The most interesting thing about Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's visit to Washington may be the signals he is sending to other Arabs. In his remarks to United States officials, Mr. Sadat has supported both the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Saudi Arabia. Some Middle East specialists think that a Saudi-Egyptian rapprochement may be in the making.
Mr. Sadat lost many friends in the Arab world after signing a peace treaty with Israel. He began to refer bitterly to some other Arab leaders as "dwarfs." Saudi Arabia cut off its financial subsidies to Egypt. But over the past year or two there have been persistent rumors of secret contacts between Sadat's government and both the PLO and Saudi Arabia.
Working together, Egypt and Saudi Arabia could immensely enhance their ability to influence events in the Middle East. Egypt has a large population and a tradition of cultural and political leadership. Saudi Arabia has the oil wealth. As a major bankroller of the PLO, Saudi Arabia holds some influence over that organization.
This does not mean to say that Mr. Sadat would renounce his peacemaking with Israel. But with a new hard-line government now coming to power in Israel, he may want to widen his options. Once the Israelis have returned the rest of the Sinai to Egypt in April 1982, President Sadat may want to distance himself from Israel and build bridges to some of his old friends in the Arab world.
For Sadat to break completely with the Israelis would not go over well, however, with the US, Israel's chief supporter. And Mr. Sadat considers his US connection to be of primary importance. He may argue that he can have a moderating influence on Saudi and PLO attitudes toward Israel.
"Sadat wants to get back on the Saudi payroll," said the director of a research institute with ties in Saudi Arabia.
In proposing that the US open a dialogue with the PLO, Sadat does not appear to expect any immediate results. As one congressional specialist on the Middle East put it, the Egyptian leader has been "laying down seeds for the future." While in Washington, his main concern seems to have been establishing a warm working relationship with President Reagan. In that he appears to have succeeded.
Both the US and Egyptian officials say that an "educational process" has been taking place whereby the two leaders get to know each other's ideas.
Until he gets all of the Sinai back, Mr. Sadat can be expected to move cautiously in widening his options. But he has been trying to clear the air of animosity between himself and the Saudis. He has described as important the Saudi role in helping to secure a cease-fire in Lebanon. He and other Egyptian officials have supported the proposed US sale of AWACS (airborne warning and control system) radar plants to Saudi Arabia. Egypt's defense minister stated some weeks ago that the radar planes would constitute no threat to Israel's security and that Egypt was interested in seeing a strong Saudi Arabia.
Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin, meanwhile, has disagreed violently with the Egyptian, and US, view of Saudi Arabia as a constructive force in the world.In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Begin described Saudi Arabia as "an implacable enemy of Israel" that is "corrupt in its soul."
President Sadat's suggestion that the US end its ban on talks with the PLO got a negative response from US officials. They repeated their standard refusal to talk with the PLO unless the PLO recognizes Israel's right to exist.
But some US officials privately call the ban absurd, saying it was never meant to apply to all PLO contacts.
Until recently, President Reagan spoke of the Palestinian problem as largely a refugee issue. But it is reported that over the past few weeks, as he has begun to focus on Middle East issues, the President started to ask more probing questions about the status of the Palestinians and the organization that claims to represent them.