Saudi Arabia and the other Persian Gulf Arab states have offered the sultanate of Oman $1.2 billion in aid if Oman agrees to cancel an agreement allowing the United States access to its military facilities.
The offer, disclosed by a high Saudi government official during a recent interview, was made during a meeting here of the newly formed Gulf Cooperation Council last month and would provide Oman with the equivalent of what it reportedly hopes to obtain in military and economic assistance from Washington as a quid pro quo for U.S. use of Oman's facilities.
The action highlights the ambiguity of Saudi policy toward the growing American military presence in the region and the difficulties Washington faces in centering its Persian Gulf defense policy around the Saudi kingdom.
On the one hand, the Saudis seem eager for closer military cooperation with the United States, at least after a solution is found to the issue of a Palestinian homeland in lands held by Israel. On the other hand, they are urging Oman to sever its formal military ties with Washington.
The official Saudi view that the gulf states must keep a certain distance from the United States seems unchanged even by the U.S. Senate's approval of the sale of sophisticated Airborne Warning and Control System airplanes to Saudi Arabia, which was greeted here with great satisfaction if not outright jubilation.
The explanation for this ambiguity in Saudi attitudes appears to lie partly in the internal political dynamics of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which groups Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in addition to Oman and Saudi Arabia.
But partly, too, it can be attributed to differing viewpoints within the Saudi royal family about how best to protect the security of the kingdom and the region from hostile outside forces.
The gulf council is still little more than a skeleton organization for economic and military cooperation among the six conservative Arab kingdoms and sheikdoms in the Persian Gulf region. But the group, with its emerging strategy for keeping all outside powers from interfering in the region's affairs, already has generated pressures on Saudi Arabia and Oman to lessen the closeness of their ties with the United States.
The other gulf council members, most notably Kuwait, hold that such a close association with the United States only encourages the Soviet Union to seek similar access. There is already a strong Soviet presence in South Yemen, which is a Marxist, party-run state.
Kuwait has taken the lead in trying to convince Oman and South Yemen to agree mutually to cut their respective ties with the two superpowers and patch up their bilateral differences. For years Oman, a monarchy ruled by Sultan Qabous, fought a Yemeni-backed insurgency in its southern Dofar Province, and there is still a deep distrust between the two neighboring countries.
Kuwait is the only gulf Arab state that maintains diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union, and its attitude is likely to be crucial to any American attempt to organize a U.S.-backed regional air defense system.
Reports that such a system was in the works coincided with approval of the AWACS sale, but just how far the Saudis and Americans have gone in laying the groundwork for such a strategy is difficult to determine here. The high Saudi source denied there had been any official talks on the system between the two governments.
He said a regional air defense system had been discussed only as a "potentiality" in addition to other "contigencies" for problems in "purely hypothetical areas."
Close observers of Saudi politics here say that reports of an understanding between Saudi and American military officials on a gulf defense strategy may reflect only the advanced planning of the two military establishments and fails to take into account the divergent views within the Saudi political leadership.
Younger members of the Saudi royal family are scattered throughout the high commands of the armed forces, but decisions ultimately are taken by senior family members grouped around Crown Prince Fahd, the kingdom's day-to-day ruler. These senior royalty are keenly aware of the politcal pressure on the kingdom and the problems posed by such a close Saudi-American military strategy in the absence of a settlement of the Palestinian issue.
Prince Fahd is regarded as a leading proponent within the royal family of a close Saudi-American alliance to protect the kingdom and the gulf, but he also is seen as extremely sensitive to the political arguments against the alliance in the prevailing Middle East climate.
Prince Saud Faisal, the highly articulate, Princeton-educated foreign minister, is widely viewed as one of the chief opponents of a closer Saudi-American tie, arguing that the kingdom is better served by keeping the U.S. military "over the horizon" in the Indian Ocean and out of the Persian Gulf altogether.
The high Saudi official said the offer to Oman was extended as "an expression of solidarity" so that Oman would not feel isolated from the other gulf states and without an alternative should it agree to end its military cooperation with the United States.
Oman has been the only council member advocating close ties with the Western powers as the best way of defending the gulf and its vulnerable oil fields. Despite the council offer, Oman is going ahead with participation in the U.S. military's Bright Star exercises in early December, when American troops are scheduled to practice a landing on Omani shores.
Some Western diplomatic sources here believe the formation of the Gulf Cooperation Council and pressures within it for all members to keep their distance from Washington will make organization of a U.S.-backed air defense system in the region even more difficult.
Even without these pressures, the physical problems of organizing such a system among the six council states are sizable, according to Saudi government and Western diplomatic sources.
The high Saudi official, noting the different military traditions and equipment among the six members, said the council was still "very far" from establishing a joint military command or an air defense system.
He said the Saudis had proposed as a first step the creation of "channels of coordination" among the six states to synchronize the development of their armed forces and to carry out joint purchases of arms when possible.
The official said this was already taking place in some instances. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, for example, have American-made Hawk missiles, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have French tanks, and the Emirates and Qatar have the French Mirage fighter plane.
He said the defense ministers of the six states were scheduled to meet in mid-December to discuss a Saudi proposal for a go-slow approach to a coordinated defense system and an Omani proposal for a speeded-up and more detailed plan of cooperation. But he called the Omani plan "too specific at the present time to allow its execution."
Among the major obstacles to a joint air defense umbrella for the region are the congressional restrictions placed on the sharing of information gathered by the Saudi AWACS planes.
This problem cannot be overcome, according to diplomatic sources, until the other gulf states first reach some kind of bilateral agreement with the United States over access to the information, and they then plug into an integrated command, control and communication system presumably centered in Saudi Arabia.
Whether the other council members are really interested in establishing such a Saudi-dominated air defense network remains unclear. The Saudi defense minister, Prince Sultan, said in an interview with the Kuwait Arab Times in early November that the council was only discussing "coordination of defense" rather than "joint leadership."
This seemed to suggest the other members are reluctant to integrate their defenses into one overall system, let alone one linked to U.S. military strategy for the region.