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.
The White House moved quickly to try to smooth things over, but then came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. U.S. officials say cooperation on counterterrorism has improved dramatically in the years since, although conflict persists over wealthy Saudis who help fund Sunni extremism beyond Saudi borders.
Under Abdullah, the Saudis have also pursued a foreign policy more independent of the United States than they had in the past, irking the White House by brokering an ultimately unsuccessful deal between the Fatah and Hamas factions in the Palestinian territories and testing to see whether some kind of accommodation could be reached with Iran. Abdullah shocked U.S. officials last year when he described the American military presence in Iraq as an "illegitimate foreign occupation."
One reason for the greater Saudi independence, according to former U.S. diplomats and other experts who deal closely with the kingdom, is that the Saudis have begun to doubt American competence and are looking to forge their own relations with rising powers such as China and regional rivals including Iran. "The Saudis have come to question our capabilities and doubt our intentions," said J. Robinson West, a Washington energy consultant who has traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf region.
While publicly polite, the Saudi king and other leading figures also see the incumbent U.S. president as a disappointment -- certainly compared with his father, George H.W. Bush, a close friend and former oilman who was lionized here for his handling of the Persian Gulf War. By contrast, former officials and others close to the royal family say, Saudi royals believe Bush has handled issues such as Iran, Iraq and Middle East peace ineptly.
Charles W. Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, says he believes the warmth has gone out of the Saudis' relationship with the United States.
"I think Abdullah has tried very hard to build a personal bond with Bush, but I don't know how much that has survived," he said. "Bush is very unpopular everywhere in the region, certainly in Saudi Arabia." Freeman added that the king "will be extraordinarily polite and even generous to a guest, without that necessarily implying any affection whatsoever."
"I wouldn't read much political significance in the Arabs remaining true to their traditions" and acting courteously toward Bush, Freeman added.
Jamal Khashoggi, editor in chief of the Saudi daily al-Watan, said that Bush's visit to the kingdom is not being viewed as particularly important and that "people are not really expecting a lot" from it.
"The Saudi position is that we want to be friends with Iran and move away from the possible U.S-Iranian confrontation," Khashoggi said.
One issue that may or may not come up is the soaring price of oil. "We'll have to see," said national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley, when asked whether Bush intends to raise the issue with the king. Gillespie said the president did discuss alternative energy and nuclear power in his meetings with other Gulf leaders earlier on the trip.
Correspondent Faiza Saleh Ambah contributed to this report from Jiddah, Saudi Arabia.