Vice President Bush arrived in Saudi Arabia today for the start of an eight-day, four-country tour aimed largely at demonstrating a continuing U.S. commitment to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf.
His trip takes place against the backdrop of another escalation in the war between neighboring Iraq and Iran, which has shaken the Saudis, and a sharp fall in oil prices provoked partly by a sharp increase in Saudi production in the last few months.
It also follows by less than a month the latest administration request for the sale to Saudi Arabia of $354 million worth of arms -- 2,500 air-to-air and ground-to-air missiles -- which supporters of Israel in Congress are set to challenge.
Shortly after his arrival, the vice president made his first reference to the pending arms sale, assuring the Saudis during his speech at the new U.S. Embassy that the administration "remains committed to providing Saudi Arabia with the weapons systems necessary, essential you might say, for its defense and stability."
Bush, accompanied by his wife, Barbara, is the highest-ranking U.S. representative to come to the kingdom on an official visit since the beginning of the Reagan administration in 1981.
At a press conference in Washington Tuesday, Bush said that he intended to ask the Saudis to help restore stability in the oil market and stop the free fall of prices. He said that "the turmoil" was undermining the U.S. oil industry and financial institutions and thus was becoming a threat to U.S. national interests.
His comments -- which caused oil prices to rise immediately -- were taken to mean he would ask the Saudis to cut their production. The Saudis have doubled their production in the past six months to its present level of 4.5 million to 4.8 million barrels a day in an effort to force other oil producers to join them in a new agreement to stabilize prices.
But the White House Wednesday partly repudiated Bush's remarks by denying that there was any change in administration policy or intent to interfere or halt the decline in oil prices. The vice president made no mention of this issue today except to say that the U.S.-Saudi relationship was "broader and more diverse" than the rise and fall of oil prices.
Bush will meet King Fahd on Sunday, when he is scheduled to be his guest at a dinner, and he will hold his only formal talks with the Saudi monarch on Monday in the eastern oil center of Dhahran. Today, Bush inaugurated a new $22.5-million U.S. Embassy here and tonight he dined at the embassy with Petroleum Minister Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the chief architect of Saudi oil policy. Their talk was described as "a frank and extensive discussion."