Saudi Arabia will take its multibillion-dollar shopping list for warplanes elsewhere if the United States tries to link sales of U.S.-made fighters with Israeli security concerns, Saudi defense officials said Saturday.
After talks with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Clinton pledged Thursday an “unshakable commitment” to Israel’s security and to maintaining its military edge in the Middle East.
Netanyahu later told the Pentagon he was concerned about the Saudis’ interest in purchasing 100 U.S.-made F-16 fighters.
The statements were not well-received in Saudi Arabia, defense officials said by telephone from the Saudi capital, Riyadh.
“If our leaders feel that there is U.S. reluctance to sell them equipment, they will go elsewhere,” said one official. He and others spoke on condition of anonymity.
The officials noted that Saudi Arabia was looking at a variety of jets, including French Mirage fighters, British Tornado aircraft and the F-16s, to replace 114 obsolete U.S.-made F-5 jets.
The leading American supplier is Lockheed Martin Corp., and the deal is potentially worth about $15 billion.
The F-16 deal was expected to be discussed during a visit to Washington later this month by the Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan. He will be the highest-ranking Saudi to visit the United States in recent years.
But Saudi Arabia’s Arab Times newspaper quoted Sultan last week as saying he won’t discuss the fighters. Officials in the kingdom said Sultan and other senior Saudis were angered by U.S. disclosures of the potential sale even before Clinton’s remarks.
Israel apparently is concerned about the deal because the jets would significantly enhance the Saudi air force’s attack capability.
Western intelligence officials say Saudi Arabia already has CSS-2 intermediate range missiles, which can be fitted with nuclear warheads and are capable of reaching Israel.
Saudi Arabia and the United States have been close allies for more than five decades.
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