Vice President Bush wound up a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia today by stressing continuing U.S.-Saudi differences over the state of the oil market and saying the two sides had "not really" found common ground on the issue during his talks with King Fahd and other officials.
At a press conference here following a 2 1/2-hour meeting with the king late last night, Bush went out of his way to make clear that a sharp divergence of viewpoints separated the United States and Saudi Arabia on the question of oil pricing despite their "enormous common interests" in other areas.
"I've talked to the Saudis very frankly about it," he said. "I've made it clear to them that I did not think that U.S. interests and Saudi interests were the same."
Observers were surprised by the emphasis he appeared to place on the U.S.-Saudi dispute over oil pricing policy.
Bush, who has repeatedly expressed his concern about the effects of the recent collapse of prices on the American oil industry, said that while the Saudis favored the "highest possible prices," the United States wanted "the lowest possible prices consistent with the fact that we need a strong domestic oil industry for our national security."
Bush said he did not know what the ideal figure for a barrel of oil might be today. He also insisted that he had made no specific request of King Fahd on pricing and had not come on a price-fixing mission to Saudi Arabia.
"The best way to sort it out is the market," he remarked.
Saudi authorities, who were known to be upset by Bush's first comments on the subject last week in Washington, have remained silent on their own views during his visit.
When Bush expressed concern about the damaging effects on U.S. industry of the oil price collapse, White House officials said the administration remained committed to a free-market approach. In his comments to the Saudis, Bush appeared to be reflecting both the free-market policy of the president, and his own concern about the impact on American oil producers.
[White House aides said last week that Bush had stated his concern about the U.S. producers in terms that went beyond official administration policy. That policy, they said, is to express sympathy for American producers but not suggest any action to interfere with world oil markets, Washington Post staff writer David Hoffman reported from Santa Barbara.]
The oil pricing issue cast something of a pall over his visit here by tending to emphasize the differences between the two countries rather than their common interests in security matters and other fields.
Another sour note was struck today when Bush visited the King Abdul Aziz Air Base here to view a scramble of Saudi-piloted, American-made F15 and F5 jet fighters.
On display for the first time in the kingdom was the first of 72 European-made Tornado attack aircraft that Saudi Arabia has just purchased from Britain in place of additional F15s.
The Saudis decided to buy the British aircraft in mid-1985 after Congress, under pressure from pro-Israel elements, made it clear to the administration it would pass a resolution prohibiting the sale of any additional F15s.
Bush promised the Saudis that the Reagan administration would do everything possible to push through Congress in the coming weeks a $354 million sale of about 2,600 additional air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles.
Bush arrived in Bahrain late today on the next leg of his eight-day tour of Arab gulf states.