The use of Arabs as "villains" by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in its so-called "Abscam" inquiry into alleged congressional corruption has made US relations with Saudi Arabia and other key Arab oil suppliers increasingly difficult.
US Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti's recent public apology to the Arab states, especially to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for any slight inferred by the FBI's use of a fake "Abdul Enterprises Inc." and references to "Arab sheikhs" and "citizens of the UAE" anxious to buy congressional favors, has helped ease the situation somewhat, says Arab League Ambassador to the United Nations Clovis Makhsoud.
"It was, at least, a recognition by the Carter administration that the Arab image was again being insulted and debased in this country," dr. Makhsoud said in a telephone interview. He had earlier reported in depth on the overseas impact of "Abscam" -- short for "Arab Scam," implying a swindle perpetrated by Arabs -- to a meeting of the Arab-American Chamber of Commerce in New York Feb. 18, after a formal protest Feb. 7.
According to Ambassador Makhsoud, US businessmen, defense contractors, and others commercially involved in the Arab world tell him that "Arabs are no more venal or corrupt, and perhaps many [are] less so, than Americans or any other national and ethnic group."
The National Association of Arab-Americans questioned what the consequences might have been if Jews, blacks, Hispanics, or other US minority groups had similarly been identified by the FBI, columnists, and political cartoonists as "bad guys."
In one of the latest Abscam developments, reported by the New York Times, an FBI agent in San Diego, identified as Van Davis, was asked whether a "sheikh" supposedly questioned by the FBI was real or not. Mr. Davis replied that he knew the name but was not certain if the "sheikh" was genuine, adding. "There's lots of Saudi Arabian emirs, you know."
US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia John C. West has told personal friends recently that reaction to Abscam in the kingdom has made contact difficult with close Saudi acquaintances.
The uproar over Abscam came shortly before fears of a possible succession crisis, touched off by King Khalid's illness and hospitalization. An official Saudi medical bulletin Feb. 20 called his problem "exhaustion." Saudi Radio reported he would shortly leave the hospital for a "rest."
Some Saudi envoys abroad, including Oil Minister Ahmad Zaki Yamani, who was attending a conference in London, and Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, who was in Geneva, flew home. But Prince Saud returned to Europe again Feb. 20, and immediate fears abated.
The White House was advised as early as Feb. 16 that King Khalid's condition was considered serious, reliable Washington sources said. Crown Prince Fahd, who has consistently worked for better relations with the US and has opposed oil-production cuts and other "self-interested" moves being urged by younger princes and ministers impatient with American reluctance to pressure Israel for a Palestinian solution, was expected to take an increasingly active role in running the kingdom's affairs.
US administration analysts hope that, should King Khalid pass from the scene, Abscam and other irritants, such as frictions between Saudis and US military elements and contractors working the kingdom, and public demands in this country for American military bases in Saudi Arabia (which Foreign Minister Faisal recently repeated could not be granted), do not aggravate the expected orderly succession of Crown Prince Fahd to the throne.
US experts on Saudi Arabia believe a possible question of whether Prince Sultan, the Defense Minister, would become crown prince after Fahd became king -- or whether the new crown prince would be Prince Abdallah, Second Deputy Premier and Commander of the National Guard -- has been tacitly resolved in favor of Abdallah, who belongs to the conservative Jaluwi family.
Prince Sultan, like Crown Prince Fahd, belongs to the more progressive Sudeiry clan. The "Sudeiry seven" brothers in high posts have tended to emphasize Saudi Arabia's strong ties to the West more than have the Jaluwis, who are oriented more toward an Arab nationalist stand.