He hates suits. He hates ties. If Prince Bandar bin Sultan had his way, he would spend all his time wearing a flight suit and aviator sunglasses. Instead, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States has to suit up in diplomatic drab with just one clue to his high-flying past: his F-15 tie.

American-educated, quick on his feet and master of the sound bite, the charismatic prince turned fighter pilot turned diplomat has emerged as one of the Arab world's most colorful spokesmen since the Persian Gulf crisis landed -- literally -- in his back yard.

"I have a good friend of mine from Texas telling me the other day: 'You diddle me once, shame on you. You diddle me twice, shame on me,' " Bandar told "Today" show host Deborah Norville on Tuesday morning in just one of the countless interviews he has given in the past week. "And we will not be diddled by the Iraqis again, regardless of what demagoguery they have used recently."

Diddle? Hardly a staple of the diplomatic lexicon.

"I thought it had a ring to it," he says with a laugh. "You don't have time to speak Shakespearean when you are flying supersonics. No doubt, my air force life has left an impact on many of the things that I do -- and I think language is one of them."

Bandar, the Saudis' top gun in the United States, is flying by the seat of his pants. As American troops leave the safety of home to protect his country, Bandar has to assure the American public that it's worth it. It's the diplomatic equivalent of flying a jet plane -- upside down, 50 feet from the ground.

"Working in the United States," he says, "is the closest to pulling G's I ever came. I find that you have to be really going supersonic to try to catch up with all these players in the game."

Bandar leans back and tells a story about Queen Victoria and her prime minister Benjamin Disraeli.

"She said to him, 'Doesn't Britain have any permanent friends?' And Disraeli said, 'Ma'am, Britain has no permanent friends or permanent enemies. It just has permanent interests.' "

Bandar the historian takes over from the fighter pilot for a moment. He traces the history of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, from Ibn Saud and Franklin Roosevelt to the present, with all the ebbs and flows along the way: the cooperation with American oil companies, the oil embargo during the Arab-Israeli war in 1973, the joint resistance to communism in the Middle East, the conflict over Israel, and the Palestinian question.

But always, the oil: Saudi Arabia sits on 25 percent of the world's known oil reserves.

"What's wrong with having friendship coinciding with interests?" he says. "If anything, it enhances either the interests or the friendship. Doesn't it beat having relations with somebody just because you have interests but you really hate their guts?

"Yes, you {the United States} are doing this for your national interest, which is oil -- and I don't see anything wrong with that nor should you be apologetic about it, nor should we -- but you also happen to be on the right side of the moral issue."

The moral issue is, of course, Saddam Hussein's invasion of another Arab country. Like the rest of the Arab world, Bandar was stunned by Saddam's actions. And he says he is utterly confused by the actions of Jordan's King Hussein.

"I know King Hussein very well, and I always had respect for King Hussein. I like him as a human being -- after all, he's also a fellow pilot," Bandar says. "But I would be less than honest if I say I'm not hurt by the position he's taken. I just cannot understand it, particularly when I know that when he was in need, we had Saudi troops there for 10 years without 'if' and 'but' and conditions."

Because Saudi Arabia is home to Islam's two holy cities, Mecca and Medina, there was speculation that the Islamic majority would resist having Western troops in the country. But Bandar says Saudi public opinion was swayed in favor of U.S. military involvement when Saudis saw Kuwaiti refugees on television last week.

"The foreign troops did not come and therefore cause the invasion. The invasion took place and this is the result. Whoever does not like what they see, they should blame the cause, not the effect."

The 41-year-old prince was named ambassador to the United States in 1983, the first member of the Saudi royal family to hold the position. He is the grandson of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the first king of Saudi Arabia, nephew of the current king, Fahd, and son of Prince Sultan, the Saudi Defense Minister.

The family traces its roots in Arabia from the time of George Washington, but the Sauds date the modern era from Sept. 24, 1932, when Ibn Saud declared the country a kingdom and became its first ruler.

It is a "common" royal family, says Bandar, similar to all the Persian Gulf tribes. "The first person that created the dynasty was like everybody else. He just worked a little harder, had a little more guts, took more risks, had more patience, and stayed with whatever it is a little longer until he was recognized as leader of that group or that village or tribe."

The difference, of course, was that this leader was sitting on one of the world's great fortunes, giving the family vast wealth and world influence. Ibn Saud had 34 sons, and those sons and their children now make up the core of the Saudi royal family and its power.

King Faisal, once widely regarded as the Arab world's quintessential tactician, is said to be Bandar's role model. Faisal served as Saudi Arabia's foreign minister and prime minister before becoming king in 1964. A frequent visitor to the United States, Faisal was an exponent of a modern, industrialized Saudi Arabia until he was assassinated by a nephew in 1975. Bandar is married to Faisal's daughter, Princess Haifa.

The young Bandar received a classic royal education in Saudi Arabia until he was 16 years old, when he was sent to Cranwell, the British Royal Air Force college.

He graduated from Cranwell in 1969, then came to the United States and trained as a fighter pilot in Texas, took advanced U.S. Air Force training at Air University in Alabama, and received a master's degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins University.

"Being from a royal family and a professional at the same time causes a problem," he says. "When you get a compliment, is it for you as a human being or is it because of your title? When I'm flying airplanes, I have no doubt what they're talking about."

But there is also an undisguised passion for flying itself. "All these things -- the atmosphere, the feeling, the excitement, the speed, the challenge. You cannot do two flights the same way. Every time you take off, it's a new life, a new world. When you land, you're reborn again because you could have been killed."

A back injury has put a crimp in his literal jet-setting, and Bandar is uncharacteristically low-key about the other prerogatives of a princely life. He admits to being a movie buff, especially histories and biographies. And anything to do with airplanes. "Patton" was a favorite. And -- of course -- "Top Gun."

He reportedly enjoys sports cars and skiing, and he raised a flap last year in Aspen, Colo., when he applied for a permit to build a 55,000-square-foot home for the royal family. He lives with his wife and their six children, ages 2 to 17, in a McLean mansion owned by the Saudi government and guarded by Welsh bodyguards.

The Saudi royal family, as leaders of traditional followers of Islam and custodians of Islam's holy cities, has generally been careful to avoid the appearance of being nouveau riche spendthrifts -- a charge that has been leveled at some members of the royal family seen in London casinos and Beverly Hills mansions. The second king, one of Ibn Saud's sons, was deposed by the family for reportedly inappropriate behavior and excessive spending.

"I feel personally that I am bicultural," says Bandar. "I feel very comfortable in your culture and I feel even more comfortable in my culture. I don't find the contradictions. Why? Because where I have to make a choice, I always refer to my culture."

Bandar, like his uncle King Fahd, is a strong advocate of modernization without Westernizing. "We think the difference is a very thin line. To have a Hilton hotel -- that's modernization. To have a bar in the hotel -- that's Westernization. But that has nothing to do with room service, with the telephone system, with the quality of service."

He describes his country as growing, expanding and readjusting as it goes along -- but within a specific cultural context. "There are parameters within our system. If you stay within them, you are acceptable. If you go outside them, you are rejected."

Bandar has managed to straddle the line between his family's expectations and life as an international diplomat and military specialist. In 1978, when he was 29, he served as royal lobbyist for Saudi Arabia's purchase of $3.5 billion in military hardware, including 60 F-15 fighter planes. After 17 years in the Saudi air force, where he achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel in the 7th Royal Saudi Air Force Squadron, he served for a year as the Saudi defense and armed forces attache in Washington and was instrumental in the negotiations that resulted in Saudi Arabia's purchase of AWACS planes from the United States in 1982. He also served as a behind-the-scenes intermediary between the PLO and the Reagan administration. In 1983, the 34-year-old prince was named Saudi Arabia's U.S. ambassador.

"I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would end up as ambassador in Washington," he says. "I dreamed about being the chief of the Saudi air force. My whole life changed one day and I became a diplomat instead of a career fighter pilot.

"I didn't let it stop me. I just shifted gears and said, 'All right. This is a new game, new field, new effort. I'm going to try and be the best at it too.' "

For the most part, Bandar has expertly maneuvered through the choppy waters of Washington politics, but he has been in hot water with the U.S. government twice: during the Iran-contra scandal, when it was revealed that then-CIA Director William Casey approached and received funding from the Saudis to finance covert operations in Lebanon and Nicaragua; and in 1988, when it was discovered that he had struck deals in 1985 with the Chinese to buy $3 billion worth of DF3A intermediate-range missiles, weapons that he had originally requested from the United States. The Saudis contended the missiles were bound for Iraq; U.S. intelligence later confirmed they were in Saudi Arabia.

"I think part of the hurt was that people didn't really expect us to do what we have done," he says. "My country has always been misunderstood. When we say no gently, people think it means maybe. It doesn't mean maybe. When we say yes, we mean yes. When we say no, it means no. But we don't scream about it, so people sometimes mix our signals. But we have never said we would not defend our country or get what we need to defend our country."

Now, Bandar is prepared to do whatever he can to keep Saddam out of Saudi Arabia. The ex-fighter pilot says he has no taste for war, but that the Saudis will do whatever is necessary to protect the country and the people.

"In all my public life, I always felt -- with all the differences I saw and had to work with in the Arab world -- always, the bottom line, it was salvageable," he says. "That if the national call comes to stand together, people would forget their differences. But what happened to Kuwait is unique, so blatant, so arrogant, so violent, so in a deceiving mode from people you thought would never deceive you in life, that it makes pause to question the whole Arab situation in a way I have never questioned before.

"That doesn't mean I have settled down in my mind or heart on how the future will be, but I tell you: We have been shaken from our roots. And I think it will take a long time to put the Arab world back together."