Washington — The crucial defense relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States is being soured by human, political, and military misunderstandings. Arab-American social and cultural differences, after more than 50 years of the presence of US oil-company, military, and diplomatic personnel in the Saudi kingdom, remain harsh -- despite Saudi admiration for and utilization of US technology and education.
Britons, Frenchmen, Japanese, South Koreans, and others now are competing with growing confidence in Saudi Arabia for consultancies, contracts, and advisory posts -- including military ones -- once held almost exclusively by Americans.
The more than 2 million foreigners -- perhaps more than one-quarter of the entire population if Yemeni, Egyptian, Palestinian and other foreign Arab and Asian workers are included -- are needed in the kingdom. But they are tightly regulated.
Americans serving in Saudi Arabia were alarmed at the assault on Saudi authority and prestige represented by the three-week battle last November between US-trained security forces and Muslim guerrillas for control of the Grand Mosque in Mecca.
Personal accounts by Americans describe new and recent "bus burning" incidents between the security forces and the Saudi Shia Muslim minority. These , it is thought, were influenced by events in Iran, close to the big Arabian-American Oil Company (Aramco) fields.
"We all conclude our days here are numbered," says one veteran US resident of the kingdom.
Some recent examples of how the malaise between Americans and their Saudi friends has begun to affect US security interests:
* When a senior US diplomat flew into Riyad airport recently to discuss President Carter's Middle East peace and Persian Gulf defense plans with King Khalid's advisers -- the King himself was not available -- he drank the ceremonial cup of Arab coffee, a sign of honor and hospitality.
To the embarrassment of both the American and Saudi personnel present, however, the distinguished visitor then turned to newsmen and said, "I've never tasted anything worse in my life." Senior Saudi officials were courteous, but not especially frank, in their subsequent talks with the visitor.
* On Feb. 13, three US admirals flew to Riyad on an urgent mission to deal with tensions between the Saudi Navy commander, Ibrahim Saja, and the construction and contracting consortium HBH Corporation (Hughes Aircraft, Bendix , and Holmes and Narver) led by the US Navy.
With help from the US Army Corps of Engineers, which has supervised more than HBH is building the giant harbor and naval defense complex for the Royal Navy at Jubeil, north of the Aramco installations on the Saudi east coast. The HBH contract is worth $650 million.
US personnel complain bitterly that the Saudis have not kept contractual commitments to provide family housing near the work site and that "they treat us as badly as they treat the Asian workers." (When the usually well-disciplined South Korean work force at Jubeil went on a wildcat strike for release from its highly paid but restricted life in the compound, it -- like Turks and other dissatisfied foreign workers -- was swiftly shipped home by the Saudis.)
* After the Army Corps of Engineers said South Korea's Hyundai Construction Company had definitely been eliminated from its list of approved bidders for the new Saudi Defense and Aviation Ministry in Riyad, Hyundai beat out other competitors for a $50 million contract to build the King Faisal Foundation headquarters in the same city.
US officials are nervous about a Saudi investigation of alleged irregular commission payments to Hyundai, which has worked with many American enterprises.
* US administration sources partially confirm a report in the Feb. 11 issue of the Strategic Mideast and Africa Newsletter that the US-trained Saudi National Guard, a force which uses 400 amphibious V-150 commando armored cars manufactured by the Cadillac Gage Company, has had abrasive problems with American contractors.
The US Army's DARCOM (Material Development and Readiness Command) has a contract worth about $500 million to modernize, mechanize, and train the National Guard. Vinnell Corporation of California is doing the training, using many former US Vietnam veterans, soldiers of fortune, and ex-CIA veterans of African wars. General Electric provides the guard's 20-mm. Vulcan anti-aircraft guns.
The Saudis complain that Vinnell has taken over full control of the program and that many, if not most, of the American personnel neither speak Arabic nor want to learn it. When the National Guard needed parts for the commando vehicles during the fighting at the Grand Mosque, DARCOM and Vinnell told the Saudis the parts were not available.
The newsletter charges that DARCOM had dispatched the parts for outlying desert operations, rather than servicing the guard's immediate needs. Vinnell, it adds, was too proud to allow the guard's Bedouin trackers to search for two Vinnell men lost in the desert, and the two men finally perished.
Last year the British firm, Cable & Wireless, Ltd., won out over American and other competitors to supply the National Guard's communications network. Saudis praise the expertise and knowledgeability in Saudi ways of the Cable & Wireless technicians and other Europeans. These include British Aircraft Corporation personnel, workers who service the French AMX tanks that have been supplied to the Saudi Army, and representatives of France's Dassault aerospace firm who are seeking new sales and Saudi development funds for advanced Mirage aircraft.