New signs of fence-mending in the Middle East
Cairo — After a three-year rift, the two most important moderate Arab states are moving closer together.
The two pro-Western countries have recently established top-level contacts that could open the way for coordination between the two countries in curbing the threat from revolutionary Iran and hastening a solution of the Palestinian problem. Relations between the Saudis and Egyptians were essentially frozen after Egypt made its separate peace with Israel during the 1979 Camp David accords.
The recent thaw is reflected in part in a Saudi pledge to finance a new $1 billion Egyptian-French arms deal to provide Egypt with 20 more Mirage 2000 fighter-bombers. Egypt and France signed a similar agreement a year ago. Egypt is expected to receive the first shipment of the sophisticated French aircraft in 1984.
The deal, which was expected to be finalized during French President Francois Mitterrand's recent visit here, ''is almost done,'' but it could not be formulated because of the Egyptian defense minister's absence at the time, according to Mr. Mitterrand's chief of staff, Gen. Jean Saunier.
During the French head of state's brief stay at the end of last month a ranking French envoy flew to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, to work out the details of the financing terms of the agreement, sources involved in the talks said.
Meanwhile, Saudi King Fahd dispatched three of his top aides to hold talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The talks focused on how to ease tension in the region resulting from Israel's armed presence in Lebanon, and how to encourage moderates within the Palestine Liberation Organization to seek involvement in future peace talks.
The Saudi drive to close ranks with Egypt coincides with accentuated fear of Iran's apparent determination to bleed Saudi Arabia's neighbor, Iraq, prolonging a 27-month-old war that has weakened Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Egypt seems at last to be earning part of a long-awaited reward for having supplied Iraq with $2.7 billion worth of arms to fight the Iranian regime, which is the arch enemy of conservative Saudi Arabia.
However, the Saudi leadership is apparently still reluctant to publicly mend fences with Egypt, or even let other moderate Arab states such as Lebanon and Jordan take a step forward in this direction. Egyptian officials suspect Saudi Arabia was behind the last-minute cancellation of a meeting involving President Mubarak and Jordan's King Hussein that was supposed to take place in Oman several weeks ago.
Saudi Arabia's willingness to loosen its grip over private capital investment - and its ability to resume funding government projects here (as it did before the rift) - seem questionable because of the oil-rich kingdom's recent reduced oil revenues. The desert state, which once produced 12 million barrels of oil a day, is currently producing only 5.5 to 6 million barrels a day, according to the Petroleum Intelligence Weekly.
This has reduced Saudi clout, said Nabil Shaath, foreign relations adviser to PLO chairman Yasser Arafat. ''The Saudis have less leverage, and are not as powerful as they used to be,'' he said in an interview.
He added that the time has come for them to exert pressure on the United States to help soften its stand for involving the PLO in the peace process. The US has made any direct US-PLO dialogue conditional on the PLO's recognition of Israel.
Dr. Shaath, who is aware of the contacts taking place between Egypt and Saudi Arabia, said that so far there is no coordination in Egyptian and Saudi lobbying efforts in the US for the PLO.
Egyptian officials say that reaching an understanding on how to deal with the PLO might lead to moderate Arab elements adopting a more flexible attitude.