Britain on Thursday initialed an agreement to sell Saudi Arabia 132 military aircraft, including 72 Tornado advanced combat jets, in a multibillion-dollar arms package that British Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine called “the largest export negotiations this country has ever concluded.”
The agreement, initialed at a ceremony here by Heseltine and the Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan ibn Abdulaziz, is worth between $4 billion and $5.5 billion and is another sign that Britain is again asserting its interest in the Middle East.
Last Saturday, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher concluded a tour of the troubled Middle East--the first since World War II by a British leader--and invited a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation to London for talks.
Support for Hussein
The move was described by Thatcher aides as an attempt to show support for a proposal by Jordan’s King Hussein to form a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation that could eventually hold peace talks with Israel.
Israel strongly condemned Thursday’s arms deal, charging that it is a threat to its security and will heighten tensions in the region.
Saudi Arabia remains technically at war with Israel, although it is considered a moderate voice in the Middle East. The Tornado aircraft, if based at the northern Saudi city of Tabuk, could reach Israel, military sources here said.
The arms package was larger than expected. When first announced in Riyadh 11 days ago, the agreement called for sale of only 48 of the Tornado deep-strike, ground-attack aircraft. But by the time Prince Sultan arrived in London on Wednesday, Saudi Arabia had added 24 Tornadoes, configured for air defense, to the package.
In addition to the Anglo-German-Italian-built Tornado, Saudi Arabia has agreed to buy 30 British Hawk jet trainers, which are used by the Royal Air Force, and 30 PC-9 Swiss trainers, which Britain will reconfigure for Saudi needs.
Partial Payment in Oil
The exact value of the agreement remained unclear because an unspecified portion of the Saudi payment will be in oil, which Britain will resell on world markets.
A substantial portion of the contract will go to West German and Italian manufacturers, who help produce the Tornado.
The deal should also boost Thatcher’s efforts to combat unemployment, since it is expected to save an estimated 10,000 jobs in the British aerospace industry. It will also fill a crucial three-year gap between 1989, when initial Tornado production for the Royal Air Force is scheduled to end, and 1992, when work on a new Anglo-Italian-German combat aircraft is due to begin.
The Saudis selected the Tornado over the French Mirage 2000 aircraft after the Reagan Administration, under congressional pressure, decided to exclude 40 American F-15 combat aircraft from a $4-billion U.S.-Saudi arms sale. The addition of 24 Tornadoes to the British sale may mean that the Saudis have dropped all plans to buy F-15s.
Heseltine Defends Pact
At a news conference after the ceremony, Heseltine defended the decision to sell the aircraft in a region as volatile as the Middle East.
“The Saudis are one of the most stable and peaceful people in the Middle East,” he said. “They are a leading nation in preserving peace there. It is absolutely clear that a very important nation of that sort is entitled to modernize its defense capability.”
Meanwhile, in Washington, Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) said he and Sen. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.) have collected almost 60 co-sponsors--a clear majority of the Senate--on a resolution to block any U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia this year.
State Department officials said that despite the opposition, they intend to press ahead with plans for selling anti-aircraft missiles and other weaponry to the Saudis. They said the Administration is still negotiating with the Saudis over what weapons they want to buy.
Cranston said he believes Congress will oppose almost any sizable sale because of fears that Saudi arms could be used against Israel.
Cranston was instrumental in forcing the Administration to abandon its proposed sale of F-15s to the Saudis, the decision that led to Thursday’s Saudi-British deal.
His opposition to arms sales to Washington’s Arab allies has made Cranston the bane of Middle East experts in the State and Defense Departments.
“For what he’s done for British exports, he ought to get a commendation from the queen,” the State Department official said acidly.
Times staff writer Doyle McManus, in Washington, contributed to this story.