Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are diversifying their sources of high technology military hardware away from the United States in moves that give momentum to a vigorous arms race in the Gulf. The moves come amid continued frustration in Riyadh and Kuwait City over US congressional opposition to selling top-of-the-line US warplanes and munitions to the conservative Gulf states. Some congressmen are concerned such sales might harm the security of Israel.
The Gulf states are now taking their military shopping lists to other international arms suppliers such as Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and China.
The issue of US arms sales is expected to top the agenda of a week of meetings that began yesterday in Washington between Kuwait's Prime Minister Sheikh Saad Al-Abdullah Al-Sabah and senior US officials, including President Reagan.
The US Senate cited concern for Israel when it decided late last week to exclude Maverick missiles from a proposed arms package for Kuwait. In a potential $1.9 billion deal, Kuwait had asked to purchase 40 F-18 fighter bombers and 660 missiles, including 300 of the heat-seeking air-to-surface Mavericks. Kuwaiti officials reacted angrily to the Senate action, suggesting that they would consider canceling the entire $1.9 billion deal if the Mavericks are excluded.
As if to underline what is at stake, Kuwait on Sunday announced the signing of a military supply deal, of an unspecified amount, with the Soviet Union. And on Monday, as Sheikh Saad began his Washington meetings, Kuwaiti officials in the Gulf were holding talks with Britain's Defense Secretary George Younger about possible Kuwaiti-British arms sales.
Mr. Younger's appearance in Kuwait is seen as highly significant and an unmistakeable Kuwaiti message to the US Congress. Only a week earlier, during a secret July 3 meeting in Bermuda, Younger signed a $29 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia's defense minister, Prince Sultan ibn Abdel Aziz al-Saud.
The British-Saudi deal means that over the next decade the British Tornado fighter will replace the US F-15 as the workhorse of the Saudi Air Force. It will also guarantee 18,000 jobs at British Aerospace.
``They are sending a message to the United States that if you will not sell us the arms we need for our self-defense, we can get the arms from other sources either in the West or in the East,'' says a Gulf-based Arab analyst. ``It is that simple.''
Some Arab analysts in the region see an irony in the US reluctance to sell arms to the Kuwaitis or Saudis, while at the same time stationing 29 US warships and 15,000 American servicemen in the region - in large part to compensate for the Gulf Arabs' military weakness.
``It is in the US interest to protect the Gulf, but instead the US is hindering the Gulf states from protecting themselves,'' says an Arab analyst.
Kuwait has been hit by both Iranian Silkworm and Scud-B missiles and its airspace has been violated by Iranian jets. In addition, ships traveling to or from all the Gulf Arab ports have been shot at or set ablaze by Iranian speedboats that have operated largely unchallenged by the Gulf states.
The most alarming instance so far for the US and Israel of the arms source diversification effort was Saudi Arabia's secret purchase from China of ``East Wind'' CSS-2 missiles with a range of under 2,000 miles. The missiles, sometimes capable of carrying nuclear warheads, can strike Iran or Israel from Saudi territory. At the same time, China has become an increasingly important arms supplier to both Iran and Iraq.
The Soviets have also made inroads as an arms supplier because of US reluctance to sell arms to Arabs. In 1985 Kuwait signed a $325 million deal for Soviet SA-7 antiaircraft missiles after the US Congress refused to sell Stinger missiles to Kuwait.
In a more recent controversy, the US is trying to find out how Qatar managed to secretly purchase 12 Stingers despite a US ban on their sale to all Gulf Arab states except Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Qatari officials argue that their security is at stake and that they need the missiles.
While there are lingering fears about Israel, the most serious threat perceived by the Gulf states is from Iran. The western, Arab side of the Gulf is lined with exposed and vulnerable pipelines, storage tanks, refineries, processors, power stations, and water desalination plants. Many of them, including Saudi Arabia's most important oil facilities, are less than five minutes flying time for an Iranian fighter bomber.
Gulf officials and analysts stress that the Gulf states don't have the ability to carry out offensive operations. They say that efforts to acquire sophisticated weapons systems are aimed at assembling an effective deterrent to make Iran - or even Israel - think twice before launching a bombing or missile attack.