Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Despite last week's attacks by Iran on Saudi oil tankers, Saudi Arabia is keeping at arms' length from American offers for military assistance. The reason for doubts about US aid is that Saudi Arabia is disillusioned, humiliated, and uncomfortable with the United States as its main supplier, say diplomats and arms salesmen here.
On Tuesday, King Fahd approved a $1 billion air defense system for the desert kingdom and other measures to mobilize against foreign attacks, according to the Saudi Press Agency. He did not specify to what degree American companies will be called upon to help put the system together in the coming year.
Offers of more short-term help came in a letter Monday to King Fahd from President Reagan. The President repeated that the United States is ready to send military forces to protect the Gulf if requested by Gulf nations. So far no country in the region appears to have taken up the offer.
The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said in an interview here that while his nation and the US Congress may share the goal of protecting the Gulf, the way the Congress actually goes about doing it is unacceptable.
''For the Gulf, the basic issue is to make the Gulf countries able to protect themselves,'' Prince Saud said. ''Nobody wants marines from anywhere to come and fight their battles for them. But everyone expects that if there is a friendly country that it would (agree to help) if it is weapons that are required.
Any Saudi wariness of US help hasn't happened overnight nor is it just because the US withdrew its Marines from Lebanon, say diplomats here. They add that the five other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman - are also intent on diversifying their weaponry for much the same reason. The GCC is planning to upgrade it common defense pact this week, according to the Kuwaiti foreign minister.
Even American-educated Saudis familiar with the workings of Congress find it hard to accept the debate and scrutiny that goes with any proposal to sell arms to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government has properly documented its defense requirements, these Saudis believe, adding that the recent Iranian attacks on Saudi tankers and Israeli overflights of Saudi air space strengthen the government's case. They say bitterly that Congress votes according to the wishes of the Israeli lobby.
Such views have only been hardened by the Reagan administration's recent withdrawal of a proposal to sell the Saudis 1,400 Stinger antiaircraft missiles. Diplomats say the Saudis don't understand how the Americans can say one minute that the kingdom is a stable and moderate ally and the next minute refuse to sell it such missiles because they might fall into the hands of terrorists.
''They (the French) send their defense minister here to ask them to buy their weapons,'' said an American arms dealer. ''But they (the Saudis) look at the United States and say, 'We have to beg to buy yours,' and that just galls them.''
A Western diplomat added: ''The French are quite frank about their sales. They say they do it for the money. But one reason they are getting in the door is because their entire Middle East policy is seen by the Arabs as being fair.''
The French account for about half of the Gulf defense market, according to the Arab Press Service in Beirut. It estimates that French sales to the Gulf and Iraq will amount to about $9.5 billion in 1983-84. In January, the French won a contract from the Saudis for air defense missiles worth $4.5 billion.
It is not just irritation with US policy that has given the French such a boon, diplomats and Saudis say. When Iraq went to war with Iran in September 1980, it was largely dependent on the Soviet Union.
The Soviets were not forthcoming with spare parts and more weapons, which hurt Iraq. The Iraqis turned to the French. The Gulf Arabs clearly recognized the disadvantage of having one supplier, diplomats say.
Another drawback for American weapons merchants has been a Carter administration policy that has continued under President Reagan. President Carter banned the export of the latest in fighter plane technology, even to friendly countries in areas where Washington did not want to increase the supply of fire power.
General Dynamics and Northrop developed fighter planes modeled on the F-16, but put less advanced electronics and engines on them. But the Gulf states haven't bought them, dealers say.
The Saudis do have four American AWACS radar-surveillance planes on loan, but the US has restricted where they can fly them. The Saudis are scheduled to take delivery on five AWACS in 1985.