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The Saudi dilemma

WHATEVER the events in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is inevitably involved. Whether riots occur in Mecca, the United States requests additional surveillance in the Gulf, or steps are taken toward an Arab-Israeli peace, the spotlight turns to this desert kingdom. For the Saudi leaders, being in the limelight is uncomfortable. They would prefer to pursue their two major objectives quietly: the survival of the kingdom and of the ruling family and the maintenance of the security and availability of the Muslim holy places to the Islamic world.

Survival, paradoxically, is both helped and made more difficult by the presence in the kingdom of a substantial portion of the world's petroleum reserves and the income that flows from that resource. The income makes possible the building of Saudi defenses and the ability to keep potential adversaries at bay; the oil makes the nation more vulnerable to the pressures and ambitions of others.

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The Saudis count heavily on the support and friendship of the US. From the days of King Abdul Aziz, Saudi leadership has seen the US as the kingdom's protector. This view has been reinforced by supportive messages from several US Presidents. In practice, however, the relationship has been complex and never fully satisfactory to either nation.

The central position of Saudi Arabia in the region and the known antipathy of the royal family toward the Soviet Union creates in Washington varying reactions; these include excessive expectations of positive support for US policies, disappointment when that support does not materialize, and apprehension that Saudi policy may, in fact, be unhelpful, if not threatening, to other friends of the US in the region, particularly Israel.

In military matters, Washington has been only moderately successful in its quest for military cooperation. In political matters, US administrations have hoped for Saudi support on international issues of concern to the US. In economics, Americans have sought a ``reasonable'' attitude from the Saudis on oil pricing. In none of these areas have those in Washington, particularly in the Congress, been fully satisfied.

To Israel and to friends of Israel in the US, Saudi Arabian policies are seen as threatening to the Jewish state. Saudi Arabian money has flowed to Palestinian movements and to Israel's contiguous enemies. Extreme statements about the elimination of Israel have been attributed to Saudis. The US supply of military equipment to Saudi Arabia has been a matter of special concern to Israel and its friends; they have worked hard and effectively in the Congress to restrict that supply.

American officials who must deal with the Saudis and defend the United States-Saudi relationship publicly have been caught in a dilemma. They have emphasized Saudi Arabia's friendship and cooperation in ways that at times have added to the unrealistic expectations about what the Saudis can do, for example, toward Arab-Israeli peace.

The Saudis have frequently either denied or failed to support US official statements; with their need to survive in the turbulent currents of the Arab and Islamic worlds, they have not wished to be too closely and publicly identified with the US. The apparent contradictions between these expectations and Saudi actions have been effectively seized upon in the Congress to place limits on US cooperation with Saudi Arabia.

The relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia would be smoother if it could be understood and accepted in a more realistic light. The kingdom represents neither a subservient ally nor a threat to its neighbors; its vulnerability, not its ambitions, justifies its military needs. Until there is accord among the Arab nations and a solution to the Arab-Israeli problem, Saudi Arabia will continue to lend support to Arab causes, including those that disturb Washington.

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At the same time, the Saudi leadership, despite rebuffs from Washington and counterpressures in the Arab world, has continued to support close ties with the US; Americans still benefit from the long history of the contribution of US companies and individuals to Saudi Arabian development. The position of the US in the region would be even more perilous if Saudi Arabia had a different kind of leadership.

As US relations with the nations of Europe and Asia demonstrate, the national interests of allies can diverge, creating problems in the relationship with the US. Saudi Arabia, in this context, is no exception.

David D. Newsom is associate dean and director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.

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