Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Fahd has canceled his Jan. 19 visit to President Reagan, and, despite efforts to minimize the implications, U.S. officials said privately yesterday that the Saudis do not want to call too much attention to their relations with the United States at the present time.
The officials said the cancellation was a disappointment because it marked the second time in almost three years that Fahd, the effective head of the Saudi government, has indefinitely postponed a U.S. visit. He has not been here since early in the Carter administration, more than four years ago.
However, they stressed that the latest cancellation does not appear to signal a dramatic worsening of U.S.-Saudi ties. Instead, they characterized it as resulting from Saudi Arabia's desire temporarily to hold the United States at arm's length because of new uncertainty and concern about the meaning of Mideast events and the U.S. role in them.
In particular, the officials said, the Saudis are concerned about the recent failure of the Arab summit meeting in Fez, Morocco, to adopt Fahd's controversial eight-point plan for resolving the Palestinian problem and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the absence of an Arab world consensus on these issues, the officials added, the Saudis want what one official called "a pause for reflection" about where they will go next, and they feel that the publicity attendant on a Fahd visit here would give them too much visibility.
Other issues bothering the Saudis, the officials said, involve uncertainty about how far the United States is willing to go in opposing Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights and anger in the Arab world over the recent U.S. extradition to Israel of Ziad Abu Eain, an alleged Palestinian terrorist whose case has gone almost unnoticed in this country although it is a subject of intense emotion in the Middle East.
Another problem, the officials continued, involves the uncertainty about an apparent coup attempt, allegedly with Iranian backing, in the neighboring Persian Gulf state of Bahrain. The officials said there is a feeling in Saudi government circles that Fahd would be wiser to remain at home until it becomes clear whether there is a new move under way by radical Moslem forces to overthrow the conservative Persian Gulf states under Saudi influence, or even a threat to the Saudi royal family's rule.
Still, the officials conceded, Fahd's action represents a setback for the administration's high-priority drive to cultivate a close working relationship with the Saudis on a variety of diplomatic and security initiatives affecting the Middle East and Persian Gulf.
President Reagan invested considerable political capital in his recent bruising battle to prevent a congressional veto of his $8.5 billion sale of AWACS radar planes and other sophisticated aircraft equipment to the Saudis, and the administration had counted on Fahd's visit as a demonstration that its efforts to woo the Saudis were paying off.
Fahd was last here in the spring of 1977, prior to the Camp David summit that produced the Egyptian-Israeli rapprochement. The Camp David process has been opposed by Saudi Arabia from the outset, and Fahd has fended off all subsequent efforts to arrange a trip to Washington.
He was scheduled to visit President Carter in March, 1979, but that was called off, and it wasn't until a few weeks ago that the latest visit was set up. However, Fahd did meet with Reagan in October at the Cancun summit in Mexico, and he also has conferred twice with Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.--in Riyadh last spring and in Malaga, Spain, in September.
In announcing what he called a mutual agreement to postpone the visit, State Department spokesman Dean Fischer said no new date was being set. He also revealed for the first time that the Saudi oil minister, Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, met here Friday with Reagan and Haig, but he declined to give any details.