Oil Efforts Are Best Possible, Saudis Say

By Michael Abramowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, May 16 -- Saudi leaders told President Bush on Friday that they are doing all they can to increase oil production, gently turning aside the president's efforts to bring down prices more rapidly.

After a meeting with Bush and his advisers Friday afternoon, Saudi Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi announced that the kingdom decided last week to increase production by about 300,000 barrels a day to meet increased demand from customers for June. That would take Saudi production to 9.4 million barrels a day. The kingdom's production capacity is 11.3 million barrels.

The Saudi increase is modest and appears unlikely to have much effect on record crude oil prices. Despite the announcement, crude oil prices in New York climbed $2.17 to $126.29 a barrel.

With the president under pressure at home to show he is fighting to lower gasoline prices, the Saudi gesture gave Bush a face-saving outcome after a day of meetings with Saudi leaders. Bush has invested enormously in improving his personal ties to King Abdullah, and administration officials say the effort has paid off in greater cooperation in fighting terrorism, confronting Iran and other shared concerns.

But the limits to this warmth were on full display as Bush arrived in Saudi Arabia for his second visit of the year and was whisked off for private consultations and dinner with the king at his palatial horse farm near Riyadh. Not only did the Saudis resist efforts to boost production even more -- as many congressional leaders are demanding -- they also pointedly said that the extra output was a week-old response to commercial customers, not to the president. And they made clear their unhappiness with Bush's emotional speech Thursday to the Israeli Knesset.

In the address, Bush touched only lightly on the Palestinian quest for a state, while paying homage to the 60th anniversary of the Jewish state -- a contrast that deeply angered many Arabs. "It was so one-sided," said Saudi academic and writer Khalid al-Dakhil. "The president is supposed to be evenhanded."

Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal voiced disappointment in remarks to reporters. "We are well aware of the special U.S.-Israeli relationship," he said. "Stressing the right of a nation to exist should not strike out or revoke the rights of other nations." The Palestinians "are in dire need to enjoy their rights," he said.

White House officials dismissed the suggestions that the president is insufficiently committed to his goal of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the end of the year, and said Bush will renew his efforts on Saturday when he meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Egypt.

After a detailed briefing for the president by the Saudi oil minister, White House officials also seemed satisfied with Saudi explanations that they are investing billions to expand their production capability over the next several years and that there is not much more they can do to lower prices. White House officials said Bush asked the Saudis to increase production as much as they can but made no specific numerical demand.

"I think the message the Saudis were sending was, 'We're doing everything we can to meet this problem, but it's a complicated problem and the underlying causes of these high gas prices are going to take time and money to address,' " national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley told reporters.

Congressional Democrats were critical. "The president seems to value his friendship with the Saudis more than his obligation to help the American people with gas prices," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.)

The unwillingness of the Saudis to do more to relieve the pressure on prices is described by some Middle East analysts and politicians as emblematic of what they call a one-way relationship.

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