After an anxious month of intensive negotiations and high-level consultations, Egypt has gained some ground in its campaign to win at least tact Saudi Arabian acceptance of President Anwar Sadat's peace policy.
The Saudis, whose opinion is more important to Sadat than that of all his Arab opponents together, have as usual said little in public. But a series of clues and signals have led government officials, and experienced observers here to believe that they will continue their economic assistance to Egypt and restrain other Arab states trying to organize an anti-Sadat campaign.
Egypt is still hoping for a forthright statement of Saudi support and cooperation in implementing the Camp David accords but does not expect to get it, at least not for some time, according to sources at the Foreign Ministry.
Instead Egyptians expect that the Saudis will refrain from undercutting them, continue most of their financial assistance and wait to see what happens on the Palestinian question before making any substantive moves.
The Egyptian conclusion that gains have been made in securing Saudi support comes just a few days before Saudi Arabia's King Khalid is scheduled to see President Carter in Washington for a meeting that is expected to cover similar issues.
The first major test of Saudi Arabia's role is expected at an Arab summit conference scheduled to be held in Baghdad, Iraq, Nov. 2. After some temporizing, the Saudi have decided to attend, knowing that the host country, Iraq, along with Syria, Algeria and other Arab hardliners will be calling for United action against Egypt. Egypt expects Saudi Arabia's traditional cautions and its desire to steer a middle course to prevail over the shrill denunciations from Sadat's foes.
Saudi Arabia's multi-billion dollar economic aid to Egypt and its enormous religious and political influence among the Arabs make it the only Arab country capable of inflicting any real damage on Egypt. Conversely, it is also the only one whose support for Sadat might induce some others to back his policies.
Sadat knew when the Camp David accords were signed a month ago that they would make Saudi Arabia uncomfortable since they did not resolve the Palestinian issue or commit Israel to returning East Jerusalem to Arab sovereignty.
The Saudi waited only two days before issuing a statement saying that the Camp David agreements "could not be considered as an acceptable final formula for peace" because of what they left out. That was widely hailed by Sadat's most vociferous opponents as Saudi rejection of the accords. As usual with Saudi Arabia however, it was not that simple.
The Camp David accords were not offered as a "final formula for peace," the Egyptians said. Moreover, the Saudi statement also said that the kingdom "does oot give itself the right to interfere in the private affairs of any Arab country or argue its right in restoring its occupied lands by the means of armed struggle or peaceful endeavors, so long as it does not run contrary to higher Arab interests."
This also stopped short of a Saudi commitment either way.
Within a few days of that statement, Sadat began dispatching emissaries to the Saudi rulers to try to sell the Egyptian view, which was that the Camp David documents provided a format to honorably resolve the questions of the occupied territories and the Palestinians' right and were not a sellout of the Arabs.
The latest of these missions came last weekend. Sayed Marei, speaker of the Egyptian parliament met for more than two hours with Crown Prince Fahd and said he found the Saudis "more understanding in all respects" about the peace negotiations. He declined to elaborate, beyond saying that questions about the future of East Jerusalem were of greatest concern of the Saudis, who consider themselves to have a responsibility for the Islamic shrines there.
The day before, Cairo papers prominently reported the publication of an editorial in the Saudi newspaper Okaz that took a pragmatic if not enthusiastic view of the Camp David agreements.
Recalling that all the Arab had approved a policy of trading peace with Israel for occupied lands at the Rabat Morocco, summit conference in 1974, the editorial said the Camp David summit "represents an important stage in Arab history, which should be recognized as an established fact that will govern the nature of relations in the Middle East."
At the same time U.S. Rep. Stephen Solarz (D-N.Y.), who came here after visiting Saudi Arabia, reported that he was convinced the Saudis' good relations with the United States and their desire to keep a moderate government in power in Egypt would lead them to give Sadat at least their tacit support.
None of these reports is definitive by itself. But diplomatic analysts here say that when added to other bits and pieces - a reported statement by Saudi Arabia's finance minister that aid would continue, the decision by the Saudis to allow Moslem Israelis to make the pilgrimage to Mecca for the first time - they show which way Saudi Arabia is leaning.
The issue is not settled, however. For one thing the Saudis are withholding payment for the 50 F5 combat jets that Egypt expects to receive from the United States beginning this month. While American officials have said that this is because the Saudis think the price is too high and not because they object to Sadat's policies, other observers think the Saudis may use the plane deal as a lever to keep the pressure on Sadat as he negotiates over the future of the occupied territories.
In addition, the startling reconciliation between Syria and Iraq may have altered the picture.
The Saudis seek good relations with both countries. If they can now work together, after years of hostility, to make a case against Sadat, it will be difficult for the Saudis to go against them publicly.
The likely outcome, diplomatic sources here say, is that the Saudis will continue to temporize, appealing for Arab unity and demanding action on Jerusalem while continuing to give Sadat what he needs to stay in power. At least for the present, the Egyptians say, that is enough.