Soviet pullout from Afghanistan could help restore Saudi ties

The groundwork is being laid for Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union to restore diplomatic relations severed 50 years ago, according to Arab and diplomatic sources in the Gulf. But a formal move is not expected to take place until the Soviets complete General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev's promised withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Soviet presence there is seen by analysts as a key stumbling block to warmer relations between Moscow and Riyadh. The two nations have not had formal diplomatic ties since 1938.

Analysts say the Saudi-Soviet thaw comes in recognition of the importance of Soviet cooperation in international efforts to end or contain the Gulf War. In addition, Arab disappointment is growing over the United States' response to Palestinian uprisings in Israeli-occupied territories. Riyadh also feels too much taken for granted by Washington.

``As soon as the Soviets complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Saudis will immediately establish relations,'' says a well-placed Arab source. He added that the neighboring Gulf states of Qatar and Bahrain were also considering following the Saudi lead in establishing formal ties with the Soviets.

One US-based analyst visiting Riyadh was more circumspect on the possibility. ``The Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan opens the way for diplomatic relations but not necessarily an exchange of ambassadors,'' he said. ``The fact that there is so much [Saudi-Soviet] consultation going on is in itself a major change.''

Those consultations include the visit to Riyadh this week of Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Polyakov, who delivered a message to King Fahd from Mr. Gorbachev. The message was reported in the Saudi media to have dealt with the Iran-Iraq war and the Palestinian issue.

Saudi officials visiting the Soviet Union lately include Oil Minister Hisham Nazer, Ambassador to the US Prince Bandar bin Sultan, and Foreign Minister Saud Al-Faisal.

Despite the repeated hints of warmer ties with Moscow, the Saudis have downplayed the recent contacts.

Historically, the Saudis have distrusted the Soviet role in South Yemen, Ethiopia, and Iraq and strongly opposed the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The conservative, religious monarchy in Riyadh has also been uncomfortable with a socialistic, atheistic nation that in the past has given aid and encouragement to leftist ``liberation'' movements in the region.

But now, both the Saudis and the Soviets appear to share a common goal in preventing the spread of Iran's revolutionary fervor.

Analysts emphasize that restoring ties with Moscow would not mean a major realignment in Saudi interests away from the US and the West. Rather it points up a more pragmatic view in Riyadh of possible Soviet contributions in the region. Kuwait's experience last year in playing Moscow off Washington and obtaining both Soviet and US warship protection for Kuwaiti oil exports is said to have impressed Saudi leaders.

And lingering fears of an eventual US retreat from the Gulf or a radical change in Gulf policy following the US presidential elections have caused the Saudis to consider the possible benefits of closer consultations with the Soviets.

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