Saudis seem to wonder what the uproar over their country's purchase of ballistic missiles is all about. ``Everybody knows we will never attack the Israelis,'' says Fahd, a hotel executive in Riyadh.
Riyadh has stated publicly that the Chinese-supplied CSS-2 Dong Feng Oh (East Wind) missiles are strictly for defense. That posture is widely accepted in private among Saudis, who say they see the weapons as a deterrent to Iran. But they also say the missiles would be used against whoever attacked the kingdom.
One indicator that the missiles are defensive in nature is their limited accuracy. They hit as much as 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from their target. Thus the CSS-2s couldn't be relied on to knock out enemy airstrips in a first strike - unless equipped with nuclear warheads.
In a March 20 statement, the kingdom denied that the intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) can carry atomic warheads. The statement said Riyadh ``constantly endeavors to ward off from the Mideast region the dangers of the nuclear arms race, to keep it free from nuclear weapons in any form.''
Nevertheless, China does arm its 90 or so CSS-2s with 2-3 megaton nuclear warheads. Western military attach'es here say there is absolutely no indication the Saudis have acquired or will be able to acquire nuclear warheads for the missiles. However, an Israeli spokesman told the Monitor that his country is concerned that in the future the missiles might be armed with chemical warheads.
The alternative is a 750-kg (1,650-pound) conventional warhead, roughly equivalent to those being fired between Iran and Iraq.
On March 20, Israel hinted that it might destroy the missiles in a pre-emptive strike. The threat is credible; Israel destroyed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981 in just such a strike.
Jordan, Syria, and Egypt replied that they would regard an attack against Saudi Arabia as an attack on themselves.
Last Friday President Reagan said, ``Naturally we would be totally opposed to any such thing and hope that they're not considering any such action.''
Launch sites for the CSS-2 missiles are now under construction near an airbase in Al Kharj, a sleepy agricultural town of date palm groves, modern dairies, and irrigated fields 60 miles south of Riyadh. The mobile missiles are to be shuffled among concrete garages.
Western diplomats in Riyadh think Saudi Arabia has purchased as many as 20 of the missiles. Whether or not they've been delivered isn't clear. But once in place, their 1,840-mile range will allow the Saudis to strike as far away as the southern Soviet Union.
``I think the Saudis have done a good thing. If the Israelis have nuclear weapons, and the Iranians have missiles, then the Saudis should have missiles,'' the Saudi hotel executive said.
One attraction the missiles hold for the Saudis, Western defense attach'es speculate, is flexibility in retaliating for any Iranian missile attacks or airstrikes. The Saudis formerly had only one option: a massive airstrike that would risk pilots, some of whom are princes. Now the Saudis can fire a missile that is accurate enough to land somewhere in Tehran or Qom.
Diplomats also wonder, however, whether Riyadh fully calculated the potential political cost of having even conventionally armed missiles. ``I'm not sure they thought this thing through,'' says a West European ambassador. He expects the Saudis to have more difficulty purchasing weapons from the United States as a result.
The fact that the missiles were bought from the People's Republic of China, with whom the Saudis have no diplomatic but growing informal and trade relations, is seen as an interesting wrinkle in the deal.
A junior-level official at Saudi Foreign Ministry says: ``This is our way of showing the Americans that we can buy weapons wherever we want to.''