Saudis may be steering away from emerging lineup of Arab moderates

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Saudi Arabia seems increasingly at odds with moves to mold a strengthened political entente among moderate Arab nations with Jordan and Egypt at its core.

The hints of divergence clash with long-held Western images of Saudi Arabia as an active ''leader'' of the more moderate Arab regimes.

This is partly because such assumptions have always been a bit off base - taking insufficient account of Riyadh's traditional priority on ''Arab unity'' in charting diplomatic moves. But the Saudis, too, seem increasingly sensitive to the slumping oil prices and spreading political-religious extremism around them.

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The latest suggestion of Saudi differences with some other relative Arab moderates was the release Wednesday of a call by Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah for the withdrawal of United States Marines from Lebanon.

It was not immediately clear whether Prince Abdullah's remarks, made recently to visiting US businessmen and aired by the Saudi Press Agency, were meant as a formal policy restatement by the kingdom, which has generally backed the Marine presence. (A White House spokesman has voiced skepticism about the reported remarks, Reuters says.)

Prince Abdullah's reported remarks did include an expression of unqualified confidence that, if both the Americans and Israel's 1982 invasion force left Lebanon, Syria's 40,000 troops there would also pull out. This may imply that Syria has given fresh assurances on this point to Saudi Arabia, which has been mediating in the Lebanon crisis, although Prince Abdullah gave no hint of this.

Yet at a minimum, the reported comments were at variance with the sentiment in other important Arab capitals, notably Jordan's and Egypt's, that an overly hasty removal of the US Marines should be avoided. Jordan's and Egypt's concern is that such a move could harm US credibility, undermining the position of pro-Western regimes in the Arab world while boosting rivals like Syria.

The Saudi prince's statement follows other signs that Riyadh may be uneasy with recent moves to consolidate a moderate Arab bloc involving Jordan, Iraq, a reintegrated Egypt, and Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization.

The Saudis withheld public endorsement, for instance, of Mr. Arafat's reconciliation visit to Egypt late last year. Riyadh in effect hedged its bets, saying that it was up to the (splintered) PLO to decide what was best for the Palestinians.

By the same token, private remarks from Arab officials and Western diplomats in the region suggest that the Saudis remain uneasy over accelerated moves by Jordan and Iraq toward bringing Egypt's post-Sadat regime ''back into the Arab fold.''

These efforts reached a new peak with reports, leaked by Jordanian officials, that President Hosni Mubarak would visit Iraq and Jordan this month. However, Jordanian officials have since played down these reports, and it is now unclear when the Mubarak visits will occur.

Some PLO sources have even suggested privately that Arafat's controversial Cairo trip was partly intended as a slap at the Saudis for what was viewed as insufficient backing for Arafat during the recent PLO infighting in Lebanon.

And at least one official involved in the renewed Jordanian-Egyptian contacts maintains privately that the Saudis' hefty and virtually uninterrupted economic aid to states like Syria in recent years has had the effect of eliminating, rather than boosting, Saudi ability to further the interests of more pro-Western regimes in the area. In fact, the Saudis, have long funneled huge aid sums to rival parties in the Arab world. Jordan has received large-scale aid from the Saudis. So have Iraq - Syria's archrival - and the PLO.

The message of recent Saudi diplomacy, Arab and Western analysts quickly point out, is not that the Saudis have in effect ''allied'' themselves with Syria against its Arab rivals. Indeed, Riyadh's world view still seems to share decidedly more with states like Jordan or Egypt than with the Syrians.

But various other forces, say Arab analysts interviewed in several regional capitals, seem at work on Saudi policy:

* The Saudis' historical priority on Arab and Islamic ''unity.'' Such an emphasis is likely to make them reluctant to back with force any regional realignment that could risk an irreconcilable split with states like Syria. The Saudis are believed to feel that any major political shift should await deliberation at an Arab summit set for late March in Riyadh.

* An uneasiness at any early, full-scale resurgence of Egyptian influence within the Arab world. This could well encroach on the Saudis' own widening regional sway of recent years, especially at a time of slumping world oil prices.

* Concern over the spread of political and religious extremism in the Mideast , particularly of pro-Iranian stripe. This concern has been reflected partly in a series of fresh Saudi arms purchases.

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