5 billion between 1979 and 1980 and is still climbing as the country moves to build both its military and diplomatic defenses on the Arabian Peninsula.
Saudi Arabia sees itself being pulled more and more into the vortex of superpower confrontation.
Having rejected the option of stationing American troops on its soil, Saudi Arabia has chosen to buttress its defenses by purchasing sophisticated hardware from the US to erect its own protective umbrella over the Arabian Peninsula. Saudi Arabia has no desire to appear bellicose. Rather it has an all-consuming drive for regional stability which would give the Saudis the opportunity to modernize within an Islamic framework and to enjoy the advantages of their wealth.
Unfortunately, since the mid-'70s. US policy toward Saudi Arabia has ben ambivalent, leaving both countries floundering. Relations between the two countries have been in a state of tension over oil policy, the Soviet threat, Saudi nationalism, and US reluctance to push Israel on a solution for the Palestinians. But underyling these tensions has been Saudi Arabia's interest in seeing the West remain economically sound and the United States' basic confidence in the regime's ability to rule effectively. The alliance has held not because either county is hostage to the other, but because there has been a remarkable harmony of their national interests.