The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Saud Faisal, has strongly indicated that his country may be prepared to resume diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union after a lapse of more than 40 years.
In an interview published today by a Beirut magazine, A1 Hawadess, the prince said Saudi Arabia recognizes the Soviet Union's "important role in world politics."
He said Saudi Arabia often has been grateful for "the positive policy adopted by the Soviet Union toward Arab issues," and said the Saudis do not share the American fear of expanding Soviet influence as a destabilizing force in the Persian Gulf.
"What in fact threatens the region and its stability," he said, "is the danger of Zionism."
Coming so soon after the postponement of Crown Prince Fahd's visit to the United States in what appeared to be a show of displeasure over U.S. policy in the Middle East peace negotiations, Saud's comments may be as much of a slap at Washington as they are an overture to Moscow. Even if they are only a trial ballon, they fit a pattern of rapprochement between two countries that have been at opposite ends of the ideological scale and bitter critics of each other for decades.
Observers here pointed out that reopening ties to Saudi Arabia at this time would be a substantial policy coup for the Soviet Union, giving Moscow an opening in a region where it had met only hostility and signaling to the millions of Soviet Moslems along the Iranian border that the most devoutly Islamic state of all was on friendly terms with Moscow.
In late January, a prominent Soviet expert on Middle East affairs, Igor Belyayev, published an article in Moscow's Literary Gazatte praising Saudi Arabia and Islam and saying that the anti-Soviet feeling in Saudi Arabia had been "deliberately created by Western European and American journalists."
That article, which represented a clear break with previous Soviet commentary on Asudi Arabia, was said by analysts in Moscow to have had the imprimatur of the Soviet leadership.
As long ago as mid-1977, Crown Prince Fahd, the deputy prime minister, was quoted as telling visitors in Riyadh that while the Saudis opposed both communism and atheism, they would like to have "friendly relations with the Soviet people." That was followed last year by widespread rumors, never confirmed that the Saudis were considering the purchase of Soviet patrol boats.
While the Sandis import some industrial and consumer goods from Communist nations, the Soviets and all other Communists have been completely excluded from any political ties. No Warsaw Pact or Asian Communist nation has diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia and the Saudis still recognize the Taiwan leadership as the legal government of China. The Saudis have even gone so far as to give ships from Communist nations priority in unloading at clogged Saudi ports to get them out of Saudi waters quickly.
Prince Saud clearly suggested that a change in that policy is coming.
He said his country "has no objection to having trade relations with any country in the world even in the absence of diplomatic ties. This does not mean we do not recognize those countries or do not wish to have diplomatic relations with them."
As for diplomatic ties, he said, "We had relations but they broke them off. We wish to emphasize that the absence of diplomatic ties does not mean we don't recognize the Soviet Union. On the contrary we have often expressed our gratitude for the positive policy adopted by the Soviet Union toward Arab issues."
His reference to previous ties was not explained, but the Soviet Union had a consulate in Saudi Arabia until 1938. It had been a continuation of the czarist Russian mission in the Red Sea port of Jeddah, but was later moved to Mecca and, according to diplomats who have served in Saudi Arabia, it was staffed by Soviet diplomats who were ostensibly Moslems looking after the interests of other Soviet Moslems making the annual pilgrimage.
The Soviet Union had been among the first countries to recognize the "Kingdom of the Hejaz and Najd" when King Abdel Aziz unified Arabia into one country in the 1920s.
Prince Saud put quite a bit of distance between his views and those of Carter administration officials on developments in Iran and the Persian Gulf region as well as on the Middle East peace talks. Saud has consistently pursued a line more independent of American policy than has Fahd, and many observers believe this apparent difference of approach represents an ideological split among the princes who rule the country.
Referring to the recent visit to the Middle East by U.S. Defense Secretary Harold Brown, Prince Saud said, "The Americans feel that the Soviet Union is trying to take advantage of the changing conditions in the region. They believe the Soviets are trying to enhance conflicts and encourage violence. They regard this as dangerous because it tends to disturb the international balance. We explained to [Brown] that we have nothing to do with international strategies," meaning big power politics.
He said that "only the big powers, which have global strategies, speak about a security gap" as a result of events in Iran. The Saudis, he said, had no interest in aligning themselves with either the United States or the Soviet Union to deal with regional affairs in the Persian Gulf.
"What in fact threatens the region and its stability," he said, was not the upheaval in Iran but "the Zionist danger. The way to reestablish calm and stability in the area is by having Israel withdraw from the occupied Arab territories, return Jerusalem and recognize the Palestinian people's right to self-determination."