Saudi Arabia and Jordan: kingdoms at the crossroads?

More with each passing month, being a pro-American monarch in the Middle East qualifies as a hardship post. And the two senior members of that fraternity - Jordan's King Hussein, who has been on the throne for more than three decades, and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia - are visibly seeking ways of reducing the risks.

The two monarchies' strategies - like their geographical positions and particular political challenges - are decidedly less similar than Western pundits often suggest.

History alone should serve as a reminder that the two kingdoms are not identical twins. It was only 60 years ago, at the Arabian Red Sea port of Jiddah , that supporters of Ibn Saud - the father of the present Saudi monarch - forced his rival, Sherif Hussein, into exile. Sherif Hussein - then ruler of the Hejaz, the Arabian coastal strip including the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina - was the great-grandfather of the present King of Jordan.

At least one major regional issue of current import - the reemergence of Egypt as a regional power - could well spotlight differences between the Saudi and Jordanian ruling houses in the months ahead.

Yet increasingly, the amorphous threat of anti-Western ''extremism'' - especially Iran-style Shiite Muslim militancy - tops the list of regional preoccupations for the Saudis, the Jordanians, and other Arab monarchies or sheikhdoms traditionally on good terms with the Americans.

And increasingly, a shared response has been publicly to play down closeness to the United States while seeking that historically most elusive of Arab commodities - workable and effective ''unity'' - among the more moderate regimes in the area.

The trick, put differently, has been to maintain relations with Washington - indeed, in some senses to consolidate them in hopes of adding strategic depth to any moderate alliance - without the appearance of being regional surrogates for a superpower that is not exactly tops in the popularity polls.

The unraveling of Lebanon in recent weeks has further complicated the business of managing ties with the US. For not only are the Americans a regionally unpopular ally, but now, in painfully public view, they seem to have proved a decidedly superpowerless one as well.

With the handwriting (in the penmanship of Syria and Iranian-style Shiites) already on the wall last December, a Lebanese newspaper quoted an official from a moderate Gulf oil state as lamenting that the Americans couldn't even defeat a ''bunch of gunmen'' in Lebanon.

How then, went the implied postcript, could the Americans protect Saudi Arabia or its Gulf neighbors from potential military threat, say, from Iran?

Equally, the bleak prospects for a negotiated compromise on the Palestinian question have complicated the position of the Arab world's pro-Western monarchies. The Americans, as Israel's billionaire bankrollers, are portrayed by Arabs of all political stripes as ultimately responsible for the deadlock.

This concern is of particular import for King Hussein. He, unlike the Saudis, shares a land border with Israel. His kingdom, carved out on conference-table maps by his great-grandfather's British allies after World War I, is historically part of Palestine. His nation's population - even minus the West Bank area captured by the Israelis in 1967 - is predominately Palestinian.

But overshadowing even this conundrum has been what a ranking Jordanian official describes as the ''general threat of religious extremism and related, state-backed terrorism'' in the area. The deadlock over the Palestinians, if long a concern for the Jordanian monarchy, has taken on added importance as a potential boon for ''extremists of all types'' in the Arab world.

''The less bright are the prospects for negotiating progress, and the more the Americans are seen as contributing to that situation,'' another Jordanian source argues, ''the more convincingly radicals can credibly confront those who take the negotiated option, or ties with the US, seriously.''

This may be especially true given that the Israeli-held city of Jerusalem - holy not only to Jews but also to all Muslims - makes the Palestinian question a decidedly Islamic, not merely Arab-nationalist one.

For kingdoms like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, the worst-case scenario is presumably what King Hussein has publicly termed the threat of political ''disintegration'' in the Arab world. If the current power lineup were indeed to disintegrate - especially in a century during which working monarchies worldwide have gradually become the stuff of which history books are made - it is not unreasonable to assume that regimes like those in Saudi Arabia and Jordan might be among the first to suffer.

Both the Jordanians and the Saudis have been moving to head off that scenario , or various intermediate versions - comforted, perhaps, by the fact that both ruling houses have defied pundits' predictions of doom for decades.

Bomb attacks in December on Western targets in Kuwait - the small oil sheikhdom perched on massive Saudi Arabia's right shoulder - have served notice that the threat to the stability of Arab monarchies, if not necessarily immediate, may also be far from merely theoretical.

And Jordan has, in recent months, been handed reminders closer to home: in the form of a series of bombs - most of them, happily, defused - amid the seven dusty hills of the country's hilly capital city, Amman. A number of Jordanian diplomats have been shot in capitals abroad. In a region where even a change in the weather can spawn the most convoluted of political conspiracy theories, it would be absurd to pretend certain knowledge of who, singular or plural, may be behind the bombings that so unsettle pro-Western regimes.

Yet Jordanian and Saudi suspicions appear to center on an alliance of anti-American convenience marrying Iran's theocratic Shiite regime to the muscularly secular government of Syria. Both Iran and Syria deny involvement, although neither has shed any public tears over the attacks - or over deadlier truck-bomb assaults on US, French, and Israeli installations in Lebanon.

Here, Jordanian and Saudi strategies part ways.

The Saudis, always loath to court tension with other Arab regimes no matter what the issue, have taken a relatively low-profile approach.

The Saudis have made little secret of their suspicions of Iran - a non-Arab nation whose significant Arab friends can be counted on two fingers, one for Syria and one for Libya. Riyadh has figured prominently in bankrolling Iraq's war of attrition against Ayatollah Khomeini.

But generally, the Saudi aim has been to stroke rather than antagonize - notably by continuing large-scale aid to the Syrians and by at least tacitly going along with Syria on various issues of regional import.

These, to take two examples, include Lebanon's stillborn May 1983 peace agreement with Israel - which Syria wants scrapped - and last December's controversial reconciliation visit to Egypt by Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat.

The Arafat move followed his expulsion from the Lebanese port of Tripoli by Syrian-armed Palestinian rivals. The Saudis, though not condemning Arafat's encounter with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak outright, did pointedly withhold anything resembling endorsement.

Meanwhile, the Saudis have concentrated their energies on strengthening a recent-vintage regional organization called the Gulf Cooperation Council - and especially on converting that group into a security alliance capable of countering internal or external threat.

Ultimately, the Saudis and their Gulf neighbors know this will be a tall order. The Gulf states' separate armies are, in relative regional terms, not all that muscular. Should, for instance, the Iranians move to close the nearby Strait of Hormuz at the bottom of the Gulf, GCC officials make clear, the key countermove would have to come from outside powers.

And as for threats of the suicide truck-bomb variety, ''Well, no force anywhere can perfectly guard against that,'' a senior Western diplomat remarks.

Meanwhile, the Saudis have moved to play up the GCC - which, following the assassination of the United Arab Emirates' ambassador in Paris, did in February begin consultations on ''the steady increase in terrorist activity against GCC citizens.'' And the Saudis have played down the closeness of their ties with Washington - among other things, by recently sealing a $4 billion arms deal with the French.

Jordan has a stronger army than do its Gulf neighbors. The King, in a news conference early this year, in effect fell into line with Saudi concerns and strategy by declaring that - although he did keenly want US arms to equip a beefed-up force capable of helping Arab friends - he envisaged this force not as an American surrogate or ''rapid deployment'' weapon, but as an arm of Jordanian and allied Arab policy.

Yet on the political front, the King has eschewed Saudi-style reticence to offend in favor of a high-profile move to court two prime Syrian rivals - Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and PLO chief Arafat.

King Hussein's evident hope is to build a workable new alliance of relative Arab moderates around Mubarak, himself, Arafat, and a fourth Syrian rival, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

On a medically related visit to the US in February, the Jordanian monarch went as far as to preempt any formal reintegration of Egypt into the Arab world by openly meeting with Mr. Mubarak, who was in Washington at the time. Then, both King Hussein and Mubarak conferred with President Reagan. In Saudi eyes, this kind of move surely should have awaited at least an Arab consensus, if not full Arab unanimity, on retracting Egypt's ouster from the Arab League for having made peace with Israel.

''There are junctures,'' says a source close to King Hussein on the question of his meeting Mr. Mubarak, ''when one simply cannot afford the luxury to wait.''

On the home front, meanwhile, the King has taken the long-considered step of restoring an active parliament.

Domestically, the aim is to provide a formal political outlet for a majority-Palestinian population that has become both more prosperous and better educated in recent years.

But the parliament - as Syria has vocally noted - also in effect lays to rest a 1974 Arab League dictate that only the PLO can speak for the Arab world's Palestinians. Half the deputies in the Jordanian legislature are from the Israeli-occupied West Bank and therefore represent its predominantly Palestinian population.

Whether by accident or design, one effect of the move has been to hint to the mercurial Mr. Arafat that if he shuns - for the second time in as many years - sealing a joint peace-negotiating strategy with Jordan, then the King might move without Arafat's endorsement.

But as so often in the Mideast, the practical equation is considerably murkier. Jordanian sources strongly suggest the King would not launch any serious peace-negotiating venture without at least tacit backing from Arafat.

Indeed, the Jordanians are increasingly skeptical at early prospects for negotiations. For one thing, they wonder whether Arafat - even though weakened by his defeat in Tripoli - will unequivocally choose negotiations over the ''armed struggle'' against Israel. But beyond this, Israeli ''intransigence'' and Reagan administration constraints in a US election year reinforce skepticism in Amman.

Jordanian officials - like Egyptian ones - privately suggest a less ambitious goal: to maintain at least the illusion of movement on the negotiating front at a time when regional extremism of various stripes threatens gradually to make diplomacy a laughably irrelevant pursuit.

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