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Deep Saudi-Egypt rift complicates US efforts to shore up Mideast

Just as the United States is trying to cement pro-Western forces in the Middle East, two presumed US allies -- Egypt Eand Saudi Arabia -- seem to have declared the rhetorical equivalent of war.

Arab diplomats see this as one important element in what news reports from the Saudi capital of Riyadh termed a "cool" reception for US Middle East negotiator Sol Linowitz earlier this month.

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The conflict between the two Mideast powers has been brewing for months, indeed ever since Egypt signed its separate March 1979 peace with Israel and the Saudis joined nearly unanimous Arab condemnation of the pact.

And for months, American officials have been seeking to heal, or at least contain, the feud between the two proud and essentially pro-Western Arab regimes. For example, as long ago as May of last year the outgoing US Ambassador to Egypt, Herman Eilts, met Saudi Crown Prince Fahd in an apparent move to smooth things over.

"Some progress" was reported then, but now, as Washington looks for all the Middle East friends it can find on the heels of the Soviet East friends it can find on the heels of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, that "progress" seems to have evaporated.

Back-to-back statements by Egypt and Saudi Arabia in late January and early February have "broken all the Arab political taboos," says one veteran Beirut political analyst.

"The battle is open and, for the time, seemingly unhealable," he commented, adding: "That's about the last thing the Americans need."

Egypt's President Anwar Sadat accused the Saudis of "treason" and suggested they were in deep trouble at home. Prince Fahd countered with an attack on Egyptian-Israeli "normalization" and broad hints that maybe it was high time President Sadat faded from the scene.

In some ways, the Egyptian-Saudi split seems every bit as complex as the Arab-Israeli conflict.

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Egypt's President Sadat is determined to follow through with his peace moves and convinced that they will secure a fair deal for all Arabs. He pursues this conviction with a self-assurance bordering on haughtiness, an attitude increasingly resented even by his former Arab friends.

The rigidly Islamic monarchy in Saudi Arabia -- Washington's chief foreign oil supplier and, for a long time, Egypt's chief bankroller -- does not see things Mr. Sadat's way. As they see it:

Israel has annexed the formerly Arab half of Jerusalem, a city holy to Muslims as well as Jews and Christians, and shows no signs of getting out. Nor has President sadat been able to get the Israelis to stop plunking Jewish settlements onto the occupied West Bank of the Jordan River. And if President Sadat insists that West Bank "autonomy" can propel Palestinians toward full-scale statehood, Israel still hotly disagrees.

A rebel assault on the Grand Mosque in the Islamic holy city of Mecca last November has intensified perennial Saudi fears of internal unrest. With Palestinian guerrilla leaders happily playing on those fears, the ruling House of Saud seems as unable as it is unwilling to go along with the Egyptian peace moves.

And then add pride to the equation. For if the Saudis seemed somewhat restrained in their criticism when President Sadat suddenly flew to Jerusalem almost 27 months ago, their patience has almost visibly worn thin with each fresh Sadat verbal onslaught agaisnt Arab "dwarfs" who did not back his initiative outright.

the process, on both sides, has peaked even as Washington is dispatching various envoys to the Middle East in search of a "post-Afghanistan" strategy.

President Sadat, speakng to Parliament Jan. 28, charged the Saudi rulers with "treason and ignorance." Saudi Arabia, President Sadat said, was facing "an ordeal" in the wake of the Mecca attack.

He said that the unrest in Islam's holiest city was not just a question of religious fanaticism "but a question of the government regime in Saudi Arabia."

Cairo news reports speculated that Mr. Sadat had been angered by recent hard-line declarations by Saudi Crown Prince Fahd, the regime's efective strong man.

Prince Fahd, by all indications, was no less angered by the latest Sadat statement. Days later, he strongly reiterated Saudi opposition to Egypt's negotiating moves with Israel and lashed out against the current "normalization" of ties between Israel and the Arabs' most populous state.

"Every Arab and every Muslim is pained to see normal relations established . . . while Israel still occupies . . . and continues to build settlement on confiscated Arab lands," the Crown Pricen said in a statement to the official Saudi news agency.

Then came what one veteran Middle East envoy in Beirut termed "almost the equivalent of a call for Sadat's downfall, within the parameters of usually restrained Saudi language.


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