Saudis walk difficult Mideast tightrope

These are hard times to be an Arab friend of the United States -- particularly so for the Saudis.

But observers note the Saudis are facing a tough balancing act in the Middle East. On one hand, they want to continue to maintain good relations with the US government. On the other, they must distance themselves enough to avoid condemnation by other Arab regimes and Arabs for being too soft on the US -- Israel's friend and major aid and arms supplier.

Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia is striving to make the most of its friendship with the US.

Prior to the June 6 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Riyadh was already deeply concerned about Iranian successes against Iraq in the Gulf war and the possibility of Khomeini-inspired Islamic fundamentalist disturbances among Saudi Shiite Muslims. In addition, the oil market is in a glut and continues to erode Saudi as well as OPEC market clout, and OPEC itself is in turmoil with the Iranians and the Saudis squaring off over production quotas.

Washington-based Middle East experts say the Saudis, by pursuing their quiet diplomacy, have done all they can reasonably do to come to the assistance of the besieged Palestinian guerrillas in west Beirut. Some observers say that the Saudis have already played a more significant role in assisting the Palestine Liberation Organization in Lebanon than most other Arab countries. There is speculation that the Saudi role may extend to financing the PLO evacuation from Beirut.

The Saudis are hoping that through their contact with the US they will have an opportunity to influence Washington into taking a tougher stand against Israel, thus advancing the Palestinian cause through diplomatic means. Whether this is enough for the Saudis to avoid future criticism in the Arab world for its ties to Washington -- and whether those ties eventually work to Saudi and US advantage in the Middle East - remains to be seen.

One expert said the Saudis consider US reluctance to rein in the Israeli government ''an embarrassment of major proportions.''

But the Saudis see some positive developments emerging from the invasion and siege of Beirut. They say - as does the PLO -- that the invasion showed the PLO could stand up alone against the Israeli Army longer than any joint Arab forces have in previous wars. And they say the siege of Beirut has led to a shift in US public opinion, with more Americans understanding and supporting self-determination for the Palestinians. They hope this shift will be reflected in US policy.

But analysts said that much will depend on what happens if and when the PLO is evacuated from Beirut and whether a revised Reagan administration Middle East strategy takes into account the wider Palestinian issue and a possible PLO-US dialogue.

''If the PLO is talking to the Americans, it is much harder for Arab nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists to be turned against pro-US regimes,'' says one analyst.

If nothing happens, some observers feel there could be a renewal of terrorism by Palestinians against targets in Western Europe, against US installations in the region, and against moderate, pro-Western regimes.

Observers also say the Saudi government is facing ''an erosion of confidence'' among the student and professional classes within the kingdom as a result of a growing sense of frustration and humiliation over the fighting in Lebanon. Experts say such erosion is difficult to quantify, but they stress that it does not pose a significant threat to the ruling Saud family.

That the Saudis chose a diplomatic response to the crisis in Lebanon is not surprising, experts say. The Saudis have no credible military option, nor do they apparently have a desire to fight a war. In addition, the so-called ''oil weapon'' has been significantly disarmed, analysts say, because of the continuing international oil glut.

Another reported option - the transfer of an estimated $100 billion in Saudi financial assets out of US banks -- is said to be difficult and undesirable by the Saudis.

Instead, the Saudis have carved out a diplomatic niche as middlemen between the PLO and the US government. In that role, in addition to the immediate diplomatic questions of the PLO evacuation, they have badgered the Americans to take a more ''evenhanded'' approach to the Middle East, urging more controls on Israel and more emphasis on an overall solution for the Palestinians.

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