THE SPECTACLE of an insistent Uncle Sam thrusting new forms of military association upon a reluctant Saudi royal family continues to hang over relations between the United States and the leading oil power of the Gulf. In the latest instance, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, acting very much the secretary of state, stayed up until 4:30 in the morning negotiating with his Saudi counterpart and then read reporters parts of a draft paper while Prince Sultan, the defense minister, sat silently by. A "joint committee for military projects" is to be set up. Its functions are vague; words like "formalize" and "upgrade" are used to describe them. Its very formation is believed to be, on the American side, significant. On the Saudi side? The new panel, offered Prince Sultan, is "not based on cooperation in the field of military endeavor." Oh?

Mr. Weinberger was formerly a top executive of a corporation that has negotiated contracts worth billions of dollars with the Saudis. You could argue he is as well equipped as any American to negotiate military/political "contracts" with them. There is, however, a striking discontinuity between the sharp-edged businesslike American approach to such arrangements and the blurred now-you-see-it- now-you-don't approach of the Saudi princes. It is clear enough what the Pentagon's part of the American relationship with Saudi Arabia is aimed at: to enable the United States in an emergency to have use of the Saudi facilities necessary to ensure that Saudi oil keeps flowing to the West. But it is equally clear that the Saudis are extremely hesitant to accept the sort of relationship that would allow the United States to perform the mission it has in mind.

The AWACS sale was described at the time by some of its advocates as an essential block to put in place in order to build the requisite Saudi confidence in American good will and constancy. On the Weinberger trip, Saudi officials and military officers told American journalists that the sale of AWACS planes and F15s contributed little to a political alliance between the two nations. "You are just arms salesmen," a general was quoted as saying, "and we pay cash." This is characteristic of one whole set of Saudi attitudes--the prickly independent set that Saudis tend to assert in counterpoint to the other set indicating satisfaction with their American tie. It is not a reason to give up on the Saudis, who, living where and the way they do, are entitled to be plenty nervous. It is a reason to stop expecting too much of them.