Bush to reaffirm strong ties with Saudi Arabia

United States President George Bush heads to Saudi Arabia on Monday to encourage support for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking by the Arab powerbroker and seek help maintaining American pressure on Iran.

Bush will spend two nights in the Islamic kingdom, having already visited Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. He will go to Egypt before heading back to Washington on Wednesday.

His main message for Gulf Arab allies has been to support peace efforts and isolate Iran to contain its growing influence in the region, which is crucial to world crude oil supplies.

While Gulf Arabs want to curb their large Shi’ite neighbour, they also want to avoid another war on their doorstep.

Analysts say there are growing signs that America’s Arab allies prefer to engage Iran, as Saudi Arabia did with its invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the hajj. He was the first Iranian president to receive an official invitation to the annual Muslim pilgrimage.

The Bush administration said it had heard a different account of that invitation.

“We are told that Ahmadinejad, as he has done from time to time, invited himself,” a senior administration official said.

“So if someone asks to come, the Saudis’ view is, it’s very difficult for them as the custodian of the two holy mosques, which is the whole point of the hajj, for them to say no.”

Bush has been sounding a warning about Iran as a threat in the region throughout this trip to the Middle East. In a speech in Abu Dhabi on Sunday he declared Iran a threat to world security and “the world’s leading state sponsor of terror”.

Bush looked at plans for a renewable energy project in Abu Dhabi, before heading to Gulf commerical hub Dubai, which has declared a holiday due to road closures imposed for his visit.

In Dubai, Bush visited the sail-shaped Burj al-Arab hotel, sat in the courtyard of ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum’s grandfather’s house and met officials and students.

“I’m most impressed with what I’ve seen here,” he said. “The entrepreneurial spirit is strong and equally important is the desire to make sure that all aspects of society have hope.”

Arms and peace

Bush has also been asking Arab allies to diplomatically and financially support Palestinian leaders involved in peace talks, and to expand relations with Israel.

Saudi Arabia attended a US-sponsored summit in Annapolis, last year aimed at restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.

But Saudi Arabia has no diplomatic ties with Israel and says “normalisation” will only happen with a final peace deal that returns all Arab land occupied by Israel in the 1967 war.

The Bush administration is expected to notify Congress this week about part of an arms package for Saudi Arabia.

“It’s a big package that we have offered to the Saudis. It actually gets sort of negotiated between us and the Saudis in pieces, and those pieces then get notified to the Congress,” the official said. One element of the arms package will be notified to Congress on Monday, he said.

The administration last year proposed supplying Gulf Arab states with about $20-billion in new weapons, including joint direct attack munition bomb kits for the Saudis.

The plan had angered Israel’s backers in Washington but Israeli security sources said on Sunday the United States would provide the Jewish state better “smart bombs” than those it plans to sell Saudi Arabia under the regional defence plan.

It was unclear what may be discussed on the subject of oil prices when Bush meets King Abdullah, or whether that issue would be left mainly to US Energy Secretary Sam Bodman when he visits Saudi Arabia later this month.

Oil prices near $100 per barrel have nearly doubled since Bush, a former oil man, walked arm in arm with King Abdullah, then the crown prince, at his Texas ranch in April 2005.

Washington rarely makes public criticism of Saudi Arabia over its political and human rights record, but Bush spoke out against a court verdict condemning a gang rape victim to 200 lashes. King Abdullah pardoned the woman who was accused of being with an unrelated man when she was snatched by seven attackers. - Reuters

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