A few hours before Vice President Bush arrived in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh April 5, Crown Prince Abdullah, his counterpart in the royal hierarchy, left for Dhahran in the Eastern Province to join King Fahd, who was also going out of his way to be absent from the capital.
As a result, the highest-ranking U.S. envoy sent to the Saudi kingdom by the Reagan administration was met by only the governor of the capital province, Prince Salman, and lesser royal dignitaries.
In the subtle, arcane ways of Saudi diplomacy, the decision to greet Bush in this relatively low-key fashion appeared to be a signal of royal displeasure not just with his pre-trip comments indirectly blaming the Saudis for "the free fall" of oil prices but with the Reagan administration's generally indifferent attitude toward the security needs of the kingdom.
It was a message the Saudis artfully flashed repeatedly during the vice president's brief visit.
As reporters covering the trip learned later, the Saudi royal protocol office had unilaterally decided that Bush's three-day stay in the kingdom was to be treated as only a two-day official visit, thus eliminating any diplomatic need for Prince Abdullah to greet him.
Saudi protocol had also decided that there should be no opportunity for camera crews and photographers to take pictures of Bush meeting with King Fahd. Only the last-minute intervention of Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to Washington, to overrule the protocol office allowed the Bush-Fahd encounter to be recorded for the outside world, allowing reporters to learn that the Saudi monarch had sidestepped a possible private meeting with the vice president.
The cool Saudi treatment of Bush reflects a deeper malaise in the badly frayed, 30-year-old "special relationship" between the kingdom and the United States, which is under attack from increasingly vocal anti-American elements in the kingdom and from pro-Israeli elements in Congress.
Earlier, friends of Israel succeeded in killing a proposed $1.9 billion arms package for Jordan. Now, they are seeking to block a curtailed administration request for the sale of $354 million worth of missiles to the Saudis, about one-tenth the size of the original Saudi arms package that included 60 more F15 aircraft.
The Bush visit, intended as a "political signal" of renewed U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in the face of escalating Iranian threats, instead highlighted the troubles brewing in the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Bush proved an insensitive "good will ambassador" to the kingdom, seemingly indifferent to the hand-holding mission he had been sent on by President Reagan. Instead of stressing U.S.-Saudi common interests, he repeatedly pounded home in public and private the Saudi need to take into account the damage being done to the U.S. oil industry by the "free fall" in world oil prices, indirectly implying that the Saudis were largely responsible.
He even seriously misrepresented Saudi oil policy, charging that the Saudis wanted "the highest prices possible," a sizable distortion of the kingdom's well-known and longstanding opposition to this because of fears that too-high prices will spur western consumers to develop alternative resources.
The Saudis used the Bush visit to get their digs in at Washington. The main demonstration of U.S.-Saudi security cooperation was a fly-by in the Eastern Province of U.S.-provided F5s and F15s, mainstays of the kingdom's defense of its vulnerable oil fields and installations along the Persian Gulf, only minutes away from bases of Iranian warplanes.
But the Saudis arranged a big surprise -- not the American aircraft but their new European-made Tornado attack plane, the first of 72 Britain is selling to the kingdom in a $4 billion to $6 billion arms deal the Saudis signed with London last September after Washington failed to keep its promise to provide more planes.
The Tornado deal, which U.S. officials estimate will ultimately cost the United States $12 billion to $20 billion in lost arms sales, came after the Reagan administration yielded without a fight -- and despite a commitment by Reagan to King Fahd in December 1984 -- to congressional opposition to 60 more F15s for the Saudis.
The Bush trip thus came at a time when the Saudis are questioning more seriously than ever the Reagan administration's commitment to fighting the uphill battle in Congress to gain approval of its proposed arms sales. With 63 senators already signed to a blocking resolution, even supplying 2,600 more air-to-air and ground-to-air missiles -- now being debated on Capitol Hill -- seems in doubt.
Another battle looms over the delivery in early June of the first of five Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft the administration sold to Saudi Arabia in 1981 in an $8.5 billion arms package approved by Congress after a fierce legislative battle. Congress imposed as a condition for the sale that the administration provide evidence the Saudis have given "substantial assistance" to forwarding the Middle East peace process.
Bush promised the Saudis that the administration would fight to gain congressional approval for arms sales and deliveries, but he had little else to offer on issues of high priority to the Saudis. Bush offered no new U.S. initiative to revive the peace process, no administration effort to end the Iran-Iraq war and no U.S. assistance to help put an end to Iranian attacks on oil tankers in the gulf.
Today, both U.S. and Saudi officials seem aware that the "special relationship" may be drowning in the oil glut and seem to sense that the other side -- for its domestic reasons -- is taking its distance.
As a result, there are doubts on both sides whether the relationship will survive intact the latest of the many "tests" to which it has been put since oil prices started skyrocketing in 1973 and Saudi Arabia began asking for -- and getting -- sophisticated U.S. weapons such as the F15s and the AWACS that even Israel does not have.
The Bush visit is unlikely to have done much to reassure the Saudis. Nor is the administration's low-key defense of the missile sale on Capitol Hill likely to have done much to ease Saudi fears that it is being abandoned.
At a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) told his colleagues, who spoke out almost unanimously against the missile sale, that both Reagan and Secretary of State George P. Shultz had told him approval of the sale was "absolutely essential" to U.S. foreign policy.
But it was apparently not so essential that the administration thought it necessary to have Shultz defend the controversial sale before Congress. Instead, Assistant Secretary of State Richard W. Murphy and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard L. Armitage were sent to tangle with the hostile Senate committee.
A Lugar aide said the administration had sent word that Shultz was just "too busy" with the Libyan crisis to make an appearance.