Relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia have chilled perceptibly since the Saudis participated in an Arab summit conference that condemned the Camp David agreements. Differences over policy and money have combined with personal pique to create an atmosphere of irritation in both countries.
The divergence between Egypt, the Arab world's biggest country and greatest military power, and Saudi Arabia, which exerts great economic and religious influence on other Arab states, has wider implications than most of the parochial disputes that frequently set Arab against Arab.
It is at least partly responsible for Egypt's determined approach to remaining issues in peace negotiations with Israel, reliable sources here say. The Egyptians believe the Saudis are partly to blame for the refusal of Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization to endorse the negotating process set up at Camp David.
Outsiders tend to view Egyptian-Saudi relations in apocalyptic terms, often asking whether Saudi Arabia will cut off its economic aid to Egypt. But the political minuet is subtler than that. Saudi Arabia was reducing its financial aid to Egypt well before Camp David, just as Egypt was reducing its dependence on Saudi assistance.
The two countries are linked by spiritual ties that go back centuries and neither is likely to anything irretrievable or strike at the other in any dramatic way. It appears to be more a matter of going in the same direction by different routes. The Saudis did not like the Egyptian assumption that where Cairo led Saudi Arabia would inevitably follow, and the Egyptians resent Saudi refusal to endorse President Anwar Sadat's policies.
Sadat is reliably reported to be personally annoyed at Crown Prince Fahd, who he feels went back on his word at the Baghdad summit conference and caved in to the demands of Arab hard-liners to denounce the Camp David agreements and impose economic and political sanctions on Egypt. Ignoring the pressures on the Saudis from Syria, Iraq and other opponents of Sadat who also have strong ties to Riyadh, the Egyptians question why it was necessary for Fahd to participate personally in the first place.
Two weeks ago, according to authoritative sources, Sadat refused even to receive a conciliatory message from Fahd, leading some of his close advisers to suggest that he cool off. He later said the Saudis "allowed themselves to be dragged by the emotionalists and auctioneers in the Arab world," such as Libya and Iraq, and suggested Saudi policy would be different if the late King Faisal were still alive and ruling the kingdom.
Anis Mansour, a journalist who often speaks for Sadat, wondered in print if Saudi Arabia had "turned to the Soviets and become a member of the Warsaw PACT." That expressed in blunt terms the Egyptian argument -- aimed at playing on Saudi fears of communism and radical insurgents -- that by refusing to endorse the Camp David accord the Saudis are playing into the hands of the Soviet Union.
The Saudis have let it be known that they resent this treatment, which they view as unwarranted. Diplomats and journalists who have visited Saudi Arabia recently found many Saudis unusually outspoken about their irritation with Egypt.
Egyptian officials have sought to minimize the degree of strain between this country and Saudi Arabia. They argue that Egypt and Saudi Arabia have so many common interests that transitory disputes will be overriden, which may underestimate Saudi displeasure at the failure of Sadat's program to deal with such sensitive issues as the future of Jerusalem.
"It's a family quarrel," said acting Foreign Minister Boutros Ghali in an interview. "It will be worked out. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have a kind of special relationship..."
Sayed Marei, a member of Sadat's inner circle who was sent on an explanatory mission to Saudi Arabia after Camp David, acknowledged that "there are differences," but he also insisted that "they will be worked out."
But the differences have been accumulating. Egypt believed the Saudis would put more money into the $2 billion Gulf organization for the development of Egypt when the original fund was used up last spring, but the Saudis did not.
Then came Saudi Arabia's refusal to meet the asking price for 50 F5 combat jets that Egypt is buying from the United States. Delivery of the first of the planes was scheduled for last month but has been held up because of a dispute over who will make up the difference between the estimated cost, about $730 million, and what the Saudis have agreed to pay, about $500 million.
A Cairo newspaper said this week that the Saudis now have decided to put up the rest of the money, but reports from the kingdom itself and defense officials in Washington say this is untrue.
After the problems with the plane sale came the chilly Saudi response to the results of Camp David and then the Baghdad summit in which all the Arabs adopted a resolution that refrained from naming Egypt but condemned unilateral action by any Arab state on the Palestinian question as "impermissible."
Saudi participation in a multibilliondollar fund reportedly set up there to support Syria, Jordan and the PLO was described by one high-ranking Egyptian as "a message to them that peace does not pay."
The Saudis see the outcome of Baghdad differently. All participants accepted a resolution that "affirmed" the support of the Arabs for "a just peace," based on complete Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied in the 1967 war.
The Saudis have said, and many independent observers agree, that this formula implies acceptance of Israel's right to exist and is close approximation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242. By inducing Iraq, Algeria and the other radicals to accept that, they say, the Saudis actually nudged the other Arabs significantly closer to Sadat's position.
Taking their cue from Sadat, Egyptian officials brush aside any suggestion that this country's negotiating stance in the talks with Israel was hardened or toughened in response to Baghdad, but in private they acknowledge that this was the case.
"After Baghdad," one said, "Sadat had to show that he was not in too much of a hurry, that he was not a little stooge of the U.S. who commited the Arabs to less than the best deal available."