Saudi Arabia tacitly accepts the need for a Western Rapid Deployment Force but stays opposed to foreign bases or facilities in the Persian Gulf, according to senior Saudi officials.
The officials, who declined to be quoted by name, said the Kingdom fears a "vicious circle" of Western and Soviet military escalation in the Gulf, the chief supplier of Western oil.
While Saudi Arabia publicly says Gulf defense should be the Gulf states' sole concern, the officials said it also wants credible Western military help to be ready to combat possible Soviet aggression. They see Soviet encirclement as designed to control the oil and "choke" Western supplies. The kingdom, they said, would probably be willing to supply Moscow if oil was all it wanted.
They admitted Saudi Arabia, which had not been forewarned, had been annoyed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's strong support in Washington for a Rapid Deployment Force.
Thatcher is due here next month when the Saudis will urge her to press more forcefully for a Palestinian settlement -- as they will West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and U.S. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. in April.
The Saudis now await the West's defense proposals, the officials said, emphasizing that they do not want a Rapid Deployment Force in isolation from broader regional defense.
"They want to keep the problems over the horizon and away from the oilfields," one Western diplomat said. The Saudi officials were disappointed by their failure last year to galvanize Western and Gulf support for massive capital injection into Pakistan's troubled economy. The officials said that Saudi Arabia remains disappointed with the reaction to Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. They dismissed the U.S. grain embargo as covering only 10 percent of sales.
The Iran-Iraq conflict, however, is no longer seen as a particularly great threat to the Saudis, although according to Western diplomats the Saudi squadron of F5 fighters in Dhahran has regularly if infrequently had to scramble to deter Iranian naval reconnaissance aircraft.
Despite their objection to foreign military presence in the Gulf, the Saudi officials said they have not asked for the removal of U.S. facilities at the Massirah Naval Station in Oman. This will come when the recently formed six-state Gulf Cooperation Council begins to tackle joint pointed out that shooting again flared up recently when rebels infiltrated across the border with Marxist South Yemen, a strong supporter of Oman's Dhafari guerrillas in past years.
The officials said they would like to see a stronger Western response to the Soviet presence in Ethiopia and admitted that the kingdom tacitly supports U.S. military facilities in Somalia and Kenya.
The Saudi officials also said they had been disappointed with U.S. military aid to North Yemen, when it was urgently needed in early 1979.
The Saudi officials emphasized that they wanted broader Western commitment. "Why should we finance everything?" they asked.
They confirmed that the kingdom would continue to refuse use of its territory for Western bases or even facilities, even though such facilities as those planned for Egypt would not require a significant continuing foreign military presence. Western diplomats say that, if genuinely threatened, such facilities might be provided but that the Saudis remain "very uncomfortable" with the idea.