European nations pick up superpower slack in Mideast

With Moscow and Washington fast securing allies in the Middle East, European powers are moving into the middle ground. Through a series of alliances and bilateral agreements, Israel, Egypt, Sudan, and Oman are being drawn into an American orbit while Syria, Libya, North Yemen, and Ethiopia are spinning around Moscow.

Politically independent, with economic ties to the West, are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, and Jordan.

Europe is not necessarily the first choice of these remaining neutrals. Arms from the two superpowers are still most coveted, and the quiet but colossal backing of America or Russia shores up many regimes. But for countries with budgets laden with oil revenues and with the desire to try to achieve political nonalignment, direct superpower ties often come with too many liabilities.

Saudi Arabia, for instance, is greatly interested in improving relations with Washington, according to various Arab political analysts (the Saudis have no diplomatic relations with Moscow). But the pressure to formalize its alliance and the increasing likelihood of a rebuff in Riyadh's desire to close an $8 billion arms deal with the United States, puts Riyadh in a difficult position.

A veteran Arab source says the Saudi government is "strongly resisting" US attempts to allow a visible American military presence in the kingdom. He adds: "There are serious doubts that Riyadh will go along with current US strategic thinking."

European weapons come with fewer strings, and European diplomacy is less Israel-oriented than Washington's.

If Congress disapproves the weapons deal, the Saudis are likely to turn to Europe for similar, though not quite as top-of-the-line, equipment. British Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington, for example, said his country would sell "Nimrod" surveillance aircraft to the desert kingdom if the US could not sell AWACS radar planes. Royal Air Force Nimrods already do duty over the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean out of Oman and Cyprus.

Saudi officials now are saying they will seek other -- presumably European -- sources for arms if the US deal falls through. That prospect seems likely, since the Saudis reportedly have rejected a congressional call for operational restrictions and American-only crews on the radar planes. These are considered essential safeguards by current opponents of the sale.

An indication of the European political role in the newly polarized Middle East will be seen this weekend when French President Francois Mitterrand visits Riyadh. France is a major weapons supplier to Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Mitterrand's early interest in Middle East diplomacy was seen dramatically last month in the meeting in Beirut between French Foreign Minister Claude Cheysson and Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat. Mr. Mitterrand's choice of Riyadh for his first Middle East excursion serves to ease earlier Arab fears that his Socialist government would favor Israel.

To be sure, Mr. Mitterrand will visit Israel late this year or early next -- the first visit by a French head of state to Israel since the nation was founded in 1948. But Mr. Mitterrand has shown great interest in Saudi Prince Fahd's recent eight-point Middle East peace plan, and he supports the "European initiative" on the Middle East that was outlined in June 1980.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher starts a tour of the Gulf Sept. 25 in another European attempt to strengthen ties and discuss ways of handling the Arab-Israeli conflict. She will visit Bahrain and Kuwait, two countries that have been very critical of the recent US-Israeli "strategic cooperation" statement. The visit is also part of Mrs. Thatcher's strategy of reasserting British defense interests in the Gulf, since most of the Gulf states reject American aid.

Mrs. Thatcher, too, supports the European initiative, which her foreign minister is attempting to develop as current head of the European Council of Foreign Ministers. The Fahd peace plan, which among other things implies acceptance of Israel's existence, has been favorably received in Britain.

Longtime experience gives the Europeans a kind of comfortable familiarity with the Arab world. Even with openly anti-American countries, such as Libya, Syria, and South Yemen, European embassies have good working relations. The Belgians, for example, were reportedly involved in a recent attempt to start talks between Libya and the US on reestablishing diplomatic relations.

Europeans -- especially Britain, France, and West Germany -- are active in Iraq, where they have companies working on major economic and military contracts. Relations with Iran have been allowed to slide in order, as one diplomat recently put it, to "win Iraq over to the West."

The rising tension in the Middle East over the division along superpower lines seems to indicate that the winning of these nonaligned, mostly moderate Arabs to the West will have to be done by the European powers.

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