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Saudi power: What it can and can't do

While Saudi Arabias white-robed princes have enjoyed a number of diplomatic successes recently, they now find themselves stalled in at least three crucial areas.

The successes include defusing last year's Syrian- Jordanian border tension, bringing Iraq closer to moderate Arab nations, piecing together the framework for the new Gulf Cooperation council, and whipping the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries into line behind Saudi supply and princing.

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But the areas in which they are making little headway are just as vital to them, if not more so. According to well-informed Arab analysts, they are:

The Lebanese crisis. Many observers are convinced that Saudi Arabiahs much-dicussed behind-the-scenes role in Lebanon-Syria-Israel peacemaking is overrated. Says one close watcher of Saudi strategy:

"The Saudis are not really able to play a serious role. There is little enthusiasm on their part [for restraining Syrian President Hafes Assad]. They seem to have been pushed into what they have done by the United States."

Oil for AWACS. The current world oil surplus with its downward pressure on prices is due almost totally to Saudi production -- often interpreted as a Saudi effort to win favor in Washington and thereby ensure the delivery of US fighters and AWACS electronic reconnaissance planes.

But a Washington quid in return for the Saudi quo is by no means certain. Some Arab analysts believe the quid pro quo is being lost on Washington and warn that if a Syrian-Israeli or Arab-Israeli was breaks out over Lebanon the military sale will be called off by the US.

Gulf security. The Gulf Cooperation council (GCC) is off and running, but already it is showing signs of a split over the vital question of military security in the oil lanes. The Saudis, architects of the council, have been unable to win a compromise between the two extremes: the Kuwaiti view that the GCC should strive for strict neutrality, balancing US influence with Soviet influence; the Omani view that the GCC should work closely with the West, especially with the US, and that Soviet encroachment is the main threat to the Gulf.

All three areas of diplomacy are important to the Saudis and fit into long-standing goals of: (1) preventing an Arab-Israeli war, so that Arab moderates do not get dragged down by radicals; (2) protecting Gulf and Red Sea transit routes, so that commerce runs normally; and (3) acquiring the military material necessary to safeguard Gulf oil fields without a greater American presence.

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The Saudis traditionally have favored the background route toward these goals. A spotlight on a crisis tends to expose Saudi weaknesses and contradictions -- close Saudi- US relations, for instance, in the face of even closer Israeli-US relations. This is why Riyadh last week responded in a lukewarn manner to a US request, via special envoy Philip C. Habib, to pressure Mr. Assad into withdrawing Syrian antiaircraft missiles from Lebanon.

Arab and Western asources caution, however, that there is little love lost between Saudi leaders and Syria's Assad. The Saudis were distressed when Mr. Assad did as much as Israeli Prime Miniser Menachem Begin to escalate the Lebanese crisis to the brink of war.

Moreover, like Begin -- but obviously for different reasons -- the Saudis are apprehensive of Libyan influence over Mr. Assad and the Palestinians. The Saudis and Libyans broke off diplomatic relations last fall at the same general time as Syria and Libya announced they intended to merge. The Saudis fear the Libyans want an Arab-Israeli war as a way of breaking out of their present isolation and foring moderates out of moderation.

But what leverage Saudi Arabia ever had over President Assad was minimal. And it was expended when Kuwait agreed recently to renew funding for the all-Syrian Arab Deterent Force stationed in lebanon. The Saudis also were forced to manuever carefully since the newly public Israeli-Phalange allianece makes it difficult for even conservative Arabs to criticize Syria's treatment of the Phalange.

"The Lebanese affair is too serious and has too many international implications [for Saudi Arabia]," and analyst says. "Saudi Arabia really has no local party to work through."

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