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The Saudi factor

Does it not seem curious that at a time when the United States has two close friends in the Arab world (Egypt and Saudi Arabia), we have managed to create political differences between them? This contradiction can be laid at the doorstep of Camp David where President Sadat repeatedly raised the subject of Saudi support, and President Carter just as often assured his Egyptian guest that he could "deliver" the Saudis. Carter, of course did not deliver.

Yet an understanding with the Saudis on Arab-israeli negotiations is important. Perhaps nothing is more basic to assuring both stability for the Middle East and a complementary platform for achieving US policy objectives than the reestablishment of the CairoRiyadh axis that emerged between Sadat and King Faisal after the 1973 war.

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There are benefits in it for all. Sadat would face fewer questions at home and abroad regarding the wisdom of his close relations with the US and his recognition of Israel. The saudis would also feel more settled. There would be a basis for equanimity in dealing with Iraq -- a means of relieving current trepidation over the revolutionary potential that a newly benevolent Baghdad holds for its neighbors.

Moreover, operationg from a clearly defined Arab context, the Saudis need not keep the Us at arm's length even while they recognize so many points of view that they have in common with us. Being responsive to power in their midst, other Arabs might find the Saudi-Egyptian combination compelling, particularly jordan and maybe even Iraq. In the long run, the Israelis could profit -- once they concentrated less on short-term military security and focused on the more perserving aspects of peace and regional compatibility.

We see the importance of the Saudi-Egyptian combination from the results of Mr. Haig's April visit to the Middle East. He won few converts to his suggestion that thwarting Soviet intentions in the region through a "strategic consensus" is at least of equal importance for moderate Arabs as resolving the ARab-Israeli dispute. Considerable skepticism exists among the Arabs as to his assertion that the US can contribute simultaneously and equally to both purposes.

Many arabs have concluded that what the US really intends is to freeze further consideration of the Arab- Israeli dispute. If the Saudis are to be taken at their word, they will not turn a blind eye toward our procrastinating on the Palestinian issue while working with us on regional defense. Military supply, a one-way street with few strings attached, is the one exception.

In is not as if the Saudi factor is unknown to the Reagan administration. In the weeks after the election, criticism of Carter's policy from those around Reagan centered on the failure of Camp David to elicit Saudi support. In recent conversations with Secretary Haig in Cairo, President Sadat raised the matter again by suggesting in some detail that Haig inform Saudi leadership of Egypt's readiness to support Saudi Arabia in any and every way that could be helpful.Assuming Haig accurately conveyed the flavor of Sadat's message in his subsequent talks with Saudis, the basis for a new American initiative now exists.

Sadat recognizes the importance of Saudi-Egyptian cooperation to Middle East stability, and he apparently sees an appropriate role for the US in helping to resuscitate this relationship. The US contribution, of course, is to reinterpret certain aspects of the Camp David agreement in order to make it more compatible with Saudi perceptions, something Sadat is not free to do if he hopes to dislodge Israel from the Final third of Sinai.

The difficulty for the US is that, however attractive the stability that can emanate from the Saudi-Egyptian combination, the immediate domestic costs are high. Given the Israelis' determination to retain a position on the West Bank, rather intense US pressure on Israel combined with political assurances and economic and military largesse would be necessary to achieve the conditions under which a strategic consensus could truly be established with the Arabs. Whether if be Nixon and Kissinger, carter and Vance, or Reagan and Haig, domestic political "fall-out" gets top priority.

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Thus, the US continues its embivalence. Our leaders inadvertently slip into this posture because it is the easiest course for the US to follow. In all probability, we will talk a lot but do little to achieve either a resolution of the Palestinian problem or a truly sound military capability in the Middle East.

The Middle East is a place of moods. It can thrive for a long time on promise. Today all the insights that can be gleaned from official US pronouncements point toward an inclination to avoid consideration of a basic political aspiration of the Arabs. When we assume this attitude trouble is usually in the offing. The exact nature of that trouble is unpredictable simply because all political forces at work in the Middle East cannot be identified, much less monitored or controlled.

A prominent Saudi leader is reported to have remarked not long ago that the Arabs are worse off in terms of achieving regional political objectives than at any time in the past 20 years. We may question this sense of the situation. Yet, we would do well to heed it as a warning signal and begin to readjust our official position in ways that give more consideration to the Saudi factor and to how it can contribute to regional stability and our own policy objectives. The diplomatic role now being given to the Saudis in Lebanon may indicate such a readjustment is underway.

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