The Saudis: peace signs and warplanes

There is much reason for the United States to be responsive to every hint of Saudi Arabian conciliation in the Middle East. There are reasons for the US to consider very carefully whether to give in to Saudi desires for extra military equipment the Carter administration promised Congress not to supply.

Both lines of argument are in the air these days following some promising words from Saudi royalty and some waffling noises from the administration.

To take the latter and more publicized situation first: The end of the week brought reports that the administration was trying to ease controversy aroused by its consideration of selling Saudi Arabia the prescribed military items. These were said to include such things to extend the range and firepower of the Saudis' F-15 fighter planes to be delivered by the US. They would enable the planes to strike Israel, an ability the administration had originally sought to forestall by pledging not to supply such equipment. It was the price of gaining congressional agreement to let the Saudis have these advanced aircraft at all.

However, the Saudis had not said they would never ask to escalate their arms requests, and they reportedly let it be known that the request for the additional F-15 equipment was a test of US-Saudi relations. The administration linked its willingness to consider the equipment with the changed regional security atmosphere caused by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, though the Saudi request appeared to have more to do with prestige than with necessary military preparation to meet any Soviet threat. The outcry from Israel and some members of Congress apparently made the administration think again. It would liek the Saudis to defer their request on the grounds neither country's interests would be served by pressing it now.

The Saudis might be wise to take this course. If they do not, Congress would have to find compelling military security reasons, which may not be evident now, for turning the Saudi F-15s into offensive rather than defensive fighters.

Such a move should not be made merely to pass a "test" of relations, which could lead to another test and another. Nor is it the appropriate way to offset Saudi displeasure over the resumption of filling America's strategic oil reserves facilities as mandated by Congress in the imminent synfuels legislation. The Saudis might be excused for concern about seeing their generous oil flow going into storage where its presence could dampen conservation zeal and its value could appreciate to their own disadvantage. But the US has to be prudent in preparing for the possiblity of future embargoes. It could perhaps ameliorate the situation, at least symbolically, by literally setting aside domestic oil rather than Saudi oil for stockpiling purposes.

More basic to the energy situations as well as the diplomatic and security problems is a solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict in the Middle East. And this brings us to the promising royal words mentioned at the beginning and the need for US responsiveness to them.

We refer to the interview given by Crown Prince Fahd to Katharine Graham, chairman of the Washington Post Company, when she visited Riyadh a month ago. Was it only traditional Arab courtesy to a guest that made the prince seem more forthcoming than before in relation to the peace process the Saudis have condemned? Washington may doubt, but it can hardly afford to ignore even the slightest welcome sensitivity to this need by writing to Prince Fehd in response to his pledge that Saudi Arabia would "do its utmost to bring the Arabs to cooperate and work for a full settlement."

There was a condition, of course, Saudi Arabia would make this effort "if Israel would declare its sincere intention of withdrawing from the lands occupied in 1967."

However, this condition seemed less rigid than previous Saudi demands for definite Israeli deadlines for withdrawal as a prerequisite for the Saudis' active support of the peace process. And Prince Fahd added these condiliatory words: "We take it that any sovereign country that respects itself and its word will be serious about its word. There will be men and countries in the Arab world who will take the Israeli word seriously and will start working for gathering the dissidents of the Arab rejectionists to wait for actual action to be taken by Israel."

Is this a door opening ever so slightly? Seekers for Mideast peace ought to inquire further.

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