Cairo — After 2 1/2 years in the deep freeze, relations between the Arab world's most populous state, Egypt, and one of its richest, Saudi Arabia, are showing distinct signs of a thaw.
It was President Sadat's precedent-shattering trip to Jerusalem in November 1977 that first thrust Egypt into isolation from much of the rest of the Arab world, not least the unconsulted and offended Saudis. The Egypt-Israel peace treaty completed the cutoff process.
But over the past couple of months, behind-the-scenes American diplomacy and occasional public gestures by both sides have begun to melt the accumulated ice. Saudi anxieties about Soviet intentions in the region following the Afghanistan occupation are thought to have helped the process along.
Not surprisingly, the Egyptians have welcomed the prospect of resuming more friendly ties with their oil-endowed neighbor across the Red Sea. One Egyptian official, describing the relief that has followed what is interpreted here as a shift in Saudi attitudes toward Egypt, comments:
"We now have in our arms a newborn baby that we should warm and protect until it grows."
The growth of such a "baby" has obvious potential benefits for both Presidents Sadat and Carter. It would strengthen Mr. Sadat's negotiating position with the Israelis by reducing Egypt's isolation and by helping shore up Mr. Sadat against his domestic critics. And it suggests that Mr. Carter's major foreigh-policy triumph, the Camp David Accord cannot be so easily attacked for dividing Washington's two most important Arab allies.
In the latest round of accommodating Egyptian-Saudi gestures, President Sadat indicated this past weekend that he was prepared to go to Saudi Arabia to discuss peace in the Middle East, as well as restoration of relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
This, in turn, followed publication in the Washington Post of interviews with Saudi Crown Prince Fahd and Prince ABdullah ibn Abdul-Aziz affirming that Saudi Arabia was willing to bring the Palestinians and other Arabs into a "full settlement" with Israel in return for Israeli agreement to return all lands taken in 1967. The two Saudi leaders, in Egyptian eyes, also implied that their country's stand on Camp David and Egypt had softened.
As seen here, the statements indicated the following significant shifts in the Saudi position:
* An acceptance of United Nations resolution 242, which has been the cornerstone for Mideast negotiations since it was passed by the UN Security Council in 1967, as a basis for future talks with Israel. Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Israel have long accepted the resolution.
* A clear expression of the willingness of Arab peoples, including the Saudis , to negotiate and exist peacefully with Israel.
The Saudi Leadership, it is presumed here, hoped Israel might seize the opportunity to respond by making some sort of good-will gesture toward the Arab and Muslim world -- a move the Saudis apparently feel could put an end to the threat of war in the region.
Instead, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin invited Prince Fahd to visit Jerusalem and address the Knesset (parliament), as President Sadat had done in 1977. Israel thus -- intentionally or unintentionally -- revived memories of the very Sadat move that greatly disappointed the Saudis in the first place and led them to sever diplomatic relations with Egypt, cut aid, and participate in a campaign to isolate Egypt in the Arab world.
The Saudi move coincided with the deadlock in the Palestinian autonomy talks that prevented Egyptian, Israeli, and United States negotiators from reaching an agreement by the Target date of May 26. And officials here view the Saudi overtures as helping Egypt fight a war of words with Israel over who is the be blamed for the deadlock.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamal Hassan Ali argues that the Saudi statements, although pointedly avoiding specific support of the Camp David process, "actually refer to efforts Egypt exerted for the realization of peace." In his view, it is Israel's intransigence that has prevented a solution for the Palestinian problem being reached.
Egyptian officials share a belief that the Saudi step was carefully planned, and can therefore be relied upon to provide Egypt with political leverage against Israel -- if only of the silent variety.
The apparently sudden change in the Saudi approach to the Middle East settlement, and also to Egypt, started taking place weeks ago with Egypt's encouragement. Both Egyptian and Saudi officials showed signs of an imminent rapprochement, although they denied that contacts preceded it.
Earlier this year a threat to Egypt's economic future was lifted when Saudi Arabia and Kuwait agreed to leave some $2 billion of deposits in Egyptian banks. Meanwhile both sides have steadily toned their media attacks on one another.
In a major policy speech May 14, President Sadat specifically told the state-run media to put an end to attacking other Arab states. A few days later, he condemned the television film "The Death of a Princess," to which the Saudis had reacted with a high degree of sensitivity, as "an insult to every Muslim." The Ministry of Culture shortly thereafter banned showing the film in Egypt.
President Sadat confidently claims that the Saudis leadership "is behind me 100 percent." But he is not making any new demands on the Saudis and appears to be content to await further Saudis gestures.