Saudi Arabia's royal leadership, disturbed by the controversy over its request to buy airborne radar planes from the United States, will refuse to allow U.S. personnel to fly in the aircraft beyond a necessary training period, a high Saudi official said today.
Saudi Arabia opposes a suggested visit by a U.S. congressional delegation and will refuse to negotiate with such a fact-finding team if it comes, the official said.
The Saudi position, outlined today by a high official and member of the inner circle of the ruling royal family who requested that he not be named, reflects irritation here at suggestions from some senators for restrictions on use of the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) planes that in Saudi eyes would infringe on the kingdom's sovereignty.
It also flows from what was described as broad disappointment with the Reagan administration's handling of the AWACS sale, its efforts to form an anti-Soviet strategic consensus including Israel and Arabs, and its lack of enthusiasm for a Middle East peace plan put forward this summer by Crown Prince Fahd.
Taken together, the disagreements have strained relations between Washington and the Saudi kingdom, the key official said, amounting to a watershed that, if the AWACS deal falls through, could lead to purchase of British Nimrod reconnaissance planes instead and a general reluctance to deal with the United States so closely in the future.
Members of the Saudi royal family and government have, over the past few weeks, toughened their stance on the possible consequences of U.S. congressional rejection of the $8.5 billion sale -- including five AWACS planes as well as other weaponry -- which is bitterly opposed by Israel.
The Saudi official said his government would refuse a joint command idea put forward by Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio) and an administration compromise proposal for U.S. technicians to remain with the planes after Saudis take command.
But whatever the proposal, the Saudi leadership holds that it should negotiate -- indeed, that it already has negotiated -- with the administration, and not with congressmen who may raise various objections to what is agreed between the Saudi and U.S. governments. For that reason, while Saudi Arabia may admit a congressional fact-finding delegation if President Reagan makes the request, it will not negotiate over details with the visitors, the official said.
Saudi Arabia criticizes the Israel lobby in Washington for getting too closely involved in forming U.S. policy, the Saudi official added, and the Saudi leadership is determined not to do the same. He said a Saudi delegation in Washington, led by Prince Bandar ibn Sultan, is making the Saudis' AWACS case only at the request of Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., who first suggested such a mission during his visit here last March.
Saudi refusal to permit long-term agreements for U.S. crewmen in the AWACS stems foremost from a desire to underline Saudi independence and sovereignty. But it also reflects concern about how such an arrangement would be received elsewhere in the Arab world, where it could embarrass the Saudis and be seen as a back-door U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, the high Saudi official explained.
Although the AWACS sale is viewed as important, it will not be allowed to determine the future course of U.S.-Saudi relations by itself, he said, and will not put into question other elements of the sales package, including tanker planes, Sidewinder missiles and fuel pods for F15 warplanes that the kingdom purchased earlier.
At the same time, failure to reach agreement would inevitably affect the whole range of U.S.-Saudi relations and strengthen the hand of those in the royal family who urge a tougher line with Washington than the policies set by Prince Fahd, the kingdom's day-to-day ruler under King Khalid, the royal official said.
These princes generally suggest less reliance on the United States for Saudi defense needs, more use of Saudi oil power for political ends and closer identification with the Palestinian and Arab cause against Israel.
Observers noted in this connection that Prince Abdullah, the National Guard commander who is considered a hard-liner in family councils, is touring Iraq, Jordan and Syria this weekend while most Saudi royalty received President Francois Mitterrand of France here.
Also a potential boost for those who advocate more distant ties with Washington is the relative lack of U.S. attention paid to Fahd's eight-point peace plan announced last month and pressed by the crown prince in visits earlier this month to European capitals.
Fahd underlined the importance Saudi Arabia attaches to the initiative in his meeting two weeks ago with Haig in Spain, the source said. Haig promised to study the plan but was noncommittal, he added.
In contrast, Mitterrand has welcomed the proposal warmly as "one of the most positive steps in recent years" in Middle East peacemaking and, the official asserted, several other European nations, 14 Arab countries and the Palestine Liberation Organization have endorsed it.
Fahd plans to renew his campaign for the proposals in meetings with President Reagan during the development conference next month in Cancun, Mexico, the official said, but the Saudi leadership fears that Reagan and his aides have the same Middle East "blinders" that he said blocked the Carter administration from seeing beyond the Camp David accords.
The disappointment is particularly acute, he said, because much discussion among the royal family and with other Arab countries and the PLO preceded announcement of the plan.
Among other things, the plan puts Saudi Arabia on the record as favoring, for the first time in such explicit language, the right of all states in the Middle East to live behind secure borders. This resulted from repeated urging from U.S. and European leaders considered here as friends of Saudi Arabia, the official said, and was seen by the Saudi leadership as a concession to help form the basis for new negotiations.
At the same time, he insisted that the plan's demand for return of pre-1967 East Jerusalem to Arab rule is not negotiable. Those who take it as a maximum position from which Arab nations would climb down in talks are mistaken, he added.
Israel has annexed East Jerusalem and insists that the entire city, including the part it captured in 1967 from Jordan, must remain the capital of Israel. The government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin also considers this nonnegotiable.
Aside from the AWACS and peace-plan response, the official indicated dismay in the royal family over the process with which the United States makes policy on relations with Saudi Arabia and the Middle East as a whole.
An example cited by the official was the recent agreement in principle between Reagan and Begin on increased strategic cooperation in the Middle East. Although its full implications are yet to be determined, he said, it clearly goes beyond the sale of the AWACS planes, and yet was agreed without consulting Congress or without major complaints from that body.
Also, he said, U.S. national security adviser Richard Allen committed a major blunder in saying, Sept. 22, that Saudi Arabia does not want the AWACS because of worry about Israel, but about the Soviet Union. This is simply not true, he added, and the Israeli raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor near Baghdad proves why the concern about Israel is justified.
The Israeli raid, composed of two groups of several planes each, crossed over Saudi territory, he said, and one section passed almost directly over the major Saudi military installations at Tabouk before veering north toward Iraq.
Without radar, Saudi defenses there depend on ground spotters, he added, and were unable to respond in time. The U.S. AWACS planes on loan to the kingdom since the Iranian-Iraqi war broke out a year ago spotted nothing because they were directed toward the Persian Gulf on the other side of the kingdom, he said.