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THE MIDDLE EAST

Bush, Saudi Crown Prince to Meet in Texas

Diplomacy: Experts say talks next week are an important opportunity for the two leaders to seek common ground on the Mideast conflict.

April 17, 2002|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — In a sign of his heightened involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, President Bush has scheduled a meeting at his Texas ranch next week with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah, one of the most important behind-the-scenes leaders in the Middle East.

The White House said Tuesday that Abdullah, who had been reluctant to meet with Bush, will visit with the president April 25 in what experts outside the administration view as an important opportunity for the U.S. and Saudi Arabia to seek common ground in trying to quell Middle East violence.

Abdullah, as chief sponsor of a peace plan endorsed last month by the Arab League, has elevated his political position in the region. Meeting with him gives Bush an opportunity to demonstrate a readiness to listen to the Arab view of the conflict.

"Relations with the Saudis are strong," White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said in announcing the meeting. "Obviously, events in the Middle East lead to complications, and those complications are going to be discussed."

In recent days, the president has been largely silent on the Middle East troubles as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has traveled between Arab nations, Israel and the West Bank. But Bush is likely to speak out today on the Middle East, as well as on the war in Afghanistan, during a speech at the Virginia Military Institute, White House officials said.

The U.S.-Saudi relationship, complicated in the best of times by the two countries' vastly different cultures, has taken on more of an edge--and greater importance--in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and the Palestinian-Israeli fighting.

Of the 19 hijackers in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, 15 were Saudis, an embarrassment to the royal family.

From the U.S. viewpoint, there have been other troubling developments, such as an article in a Saudi newspaper asserting that Jews use the blood of Christians and Muslims to make holiday foods. The paper's prominent editor disavowed the story, printed last month while he was out of the country.

A government-run telethon ordered by King Fahd raised millions of dollars last week--more than $100 million, by one report--to help the families of Palestinian "martyrs," prompting accusations that the Saudis were fueling violence against Israel.

Over the weekend, a poem by the Saudi ambassador to Britain, Ghazi Algosaibi, that praised a female suicide bomber appeared in an Arabic-language newspaper.

"It is clear that the United States and the Arabs are out of touch," said Abdul Aziz Said, a professor of international relations at American University in Washington and a specialist on conflict resolution. Referring to the Bush-Abdullah meeting, he said, "Active engagement becomes the antidote."

Judith Kipper, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the support voiced by some Saudis for the Palestinian intifada does not diminish the depth of the nearly seven-decade U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia.

"The basics are still there. We have a very close, allied relationship," she said.

The fact that the meeting is taking place at Bush's ranch also suggests a readiness on the part of both leaders to delve into the current trouble, and to do so on a personal level.

As president, Bush has met with only two other foreign leaders at his ranch: Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in November and British Prime Minister Tony Blair this month.

Welcoming the crown prince to the 1,500-acre ranch in central Texas "implies a degree of chumminess the Saudis might not have thought was very acceptable in the [Middle East] region--to schmooze at the ranch--because the Saudis are very formal," Kipper said.

Saudi Arabia, with its oil riches, has long played a central financial role in the Middle East. And in recent years, it has played a more active political role.

Abdullah has become a leading figure in the Arab world, a man with impeccable Islamic credentials and with a reputation for being a straightforward diplomat. He runs the Saudi government on a day-to-day basis in place of the ailing Fahd.

Inserting himself earlier this year more prominently into theIsraeli-Palestinian conflict, he proposed that if Israel returned to the borders that existed before the 1967 Middle East War, Arab states would open normal diplomatic relations with Israel's government.

The proposal won the endorsement of the Arab League at the group's recent meeting, but its effect was undercut by the inclusion of a tirade against Israel and rhetorical support for the Palestinian intifada.

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