The hype for the sale of five AWACS radar planes and related military equipment to Saudi Arabia is reaching a crescendo. Head counts in the Senate appear to show a majority fear the equipment is too sophisticated for the Saudis, and eventually might fall into the hands of the Russians.
The argument that the AWACS sale is not in the best interests of the United States, it seems to me, is overwhelming and compelling. The case is so strong that it flushes out desperate, bottom-of-the-barrel arguments from the pro- sale crowd.
The easiest to dispose of is the plea that we "owe" the Saudis this one because they created an oil glut in order to help the United States. Columnist Carl T. Rowan writes that oil prices have come down recently because "the Saudis pumped more oil than was good for them." That's pure baloney, and you know who says so? My favorite source on this subject, Saudi Oil Minister Sheik Yamani, when he talks candidly at home, and abandons the propaganda line he uses for his lectures in Paris or New York.
In an interview that appeared simultaneously Sept. 8 in the English-language Arab News and in the Arabic daily, Al-Sharq Al Aswat, Yamani admitted that the Saudis had not created the current glut in order to befriend the United States. The glut arose, he said, because demand had fallen in response to high prices that OPEC had ill-advisedly put into effect in 1979 and 1980.
A detailed quote from Yamani is instructive: "The present situation is different from the past when, during 1979 and 1980, the oil-price hike from a little over $12, to $32 or more, caused an enormous rush in investment in energy resources, with the view of cutting down on oil consumption and developing energy alternatives to reduce dependence on oil.
"This resulted in a fall in OPEC's shares in the market from over 31 million barrels daily in 1979 to much less than 24 million barrels this year. Some analysts, however, expect OPEC's share to fall in the early '90s to less than 15 million barrels daily. This would mean a collapse of the organization and a lot of economic hardships for Saudi Arabia, which basically relies on its oil revenue."
That's Sheik Yamani talking. He added:
"The oil prices must be brought down, if we can, or at least remain at the present level for a long period until we are able to hold back investors from searching (for) energy alternatives, and until OPEC restores its previous position." As he should, Yamani is trying to take care of Saudi interests, not U.S. interests.
So much for the suggestion that we need to sell AWACS to the Saudis either to thank them for pumping a lot of oil (they're doing that because they've got a big budget to support) or for not raising prices (that's because, as Yamani says, they know that higher prices will accelerate the switch away from oil). Wall Street oil expert Henry L. Wojtyla, uncannily right so far, estimates that non-OPEC oil sources are growing at an impressive 5 percent a year, presaging about an equivalent decline in the need for OPEC oil.
As Peter Lubin, a foreign policy analyst and associate of the conservative Center for International Security here, suggested in recent congressional testimony, the Saudis and the rest of OPEC are going to be fighting with others for a share of the market: the West doesn't have to do favors or grovel for oil--especially favors as big as the AWACS.
But if the glut is bad business now for the Saudis and the rest of OPEC, imagine what will happen if and when Iran once again begins to produce oil as it did under the shah--4, 5 or 6 million barrels a day. Clearly, that could result in a major break in oil prices that could have an even more devastating impact on the Saudi economy than Yamani allows in his candid interview.
And that's where the AWACS in Saudi hands could pose a danger to the West that has received almost no attention. British Professor J. B. Kelly, one of the world's leading experts on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, raises the frightening possibility that the Saudis, their military strength augmented both symbolically and in reality by the AWACS, would "bully" their neighbors into holding oil production down, or actually take Persian Gulf territory, as Kelly charges they have done in the past.
This is not mere fantasy. Kelly documents the history of Saudi invasions of and territorial demands on the weaker sheikdoms in the Persian Gulf over the years. Although the Saudis obviously don't like him, Kelly's expertise on the Middle East is highly regarded in the Reagan administration and on Capitol Hill. He asks precisely the right question on the proposed AWACS sale: "What is the U.S. going to get out of it?" Clearly, it's not oil, it's not bases. It would appear to be nothing at all, except, perversely, a new oil crisis enforced by Saudi AWACS.