Arab image of US tarnished

Saudi and Gulf state officials are worried about what they call "a growing lack of confidence in the United States." Two main issues account for this:

* The Saudis and other Gulf Arabs who view themselves essentially "as friends of the United States" feel betrayed by Washington's reluctance to "really solve the Palestinian problem."

* They warn that the West's persistence in searching for military facilities is "a misreading of the popular Arab mood."

The officials are pleased that President Carter is taking a firm line against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. They are also happy that Washington shows signs of treating them as equal partners in the effort to resist further Soviet encroachments.

But these officials are also very aware that Washington has often disappointed them in the past.

On the question of military bases, they assert that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan has strengthened the concept of neutrality and nonalignment as the Gulf's best form of defense. "We are looking for a course that does not preempt a future consolidation and strengthening of relations with the United States," one Saudi official said.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states not only reject the notion of foreign military bases on their soil for fear of the more radical Arab states, but officials in these countries also describe such approaches as "typical of a patron-client attitude."

"You don't wait until your friend is being clubbed down and endangered and then suddenly jump in and say: 'Here, you need my assistance and my arms,'" a Saudi official said.

Moreover, Arab officials point out that "Westerners, and Americans specifically, are not looked upon by the masses as friends." These officials feel that rulers who overtly cooperate militarily with the West will be viewed as "traitors."

"I have never seen the image of the United States sink so low among the average Saudis," an American-educated Saudi official said. "People use to have certain ideals of the US. These ideals have vanished. It is a very subtle type of change. The danger is that the United States will be seen more and more as a cynical power."

This official fears that the United States will "make the same mistake as in Iran." He added that "you treated Iran as a market and dealt with the Shah, but not with the Iranians."

It is true that many Saudi officials describe President Carter's State of the Union message as "a very courageous statement." This message gave them the rare feeling of being treated as equal partners.

Nevertheless, many in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf resent the fact that it took the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan for the United States to realize the significance of the "communist encroachment."

"Friends usually protect the interests of their friends," an Arab ambassador here said. He pointed to the advent of pro-Soviet regimes in Ethiopia and South Yemen and said, "You don't wait until action disrupts the balance of power and then play macho. Waiting in the full knowledge of the sources of instability is wicked."

US officials in Saudi Arabia appear to be aware of the sensitivities in the Gulf states. "In order to prevent a confrontation, we will constantly have to reassure them that we are not about to sweep the Palestinian problem under the rug," one official said.

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