The Carter administration has stopped pressing Saudi Arabia to support the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and is concerning instead on repairing the substantial damage done over the past six months to the special relationship Washington and Riyadh have sought to build.
As part of this month-old policy decision, which some U.S. Officials characterize as an effort to "cool it" with the Saudis for the time being, the administration has also halted its active efforts to persuade Saudi Arabia to pay for 50 U.S.-manufactured F5E jet fighters destined for Egypt, according to administration sources.
Saudi reluctance to pay for the F5s, and other Saudi actions including a reported reduction of oil deliveries to U.S. companies, are seen in Washington as new signs of a loosening of he special relationship that the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations have made a major U.S. foreign policy goal.
The administration still harbors hope that the Saudis will eventually pick up the F5 deal's $525 million price tag. But active discussions with the Saudis over the fighter package were shelved in late May after King Khalid politely but clearly turned away a personal request from President Carter to reaffirm a Saudi commitment to pay for the F5s, according to U.S. sources.
The decision that U.S.-Saudi relations have become so strained that there is no point for the present in the two allies' talking about their sharp differences over the Egypt-Israel accord was taken at a May 11 Cabinet-level meeting of the Policy Review Committee of the National Security Council, U.S. officials acknowledge.
This represented a particularly painful and reluctant admission for the administration, which predicted after the Camp David summit last September that the Saudis and other moderates could eventually be persuaded to see the value of an Egyptian-Israeli treaty to the region.
In a series of interviews over the past three weeks, U.S. and foreign sources have disclosed that the administration launched an intense diplomatic campaign to get Saudi acquiescence to the treaty immediately after President Anwar Sadat agreed in Cairo to President Carter's final bid for the peace treaty in March.
That initial effort, undertaken by the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, John C. West, failed. It was followed by a well-publicized trip to Saudi Arabia by Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, a secret meeting in Spain between the State Department's third-ranking official, David D. Newsom, and Crown Prince Fahd and a secret letter from Carter to King Khalid.
The efforts also failed. At this point, the campaign can show little in the way of accomplishment beyond the serious undercutting of Ambassador West's position in Saudi Arabia and the realization encapsulated in the May 11 policy decision that - as described in the words of one top diplomat - "Saudi attitudes toward Egypt should not totally affect Saudi-U.S. cooperation on a bilateral basis."
Employing a traditional equivocation that often blurs their true position, the Saudis have been deliberately ambiguous about whether recent actions that dilute the special relationship are aimed at emphasizing their displeasure with the U.S. - sponsored peace treaty. They mix public denials of retaliation with strong private affirmations that bilateral relations cannot be divorced from the Middle East question.
Moreover, U.S.-Saudi military and security relations have never been better, U.S. and Saudi sources agree. Training missions, supply agreements and naval and aircraft deployments have brought the military establishments closer together.
But the Washington-Riyadh Connection has been shaken by a number of recent events:
Ostensibly reacting to an article in The Washington Post describing U.S. intelligence reports that said that Prince Fahd's authority appeared to be on the wane, the Saudis have expelled the Central Intelligence Agency station chief from The country.
The Saudis were aware of, and apparently disturbed by, the intelligence agent's questions about the royal family before the article appeared, according to informed sources. Some U.S. officials are worried that the Saudis were signaling a desire to loosen the traditionally close U.S.-Saudi links in this field.
Riyadh has continued to put off repeated requests from the Carter administration to increase oil production in an effort to put downward pressure on world oil prices.
Over the last months Saudi Arabia has sharply reduced the amount of oil it sells directly to major American oil companies. The Arabian American Oil Co. (Aramco) is now receiving 6.1 millions barrels a day, compared with 7 million barrels a day or more a few months ago. At the same time the Saudis have signed direct contracts with Western European governments for oil formerly earmarked for marketing in Europe by the U.S. majors.
The Saudis Arabian central bank has begun to cut back its level of investments in U.S. government securities, and the Council of Ministers has launched an examination of a policy put in place in the early 1970s to buy Treasury securities. The nearly $7 billion Saudi Arabia has invested in government securties is one of the most sensitive symbols of the special relationship.
While U.S. businessmen have consistently held 22 percent of the multi-billion-dollar Saudi import market since the oil price explosion in 1974, administration officials are apprehensive about a possible drop in the U.S. share. "My gut feeling is that it [the U.S. share] is stagnating or declining," said one State Department official.
Shortly after the Carter administration came to office, it sought to forge a strategic alliance with the world's largest petroleum exporting country that would assure U.S. access to energy supplies abroad and gain active Saudi help in shoring up friendly states in the Middle East and Africa. But those efforts began to stall in mid-1978, with the emergence of serious differences over the Somalia-ethiopia war. Saudi Arabia began to retreat into a more traditional, nonactive role in foreign affairs, and the retreat was greatly accelerated when Sadat traveled to Jerusalem in November 1977.
Strains became more apparent after the Baghdad Arab summit in November 1978, when Saudi Arabia unexpectedly joined more militant Arab states in threatening to boycott Egypt if Sadat signed the peace treaty.
Administration officials suggested publicly that the Saudis would apply the decisions loosely if at all. When Sadat told Carter in Cairo in March that he would sign the treaty, West was immediately dispatched from Cairo back to Saudi Arabia to tell the Saudis that they would be harming U.S.-Saudi ties by opposing Sadat and the peace treaty, according to U.S. sources.
Alerted to Saudi anger over this tough approach over the treaty, Brzezinski did not repeat it when he flew to Saudi Arabia later in the month. But his soft approach confused the Saudis and, foreign sources report, unintentionally but seriously undermined West's position in the Saudis' eyes.
Efforts to limit the damage in the relationship were already under way by the time Newsom, undersecretary of state for political affairs, stopped off in Spain during a trip to Europe to meet on April 30 with Fahd, who was on a rest and medical stay. The treaty was discussed by the two men, but reportedly without any conclusive result.
Carter followed this up with a personal letter to King Khalid that included an appeal for the Saudis to ignoe Sadat's public insults and pay for the F5s. Khalid's reply was not received until after the May 11 Policy Review Committee meeting, but it fit well into the decision to stop talking about the treaty and its fallout. The king in effect said the matter was on the shelf for the time being.
The U.S. decision to avoid putting Saudi Arabia on the spot publicly on the treaty was in effect by May 16, when the then-U.S. Ambassador to Egypt, Hermann Eilts, had a meeting with Fahd in Rome that was supposed to be secret but which leaked to the press. During the last two weeks of May, the senior official briefing reporters aboard Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance's plane to the Middle East would not discuss U.S.-Saudi relations even on a non-attribution basis.
As the strains in the special relationship mounted after the Camp David accords were signed, Riyadh initiated a series of bilateral negotiations with West European governments to sell oil direct on a government-to-government basis.
So far, the Saudis have completed oil deals with Spain's national oil company, Hispainoil, for deliveries of more than 100,000 barrels a day, and with Greece for nearly the same amount.
Similar arrangements are also in negotiation with the French and Italians.