George P. Shultz, 61, the man President Reagan has chosen as his second secretary of state, is a confident Washington veteran who is well-liked in Western Europe but regarded suspiciously by Israel and its friends, who consider him pro-Arab.

On East-West relations, Shultz seems inclined to follow the relatively pragmatic line of his predecessor, a fact that could upset President Reagan's staunchest conservative backers. Shultz has ridiculed use of trade sanctions to accomplish political objectives, a point of view that Alexander M. Haig Jr. tried unsuccessfully to press on the Reagan administration in the recent struggle over imposing new sanctions on the Soviet Union.

Shultz, now president of the Bechtel Group Inc., an international conglomerate that has huge contracts in Saudi Arabia, initially was considered a favorite for the State Department job when Reagan won the presidency 19 months ago.

A big, authoritative man with a reputation for sure-footedness in Washington's corridors of power, Shultz brings different qualities to the administration than did Haig. He is known as a man who can smooth over difficult situations and who prizes consistency and reliability, qualities Haig's White House critics said he lacked.

Shultz waited for a call to go to Foggy Bottom at the end of 1980 but, for reasons never fully explained, the call did not come. It came hurriedly yesterday, when Shultz was in London, and he is flying back to Washington today.

In fact, administration sources said, Shultz was offered the job when, by chance, he telephoned the White House yesterday to report on his visit to Britain. He has been used repeatedly as an unofficial envoy by the Reagan administration, and served as a high-level advance man for the president's recent trip to Europe.

Shultz was one of several candidates to succeed Haig, these sources said, and was picked by Reagan on Thursday. He accepted the job without hesitation when it was offered. The sources said his "background and prestige in both the Middle East and Europe was a decisive factor" in his selection.

Early reaction from Europe indicated that Shultz's appointment will comfort leaders there. Helmut Schmidt, the West German chancellor, is said to regard Shultz as his best friend in this country.

European officials received the first inkling that Shultz might be destined for a major foreign policy role in the Reagan administration when he undertook a mission to visit the foreign capitals involved in the seven-nation economic summit at Versailles, France, early this month.

According to officials briefed on the talks that Shultz had in Europe, his discussions went far beyond the summit, and at least one foreign leader came away from his meeting convinced that Shultz was being groomed to be secretary of state either later in the Reagan administration or in a second Reagan term.

The Israelis are less likely to be reassured by Shultz's appointment. Friends of Israel in this country yesterday quickly produced quotations from Shultz in the past that suggested he would want to tilt more toward the Arab position in the Middle East. On the other hand, senior State Department officials who are also pro-Israel said Shultz will be under great pressure to conduct an even-handed Mideast policy precisely because of his relatively pro-Arab reputation.

Shultz's attitudes toward the Middle East are widely regarded as a product of his experience with Bechtel, which put him in intimate contact with Saudi leaders. Bechtel was once sued by the Justice Department for allegedly refusing to do business with U.S. companies blacklisted by the Arabs because they did business with Israel. Shultz defended the right of a nation doing business with foreigners to decide which subcontractors it considered undesirable.

But judging from initial Senate reaction, Shultz's views on the Middle East will not prevent his speedy confirmation as secretary of state. "In my judgment the president could not have made a better selection," said Sen. Charles H. Percy (R-Ill.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee that will consider the nomination. Senate Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) said, "I am confident he Shultz can be confirmed by the Senate."

Shultz will be an unusual figure in the Reagan Cabinet because he is so widely admired across the political spectrum.

Though a staunch conservative, he had a warm relationship with George Meany, the late president of the AFL-CIO, which grew out of his tenure as secretary of labor in the first Nixon administration. When he left Washington in 1974, then-Rep. Andrew Young of Georgia said of Shultz in a toast: "I'm of the opposition party, and we differ on many things, but I raise my glass to a good man." Though Shultz served in the Nixon Cabinet through the Watergate affair, he was never tainted by it. Nixon apparently grew to dislike him, although he relied on him heavily for years as labor and treasury secretary, and ultimately as the economic czar of his administration.

According to a tape of a White House conversation, Nixon called Shultz a "candy ass" for refusing to sic the Internal Revenue Service on administration opponents. According to Newsweek magazine, Nixon expressed his distaste for Shultz to Reagan at the end of 1980, when Shultz was being considered as a posssible secretary of state.

This was a far cry from the early '70s, when Nixon relied on Shultz as almost an assistant president for domestic and economic affairs. During those years he won a wide following in Washington as a man of integrity and charm who never took himself too seriously. Underneath a pleasant exterior, though, friends said Shultz was a hard, determined man.

Once while he was director of the Office of Management and Budget, Shultz gave a speech in which he said, "With each passing day, the pressures mount to alter the course and to steer, not by the compass but by the wind, tossing caution to the wind in the process . . . . " Friends say Shultz will try to set and follow a firm course in his new job as well.