"It is good to be in a country of friends," remarked US Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher as he and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski were greeted at Riyadh Airport's VIP lounge.
"Friends are sometimes better than allies," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud ibn Faysal responded elegantly.
This exchange of words appears to characterize the American officials' five-day trip to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Islamic and third-world countries, afraid of being drawn into a confrontation between the superpowers, are stressing their ideological and political independence.
Speaking to the Saudi press agency shortly before meeting Mr. Brzezinski Feb. 4, Crown Prince Fahd repeated his rejection of "pacts, defense belts, and areas of influence."
Yet, at the same time, the Islamic countries fear Soviet designs in South Asia and the Gulf. Ultimately, they look to the United States for protection, should the Soviet Union attempt to overrun them.
But in the wake of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, some Islamic countries have felt reason to ask, "How faithfulm a friend will America be this time around?"
Citing promises the Pakistanis claim the US broke in the past, they fear risking Soviet wrath if detente suddenly becomes once again an operational political term and Pakistan is dropped by its American protectors.
Likewise, Saudi Arabia has been disappointed by US responses in the past to Soviet interferences in Africa and vehemently disagrees with US attempts to solve the Israeli-Arab problem.
Nevertheless, officials in the Brzezinski-Christopher party say that "President Carter's State of the Union message has restored a great deal of confidence in US reliability as a friend."
According to one ranking official who participated in the talks with Crown Prince Fahd and Prince SAud, "What the President has said and done here has added new positive elements to US-Saudi relations."
Washington's reassurances regarding its "commitment to the security and independence of Pakistan" are said to have gone a long way in making agreement possible on interpretation of the 1959 security agreement between the US and Pakistan.
"We convinced Pakistan that the US is a reliable ally," one member of the Brzezinski party said.
US officials now feel that Pakistan President Zia ul-Haq understands that Washington views its commitment as a pledge to "defend Pakistan from aggression from the Soviet Union or Soviet-controlled countries."
Although President Zia is said to describe India as "a Soviet-dominated country," he no longer appears to expect the US to stand by his side unconditionally in case of a conflict between Pakistan and India.
Moreover, US officials believe that "President Carter's clear identification of this area [the Gulf] as an area of vital US interest" and his promise to defend it by all means has enabled to them to achieve in Pakistan "a strikingly unanimous view of the threats and dangers of the situation."
In Riyadh, the US delegation found that "we really have a shared perspective on the significance of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the importance of Pakistan." The US and Saudi Arabia, however, seemed to remain far apart in their views regarding the solution of the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Palestinian problem.
Crown Prince Fahd was quoted by the Saudi press agency after his meeting with Mr. Brzezinski as saying, "The [Saudi Arabian] kingdom pointed clearly to the dangers inherent in the US government's continuous disregard of the Palestinian peoples' legitimate right, and its permanent backing and assistance to Israel."
Thus, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan does not appear to have weakend Saudi opposition to the Camp David agreements. Political experts in Riyadh, however, believe that recent developments have diverted the "danger of Saudi Arabia viewing its friendship with the US as important but no longer crucial."
Only last month, Crown Prince Fahd was quoted by the French daily Le Figaro as saying, "We are not interested in one-way friendship. . . . there are plenty of other countries like the US ready to supply our needs."
The US now seems more sensitive than ever to the fact that anti-Soviet feelings are not sufficient to cement a durable relationship with the Islamic world.
At the end of the first day of talks with Crown Prince Fahd and Prince Saud, a ranking US official stated, "The Afghanistan invasion has heightened the importance of making progress in the Arab-Israeli conflict and finding ways to solve the Palestinian problem in all its aspects."
On his arrival in Pakistan, Mr. Brzezinski had seemed to anticipate Prince Saud's distinction between "friends" and "allies" by pointing out that "this region has greatly changed since the 1950s." He added that "our cooperation will have to take these changes into account."
US officials tend to believe that President Carter's State of the Union message is helping to pave the way to such new forms of cooperation.