A puzzling aspect of the Middle East today is Saudi Arabia. Egyptians complain that Saudi leaders are the principal impediment to their again assuming an active part in Arab politics. King Hussein sees the Saudi attitude as an obstacle to a Jordanian role in Camp David negotiations. And the Lebanese consider the Saudis unsympathetic. For fear of ''contamination'' from goods Israel forcibly places on the Lebanese market, the Saudis have banned all imports from Lebanon at a time when that country desperately needs to revive exports and restore entrepot trade.
The trouble, of course, begins with oil - or rather with the influence that naturally gravitates toward those having close to inestimable wealth. With this influence comes responsibility. A lot of Arabs look to Saudi Arabia for leadership. When Saudi behavior fails to conform to preconceived notions of a government occupying this role, apprehension develops among those who would use Saudi wealth and commitment as a cover for their own weakness. Just about everyone is perplexed by King Fahd's continued silence - his seeming refusal to exercise the influence that is his.
In fact, the Saudis have been exceedingly busy in recent months attempting to stabilize the international oil market. That has been more than enough to occupy any government. In addition to dealing with Iran, Libya, and Nigeria - and holding together the constituency of oil-producing Arab states in the Gulf - the Saudis have faced the problem of devising a domestic economic strategy that takes into account the declining price of oil.
Financial analysts contend that the Saudis only have to slow down implementation on development projects to adjust to falling revenues. Expatriot labor and foreign contractors would bear the brunt of the cutbacks. Some specialists even argue that this approach would mollify religious and conservative elements who have opposed the rapid rate of change taking place in the kingdom.
What then is the trouble? It is that this type of financial assessment ignores contracts, commitments, partnerships, and expectations - the structure and momentum that emerge from the development process and that soon come to embody the political dynamics of a country. Fahd has problems and he knows it.
In turning to the political side of the agenda, we can discern little aggressiveness in the Saudis' diplomacy. They have only interposed oil directly into politics once. That was the embargo of 1973. Since then, oil incomem has been used in politics - to support those identified with an array of political positions, notably Iraq against Iran, Syria and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in opposition to Israel, and Jordan seemingly in pursuit of a more moderate course. There have also been several billion dollars for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and additional billions to protect the French franc.
This brings us to the style of Saudi diplomacy. Perhaps we were misled by what appeared to be initiative and a certain diplomatic venturesomeness when Saudi Arabia helped arrange a cease-fire between the Palestinians and Israelis in southern Lebanon in 1981. Then there was the Fahd plan. Actually the latter was little more than a collection of UN resolutions which most Arabs had previously accepted. Many observers concluded that the plan was a nonstarter from the outset. Recognition of Israel was by implication only - not a very bold step.
It is not surprising that the Fahd plan has left the Saudis where they like best to be - operating from behind the scene and with great subtlety. Everyone is supposed to know the Saudis' position, even though it is never pronounced. Through the positive inducements of Saudi largesse, recipients would ideally be led toward reshaping the world as Saudis would have it. All the while, from their vantage point as the great provider, the Saudis need not be called upon to take a position. The fact that beneficiaries might read Saudi wishes differently and accommodate them imperfectly doesn't seem to matter.
For outsiders this may be a rather casual and chaotic way to conduct policy. What it means is that others must always take the initiative. The Saudis are not exposed to risks for things that result from this mode of diplomacy.
When policies require bilateral and even unilateral initiatives, the Saudis lose the cover they enjoy as long as they are wrapped in ''Arab'' politics. Most of their actions become logical if this ingredient is added to the mix. Thus, at the conclusion of the Hussein/Arafat talks on the Reagan plan, King Fahd reportedly discouraged Arafat from allowing Hussein to represent the Palestinians in negotiations with Israel. Proffering such advice was the safe thing for an ''Arab'' to do.
In this regard, Egypt constitutes a special problem. It stands as the only real competitor for the uraeus symbolizing policy dominance in the Arab world. The Egyptians are capable of the aggressive pursuit of interests atypical of Saudi style. There are doubts that even Mubarak can be trusted to leave well enough alone. After all, look what Sadat stumbled into.
With Egypt back in Arab politics, the United States could even be more in evidence. And US attitudes and actions since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon have been troublesome. These haven't given the Saudi king much encouragement. He has difficulty determining America's true intentions. A limited response to events appears to be in order - at least from the Saudi viewpoint.
For the Saudis, greater American presence in the peninsula also means more pressure for joint defense of the Gulf - activities that the Saudis believe they could well avoid. They see a threat in the commitments the US would call upon them to make. In the shadow of a bellicose Khomeini who through Islam can reach into the very heart of Saudi Arabia, the fate of the Shah - The last ruler in the Gulf to accept the American commitment - seems particularly pertinent.
For the Saudis, antagonistic forces are something to be balanced and neutralized, not openly challenged or eliminated. And if US protection (from a distance) can still be acquired without Saudi commitment, so much the better.