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Bush, Saudi Prince Meet Today for Blunt Talk on Mideast

April 25, 2002|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — President Bush hosts Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah at his Texas ranch today for what U.S. and Arab officials say are expected to be blunt and occasionally difficult talks on the Middle East crisis, the war on terrorism and relations with Iraq.

Because of growing economic and security ties, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has never been more important to either side, according to U.S. analysts. But the topics of today's meeting also reflect the wide gap between the United States, the world's most powerful secular democracy, and the oil-rich desert kingdom, which is ruled by strict Islamic law.

Abdullah plans to stress to Bush that the U.S. needs to do more--with urgency--to deal with the "very deep crisis that is engulfing our region," Prince Saud al Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, told The Times on Wednesday.

The crown prince, who in effect has been the ruler of the kingdom since King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, will warn the Bush administration that its very reputation is being questioned in the region because the U.S. president's April 4 call for Israel to completely withdraw from reoccupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank has been ignored, Saudi sources said.

Abdullah, who sponsored an Arab League offer of normal relations with Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from territories occupied during the 1967 Middle East War, also will make clear his country's opposition to any international peace conference that does not include Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as well as Syria and Lebanon, the two Arab countries bordering Israel that have not made peace with the Jewish state. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon recently proposed a conference but stipulated that Arafat be excluded, an idea that Saud described as "ridiculous."

The Bush administration had encouraged the Saudis to promote the land-for-peace formula at the Arab League summit last month, and a senior administration official said Wednesday that its unanimous passage had "opened a new portal through which you might pursue peace."

The crown prince, who met Wednesday evening with Vice President Dick Cheney in Houston, will press the president to help free Arafat, who has been confined by Israeli troops to the West Bank city of Ramallah since December.

"Sharon always says he cannot negotiate with a gun pointed to his head. Why should he expect the other side to negotiate with a gun pointed at its head?" Saud asked in an interview on CNN. "There has to be freedom of movement for Arafat."

Saudi Arabia also has taken a firm stand against a military operation to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The Saudi foreign minister called for Hussein to be given "the benefit of the doubt" for now to follow through on steps he pledged at the Arab League summit to take to comply with U.N. resolutions.

The Saudis expect candor--and results--from the meeting with Bush.

"These are two leaders who believe in honesty, and they believe that friends tell friends the truth," Saud told The Times, referring to Bush and Abdullah. "So I expect the discussions to be frank, to be deep and also with a sense of commitment that if they come to a common understanding of what the situation is, then they will come to a common understanding what needs to be done about it."

A State Department official put it more bluntly. "They're going to hammer us," he said Wednesday.

Bush will in turn push the Saudis to pressure Arafat to rein in the violence. He will also urge them to cut off funds to Palestinian extremist groups, provide more help in the war on terrorism and support a plan to oust Hussein.

The U.S. is particularly concerned about Saudi funding, some of it from wealthy individuals, to extremist groups.

"It's absolutely clear that private Saudi money has played a role. To what extent it is official money or private funds is unclear," the State Department official said.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said in Senate testimony Wednesday that some of the $100 million collected during a recent Saudi telethon for Palestinian reconstruction may have gone to Hamas, one of two Islamic extremist groups behind the recent suicide bombings against Israelis. "There are troubling aspects as to how that telethon money would be distributed," he said.

Saudi Arabia denies the charges.

"We will be happy to talk to them about the money," Saud said. "We are very clear that our aid goes only to the national [Palestinian] Authority. The United States knows this. The laws of Saudi Arabia assure that there is no aid going to any other organization."

On both economic and security matters, the U.S.-Saudi relationship has grown substantially over the last quarter-century. The U.S. is the largest buyer of Saudi oil--about 1.7 million barrels a day, more than twice the consumption 15 years ago.

The kingdom is the largest purchaser of American weapons, buying $39 billion of U.S. arms in the 1990s. Saudi Arabia is also a major investor in the U.S. economy.Last year, trade reached almost $20 billion, according to U.S. figures.

But the U.S.-Saudi relationship is also one of the most fragile. Last summer, Abdullah sent a letter to Bush warning that ties were "at a crossroads," a move sparked by U.S. lack of action on the Mideast peace process and support for Sharon. Relations were further strained by the Sept. 11 attacks, because 15 of the 19 suspected hijackers were Saudis.

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