In several editions yesterday, a photograph of the late Saudi King Khalid was incorrectly identified as that of Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz.
Saudi Arabia today initialed an agreement to purchase 132 British-made combat jets and trainers in a multibillion-dollar arms package that British Defense Minister Michael Heseltine called "the largest export negotiations this country has ever concluded."
The agreement, signed here by Heseltine and Saudi Defense Minister Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz, is worth at least $4.5 billion. British Aerospace, the principal manufacturer, said today that 25,000 to 30,000 jobs had been saved on aircraft production lines.
The order is significantly larger than anticipated and includes 72 Tornado combat jets and 60 Hawk and PC9 trainers. In last-minute negotiations concluded this week, the Saudis asked for 24 more Tornadoes in the "air defense" configuration to be added to 48 Tornado ground-attack planes originally discussed.
The inclusion of the additional aircraft indicated that the Saudis have dropped all plans to buy U.S.-made F15 fighters for the forseeable future. Officials said here today they were not even sure if the Saudis could absorb all the British planes, which are scheduled for delivery between next year and 1989.
The early delivery dates mean that Britain will have to delay completion of its own Royal Air Force modernization program, since two Tornado squadrons currently in production for the RAF will now comprise the first delivery of about 20 planes to the Saudis.
"The important thing is that this is an extremely important export opportunity," said British Aerospace Corp. Chairman Austin Pearce, "and that means more jobs in this country."
Although the sale was one Britain had long sought, it moved toward fruition only in the last several months, when the Reagan administration indicated it was not prepared this year to fight Israeli and congressional opposition to the preferred Saudi purchase of F15s.
In recent high-level exchanges, the White House informed the Saudis that it would not object should they decide to look elsewhere for the planes. At that point, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who officials here said was "reassured" that Washington did not mind, stepped up her own campaign to persuade the Saudis to buy British.
Thatcher wrote to Saudi King Fahd and held a secret meeting in Austria last month with Sultan. Britain's offer was signficantly enhanced by its willingness to take part of the payment for the planes in oil, a prospect that had caused France to withdraw an earlier proposal to sell Mirage 2000s.
At a news conference today, Heseltine confirmed the barter arrangement, which official sources here have estimated could comprise as much as half the total purchase price of the planes.
Flanked by military and British Aerospace officials, Heseltine repeatedly referred to the deal as a "continuation" of long-term Saudi-British defense cooperation, beginning with the 1966 Saudi purchase of 30 Lightning jet fighters. That purchase, then Britain's largest single export order, continues to generate spare-parts and training contracts.
It was to replace the Lightnings, as part of an overall Air Force modernization and expansion program, that the Saudis sought first the F15s, and then the Tornadoes. Israel, which strongly objected to the potential U.S. sale, has sharply criticized the agreement initialed today. Unlike an early U.S. sale of 62 F15s to the Saudis in the late 1970s, which forbade stationing at Tabuk, the base nearest Israel, the British deal contains no restrictions on where the Saudis can station the planes.
Heseltine replied somewhat testily today to questions regarding Israeli security concerns over the Saudi deal, as well as a separate $350 million arms-sales agreement concluded last week with Jordan. Israeli objections were heightened when Thatcher, during visits last week to Egypt and Jordan, said that her government would hold a high-level meeting next month with a delegation from the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Saudi Arabia and Jordan, Heseltine said, were "the two countries most associated with trying to seek peaceful solutions in the Middle East. Peace can be more effectively maintained in an environment not of weakness but of strength."
Asked about recent British objections to Israeli aircraft sales to Argentina, with which Britain fought a war over the Falkland Islands in 1982, Heseltine said, "I cannot actually remember Saudi Arabia invading Israel" as Argentina had done in the British-ruled Falklands. "Let's just deal with reality," he said.