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Crucial AWACS Vote Consolidates US relations with Saudi royal family

Reprinted from Page 1 of yesterday's early editions. Special to The Christian Science Monitor The AWACS vote was important for many Mideasterners because it marked a crucial test for America's relations with its oldest friends in the area, the Saudi ruling family.

Back in the early 1930s, when British and French influence was still pervasive elsewhere in the Mideast, it was Saudi monarch Abdel-Aziz ibn Saud who signed the region's first significant oil deal with a United States company.

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Since then, ibn Saud and his heirs have kept their economic and strategic bets overwhelmingly on the American option, despite changing rcgional climates often hostile to American interests.

For the US oil companies that developed Saudi production and exporting facilities, access to the kingdom's fabulous reserves of oil (one-quarter of the world's total) proved a bonanza. Control of oil activities has since passed into Saudi hands, but the close commercial ties remain -in oil and in supplying Saudi Arabia's giant development programs.

The relationship is not merely commercial, of course. After Britain definitively withdrew from the Gulf area in 1971, guarantees of its security and of Western access to oil resources were hard to find.

The main pillar of the regional defense framework as conceptualized then was the Shah's Iran. Just over the water from the Arabian Peninsula, the Shah was building tough and well-equipped armies which it was thought would long defend Western interests in the area.

Not so Eight years later his regime crumbled. It was in the aftermath of this collapse that the United States dispatched the original four AWACS on loan to Saudi Arabia to help watch over a turbulent region.

That first AWACS delivery provoked storms of protest from some of the Saudis' fellow Arabs. For Libya's Colonel Qaddafi, in particular, criticisms of "American eyes and ears flying over Islam's holy cities" in Saudi Arabia led to cycles of accusations and an eventual total diplomatic break.

Still, most Arab regimes, fearful of the turbulence sweeping Iran at the time , acquiesced in that original Saudi AWACS deployment But since then, Arab objections to the whole idea of the AWACS have mounted And the Saudis' present request, now granted, for the outright sale of five of the radar planes has raised wider criticisms in the Arab world than the 1980 deployment.

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The Iraqis, in particular, who have drawn much closer to the Saudis over the past three years, were bitter that the existing AWACS gave them no early warning of the Israeli planes that in early summer bombed the nuclear facility near Baghdad.

And since then, news that the US is to enter into "strategic cooperation" with Israel has fueled further Arab fears as to the uses to which any new Saudi AWACS may be put.

It is this last factor, according to some reports, that also dampened enthusiasm for the deal among some members of the extensive Saudi ruling family itself.

The family is in a difficult position. It clearly wants whatever guarantees it can obtain of continued control of the kingdom's oil facilities, nearly all of which are located in the eastern provinces, very near the focus of the present IraqiIranian troubles.

And with huge Saudi desert regions only lightly populated, the Saudis realize national defense is largely dependent on a de facto American security umbrella. With the US Rapid Deployment Force still on the drawing board, that umbrella seems far away and the AWACS will provide essential help.

But at the same time, the royal family's whole claim to control of the majority of the peninsula's landmass is a complicated issue, closely linked to Saudi ideological claims to represent Islamic authenticity in the (western) holy cities.

Islamic tides are running strong throughout the region these days. Many factors have contributed to their rising, but two constant elements have been a reaction against accelerating Western penetration of Muslim societies, and indignation at continued Israeli control of the Muslim holy places in Jerusalem.

These elements run deep inside the kingdom's society too, as witnessed by the faile Islamic fundamentalist uprising in Mecca in November 1979. Some members of the ruling family are said to fear that too close official cooperation with a US already strategically linked to Israel could further fuel the indigenous and regional fundamentalist movement.

But though there might be some Saudi reservations about accepting the deal, the ruling family is probably united in wanting to be offered it Saudi officials were bitter about what they saw as American failure to support the Shah, and they have come increasingly to see the present AWACS deal as a test of US commitment to themselves.

The Saudis had an alternative to the US deal. however The Soviets have long expressed interest in restoring the relations they enjoyed with the kingdom up until World War II. And though the Saudis have since become anticommunists and deplore the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the ganie of nations could have forced them to respond to Moscow's overtures. m

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