Saudi signal: Palestinian autonomy or less oil

Despite official denials, Saudi Arabia is believed by senior diplomats here to be contemplating a serious reduction of its oil production should the United States not move swiftly to resolve the Palestinian problem.

US officials in the Saudi capital of Riyadh believe that May 1980 -- the deadline for ending Egyptian-Israeli negotiations on Palestinian autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza -- is the "cutoff line."

These officials are concerned that Saudi Arabia will lower its oil production from the present level of 9.5 million barrels a day to something between 7 and 7 .5 million barrels of oil a day. Any such move by the United States' largest oil supplier would be certain to have a major impact.

"The 9.5 million barrels per day is far above what they need," one US official said. He added that "the Saudis are most comfortable with regard to their internal needs at a level of 7 million barrels per day."

US officials in Riyadh believe that Saudi Arabia expects the United States in the Palestinian question. "I hope we realize that the fire is close to out pocket," one US official said.

Another added that "the Saudis are no longer willing to accept excuses like this being an election year. We will have to make a move on the Palestinian issue, election year or not."

However, Saudi officials themselves, while remaining firm on their opposition to the Camp David agreements appear reluctant to discuss the oil issue. "You should not connect the question of our level of oil production with the attempts to solve the Israeli-Arab conflict," Saudi Minister of Commerce Suleiman al-Salim told the Monitor Feb. 6.

The Saudi minister pointed out that "there are other considerations for lowering oil production. There is the question of conservation. We have the responsibility for future generations."

Moreover, Dr. Salim pointed out that Saudi Arabia raised its level oil production "temporarily" to 9.5 million barrels per day as a result of the crisis in Iran. "Therefore, it would be quite normal for us to reduce production to 8.5 million barrels per day," he said.

Nevertheless, US officials in Riyadh anticipate a cut in Saudi oil production as a political move.

"They might disguise it as due to technical difficulties but anyone who tries to separate oil from politics is kidding himself," one official said. He added that "oil pressure is always implied" in Saudi Arabia's political dealings with the US and warned that "while they might not say directly either/or, they have their own innuendo-ish way of doing things."

Furthermore, US officials here feel that Saudi-US relations are quickly reaching the "crunch point." They believe that May 1980 is a "key date for the Saudis." One senior official here told the Monitor Feb. 5 that "from here on, relations with Saudi Arabia can only go downhill."

These officials describe US-Saudi relations as a "love- hate relationship" and as "marriage not made in heaven." But despite the fact that "Saudi Arabia is as dependent on the United States for security as the United States is dependent on Saudi Arabia for oil," they feel that the kingdom is losing its patience "with what the Saudis see as futile US attempts to solve the Israeli-Arab dispute."

Moreover, the Saudis do not believe that Camp David will result in a comprehensive settlement of the Middle East conflict.

"How can we have a strategic relationship with the US while it has such close relations with Israel?" one Saudi asked.

Saudi officials see little difference between the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the continued Israeli occupation of Arab land.

Crown Prince Fahd was recently quoted by the Saudi news agency as saying, "Saudi Arabia has taken a firm stand against the Soviet policy and the USSR's flagrant intervention in Afghanistan. We are still opposing the odious policy of constructing settlements in occupied Palestine and the overt violation of the Palestinian people's rights."

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