Four years ago this month, sitting on a sunny patio in shirtsleeves after a long and pleasant lunch, George Bush and King Hussein of Jordan talked of speedboats, conflict in the Middle East, and the Gulf of Aqaba.

They looked out at the shimmering Red Sea from the King's summer palace, where then-Vice President Bush had come for talks and relaxation on his swing through the region. He and Hussein had known each other for many years, and they shared, among other things, an affinity for fast powerboats.

Today, they meet again, but with the clouds of war gathering over the Middle East. The quiet port of Aqaba -- where Hussein and Bush enjoyed boating and waterskiing together -- is now the focal point of a global trade blockade against Iraq. And Hussein, one of the great survivors in the often brutal world of Middle East politics, is caught between Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his old friend Bush.

Bush has put great stock in personal diplomacy, and over the years he has been closer to Hussein than many other world leaders. But this confidence appears to have been badly shaken by the assurances to Bush by King Hussein and other moderate Arab leaders that Saddam would not invade Kuwait.

"President Saddam told the King of Saudi Arabia that he will not attack or use military {force} against Kuwait," said the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. "He told King Hussein personally. He told President {Hosni} Mubarak {of Egypt} personally and he told President Bush and {Soviet President Mikhail} Gorbachev through emissaries that he will not attack."

These conversations may have been especially unsettling to Bush, who has often portrayed himself as possessing the experience to make clear-eyed, pragmatic judgments about people and what they tell him.

Thus, today's meeting at the president's vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine, could be especially poignant. In part because of miscalculations about Saddam, Bush now is grappling with one of those crises that recent history shows can easily consume a presidency. Meanwhile, his friends in the Arab world have been slow to join him in fighting Saddam's aggression.

Bush was particularly irked by King Hussein's comments in the days after the invasion, in which he praised Saddam as a great patriotic hero. Some senior officials expressed disgust at the king's remarks, saying he had miscalculated and thrown in his lot with Saddam out of fear. "I am disappointed to find any comment by anyone that apologizes or appears to condone what's taking place," Bush said, barely hiding his anger.

But his mood seemed tempered when Hussein abstained in an Arab summit vote against Saddam six days later. "We all recognize the difficult position that King Hussein is in," Bush said. "There's no question to that, and in my view, he has been a friend to the United States for a long time. And I'd like to see that friendship be reinstated, or reinvigorated in the future."

Bush has known King Hussein since the mid-1970s when he was director of central intelligence and Hussein was on the CIA payroll. Soon after President Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, The Washington Post reported that the agency had made secret payments to Hussein for 20 years, and Carter ordered them terminated. Hussein apparently gave the CIA intelligence and allowed American operatives to move about freely in his strategically placed country.

Hussein, who assumed the Jordanian throne in 1952 at the age of 17 after his father was removed because of mental illness, knows firsthand about the perils of Middle East politics. His grandfather, King Abdullah, was assassinated in Jerusalem in 1951. In 1967, Hussein joined other Arab leaders in a military assault on Israel and suffered a crushing defeat, losing both East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Today, more than half of Jordan's population is made up of Palestinians, whose support for Saddam is among the internal pressures the king must consider as he maneuvers in the gulf crisis.

Bush has never hidden his affinity for the king. He frequently hosted Hussein at his home when the king visited Washington during the Reagan administration. "I know him well," Bush has said. Bush has also said that he supported further American arms sales to Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which were blocked by opposition in Congress.

When they met at Aqaba, Bush was preparing to run for president. He and Hussein talked about the Arab-Israeli peace process and Bush also picked up Hussein's anxiety over the Iran-Iraq war. "He is deeply seized with the tragedy of this war," Bush said then, "not only the human suffering but the danger to the area if an extremely radical solution was found and I note that he feels very strongly against . . . what an Iranian victory would mean. . . . "

Iran did not win, but now Hussein and Bush meet as Iraq threatens the region's stability. Bush is expected to be cool to any peace overtures from Saddam and has offered to try to compensate Jordan for any economic loss if it seals the port of Aqaba. But such cooperation with the embargo would inflict a major blow on Jordan's economy.

A source outside the government who is familiar with Bush's long friendship with Hussein said the president is more likely to express sympathy for Hussein than resentment. "Bush knows he's in a difficult position," the source said.

Staff researcher Bruce Brown contributed to this report.