The controversial issue of whether to sell AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia is forcing the United States to assess the political stability of the oil-rich desert kingdom.
The crucial questions are:
* Is Saudi Arabia stable enough to guarantee that the $8.5 billion worth of American AWACS radar planes and F-15 enhancement equipment will remain in friendly hands?
* Is the US overarming Saudi Arabia, with possibly the same dire consequences as occurred in the late Shah's Iran?
* Would the American-made equipment someday be used against Israel?
Diplomats believe Saudi Arabia is relatively safe from outside threat for the moment. It has no "hot" border disputes with its neighbors.
There was much greater worry in 1979, according to Robert Neumann, former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. But "this is less true now," he says. "Saudi policy has become more assertive and sure of itself."
Mr. Neumann reached that conclusion after anaylzing the Saudi role in creation of the new Gulf Cooperation Council, its work in securing a United Nations resolution condemning the Israeli raid on Iraq's nuclear reactor, and the negotiations that brought about an indirect cease-fire between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Other diplomats note the Saudi roles in securing a multiparty cease-fire in Lebanon, in cooling off the Syrian-Israeli "missile crisis," and in helping move the western Sahara dispute closer to settlement.
The Saudi royal family also won favor by mediating between Syria and Jordan last winter, giving quiet support to Iraq in its war with Iran, and bankrolling the PLO.
The only external threats, diplomats say, would come today from Israel, Iran, Marxist South Yemen, or a direct Soviet assault. But Iran is tied up in war with Iraq and its internal problems; South Yemen has not the means to sustain an attack; and a direct Soviet assault appears unlikely at this time.
Which leaves Israel.
The paradox of the AWACS-arms deal is that it makes Saudi Arabia a higher-priority target to Israel -- practically the opposite of the defensive bolstering that Washington and Riyadh seek for the kingdom. Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir recently said that Israel might launch a preemptive attack against the AWACS if Saudi Arabia uses them to spy on his country. This may just be threatening talk. But it does point up a kind of no-win circular argument:
The Saudis want AWACS for their own security from any threat. The Reagan administration says Saudi security is important and argues the equipment won't be used against Israel. But Israel looms as a greater threat to Saudi security after the equipment is delivered.
The leap out of this argument, an American Mideast analyst pointed out recently, is threefold: The AWACS will not be in Saudi hands until 1985-90; they will have less than the most sophisticated equipment (and the Pentagon has shown the Israelis how to counter it anyway); and even more sophisticated US technology will be in production -- possibly for Israeli use -- in the 1980s.
Whether the AWACS and US arms would be used against Israel depends very much on the trust put in secret agreements being worked out between the Reagan administration and the Saudis. US assurances are that they would not be. The Saudis publicly argue (for the benefit of other Arabs, most Mideast observers believe) that they will not be constrained in their military operations.
How stable are the Saudis from within?
More stable than almost every other Arab country, say two well-informed Lebanese analysts. The 1979 attack on the Grand Mosque in Mecca taught the Saudis valuable lessons, says one analyst. The military was reorganized. The Wahhabi religious establishment (orthodox Muslims traditionally allied to the Saudi royal family) was given greater access to King Khalid. The attack itself was isolated -- carried out by a man who proclaimed himself "Mahdi" (messiah) and thereby attracted a following (Mahdism and its attendant Muslim fervor has occurred numerous times throughout the Arab world.)
This sort of incident always could recur, the analyst says, but as in 1979 it is not expected to draw a significant following from the rest of the population. Therefore genuine revolution is unlikely.
Nor, say the Lebanese analysts, do the 50,000 to 70,000 Palestinians in Saudi Arabia constitute an apparent fifth column. They are generally middle-class merchants and professionals who are able to make small fortunes in the country. An Israeli specialist on Saudi Arabia agrees:
"The Palestinian threat is highly exaggerated. They have accepted only Palestinians who could be 'productive,' and they are now an integral part of the community. There has never been a sign interpreted as even the beginning of a threat. To speak about threat and danger to the regime from Palestinians is to exaggerate."
The question about overarming Saudi Arabia, says an American Mideast specialist, presupposes that it was overarming Iran that caused the Shah to fall. He disagrees, saying the late shah undermined his regime more by moving against the clergy, trying to force the people out of Islam, and failing to address the great economic differences in the country. The wealthy royal family and the Iranian peasantry were a stark contrast.
In Saudi Arabia, however, the clergy is very much a part of the power elite. The country's legal system is strictly tied to Islamic code. There are not such glaring economic differences, because the Saudis have a much smaller population and so much oil wealth that most Saudis can earn their living quite easily.
The Saudi royal family, moreover, is less ostentatious -- at home at least -- than the Pahlavi dynasty was. And Saudi Arabia tries to export Islam to Asia, Africa, and Europe, not surpress it.
The composite picture of Saudi Arabia today, these analysts seem to be saying , would not change drastically if the $8.5 billion in US weapons were introduced.