With the Iraqi thrust into Iran bogged down in stalemate, Saudi Arabia is pushing its own candidacy to succeed the Shah of Iran as the dominant power in the Gulf.
At the same time, the Suadis have stepped up their efforts to establish a prime role for themselves as:
1. The No. 1 ally of the United States in the Middle East -- and thus deserving of US consideration both as a key component in security planning for the region and as recipient of some of the latest US weaponry. The arrival of President Reagan in the White House and the probability this year of a new US Mideast initiative make this thrust especially timely.
2. The shaper of pricing and production policy within the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries -- and as such the OPEC member most able to help (or hurt) the US and its industrial allies grappling with the energy crisis.
3. The shield protecting the smaller Arab states on the periphery of the Arabian Peninsula against the threat of subversion -- whether from the Soviet Union, Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini, Iraq's Saddam Hussein, or Libya's Muammar Qaddafi.
Unlike Iraq and Iran, the Saudis are using oil, money, and diplomacy as their main weapons, rather than guns. Hence, the Saudi sponsorhip at the end of last month of the Muslim summit at Taif, in the hills southeast of the holy city of Mecca, and the conference a week later of six Gulf State foreign ministers in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
The latter meeting also illustrates the ambiguities that are so much a feature of Saudi maneuvering.
In the struggle between Iraq and Iran, Saudi Arabia is on the side of Iraq and has even been helping Iraq discreetly. Yet it is Iraq that the Saudis would like to push aside as potential successor to Iran in the job of local policeman. And it is partly against eventual subversion from Iraq that the Saudi royal family is encouraging a closer association of the princely rulers of the independent Arab Gulf states who sent their foreign ministers to Riyadh last week.
Iraq pointedly was not invited to that meeting. Those represented there, with the Saudis, were Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman.
Their coming together was significant in itself. In the past, the smaller states have been suspicious of their big Saudi neighbor. And between these smaller states, there often have been bitter, petty quarrels. Yet on Saudi initiative, they agreed in Riyadh "to unify their military capabilities" to help "preserve this part of the world from foreign intervention."
Interestingly, Saudi Arabia proposed to the meeting a "unification of the source of arms supply to the interested countries with a view to permitting the development of cooperation in the fields of training and use of their respective weaponry."
In addition, Oman proposed to the conference participants the establishment of a common defense force to defend the Strait of Hormuz, the bottleneck for oil-tanker traffic at the entrance to the Gulf, where the shipping channel is in Omani waters.
Clearly, this was being said and done with an eye on the US, whose new President the Saudis know to be keen to project American power closer to the Gulf area. The US already has an agreement with Oman for the use of Omani facilities outside the Gulf by the American Rapid Deployment Force.
The Saudis themselves do not want American forces on Saudi soil or inside the Gulf. But since early last year, they have had a request in Washington for fuel tanks and bomb racks to extend the capability of the American-built F-15 jet aircraft already promised to the Saudi government.
Israel objects strongly to any thought of the US meeting the Saudi request for the extra equipment. The Israelis have been reinforced in their objections by the anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian resolutions for which the Saudis won across-the-board support at the Muslim conference in Taif.
This, too, was a message intended just as much for the US as the subsequent decisions at the Riyadh gathering a week later. Talking to Western correspondents at the end of the Taif conference, Saudi Oil Minister Sheikh Ahmad Zaki Yamani said:
"Israel cannot do anything without the help of the US. . . . You will have to be responsible for correcting the damage done so far. . . . Our policy is to use oil as a political instrument."
Then Sheikh Yamani, insisting that he was not threatening, speculated on what would happen if Saudi Arabia cut back oil production to the level required to meet only Saudi domestic needs: "The rate of unemployment [in the US] will at least double. The price of oil will double again. The rate of inflation will go up, and then you can talk about a depression, not a recession."