Personal Approach Marks Bush's First Saudi Visit

President George W. Bush places the promotion of democracy and freedom at the top of his agenda as he makes his way through his first extended tour of the Middle East during his presidency. Bush has made stops in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 15, 2008

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, Jan. 14 -- President Bush on Monday launched a rare round of intensive personal diplomacy with Saudi King Abdullah aimed at winning support for a variety of American objectives such as rebuilding Iraq, pressuring Iran, fighting al-Qaeda and backing the U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Bush and Abdullah embraced warmly at the bottom of the steps leading from Air Force One after the plane touched down here for the president's first visit to the kingdom -- and his first face-to-face meeting with Abdullah in three years.

Bush came bearing a big gift: His administration formally notified Congress on Monday that it plans to seek approval for the sale to Saudi Arabia of $120 million in precision-guided bombs as part of an overall arms package worth roughly $20 billion. Congress has 30 days to try to block the sales, but administration officials appeared confident they have the votes to proceed with the deal.

Bush is devoting two days of his Middle East trip to Saudi Arabia, much of it to private meetings with the king, who is hosting the president at his guest palace here and at the farm near Riyadh where Abdullah raises Arabian stallions. That amounts to an unusual commitment of diplomatic time, reflecting both the large role Saudi Arabia plays in U.S. economic and foreign policy and a desire to strengthen a relationship that has frayed badly over the past seven years.

Some diplomats and experts with close ties to the administration say meeting with Abdullah has been the main purpose of the president's trip to the region.

One senior administration official traveling with the president said this week that Bush regards the octogenarian Abdullah as "really a remarkable figure," citing the king's role in starting reforms such as municipal elections and in regional diplomacy, and that the president intends to reaffirm their "close personal relationship."

White House counselor Edward W. Gillespie described the one-on-one time with the king, who is known to dislike diplomacy conducted over the phone, as a "very important" part of the visit to Saudi Arabia.

Despite the outward display of affection on the tarmac, the relationship has also been tense and uneasy for much of Bush's tenure, according to former senior officials and experts on Saudi Arabia.

"The president has a personal bond with the king," said Dan Bartlett, Bush's former counselor. "This visit will go a long way to keeping relations on the right track. The personal diplomacy that the president likes to use will resonate with the way the kingdom does foreign policy, because it is so dominated by the king himself."

Saudi officials have sounded a skeptical note recently about Bush's drive for more diplomatic and financial pressure on Iran, which the president has emphasized almost daily on his swing through the Middle East.

"As a guest in this country, we will listen with care to all issues that the president will discuss, and he is free to discuss any issue he wishes," the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, said at a recent news conference. "We are neighbors to Iran in the Gulf region, and as such we are careful that peace and tranquillity reign between the region's countries. We have relations with Iran, and we talk to them, and if we felt any danger we would not hesitate to discuss it with them."

Saudi Arabia has long enjoyed a close relationship with the United States, in large measure because of the vast reserves of Saudi oil and the military protection provided by Washington. But from the start of the Bush administration, tensions have been apparent. Abdullah nearly caused a rupture early on over his unhappiness with what he considered the president's unstinting support for Israel's then-prime minister, Ariel Sharon, in his approach to the Palestinians.

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