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Saudis reject Bush's advice to increase oil production

THE WORLD

The visiting president tells the kingdom's leaders that rising prices are 'painful for our consumers.'

January 16, 2008|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — President Bush and Saudi leaders tangled Tuesday over the price of oil, with the president reminding this wealthy desert kingdom that U.S. purchases could fall if the American economy slips and with a Saudi official refusing to commit his country to greater production to reduce costs at the pump.

Bush said the price of oil, driven up by growing demand in the United States but an even greater increase in China and India, had become "painful for our consumers." He suggested that oil-producing nations open their spigots for their own good.

Producers should "realize that high energy prices affect the economies of consuming nations," he said. If those economies weaken, he said, they "will eventually be buying fewer barrels of oil."

Energy demand has "outstripped new supply," Bush told reporters. "That's why there's high price."

Saudi Oil Minister Ali Ibrahim Naimi said his country was sympathetic to such economic worries, but he refused to commit to increasing production.

"The concern for the U.S. economy is valid," he said. "But what affects the U.S. economy is more than the price of oil." Still, he added, "we don't want to see the U.S. economy go into recession in the future."

The oil minister held out the possibility that his country might at some point increase its output of oil, a step that might lower consumer prices.

"We have no constraints on using it now or in the future," Naimi said of Saudi Arabia's unused production capacity.

When asked whether U.S. consumers would again see gasoline priced at $1 to $1.50 a gallon, he cracked: "If I knew that, I'd be in Las Vegas rather than here."

The U.S.-Saudi relationship is based foremost on oil, although the United States relies more heavily on oil from Canada and Mexico than from Saudi Arabia. But differences between the two governments, however gingerly expressed, go beyond oil matters.

Most recently, the Bush administration has tried to win the release of a detained Saudi blogger, Fouad Farhan, who has run afoul of the government because of his Internet postings that call for more freedoms. At a news conference Tuesday, Prince Saud al Faisal, the foreign minister, largely turned aside a question about that case and Saudi respect for human rights.

He also bristled and said he was not certain "what kind of outreach we can have for Israel" when he was asked whether Saudi Arabia would support the new efforts at Israeli- Palestinian rapprochement, as sought by Bush during his visit.

The prince also parted company with the United States over Iran. Saud said that Saudi Arabia, like the United States, wanted Iran to abide by United Nations demands that it halt uranium enrichment. But Saudi Arabia sees Iran as a neighbor, he said, and he would not speak harshly of it.

Historically, Saudi Arabia, led by Sunni Muslims, has been wary of Iran, where Shiite Muslims hold sway.

Bush dined Tuesday night with King Abdullah at the monarch's 2,000-acre horse ranch, Janadriyah, outside Riyadh. Ranch residents include Alysheba, the winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in 1987.

Bush, who was spending the night there, showed up for dinner in a full-length robe, black with blue-silver trim, known as a farw. Seated next to the king at dinner in a building with a tentlike roof, he eventually removed the garb, revealing a fur lining.

The president is scheduled to complete his eight-day trip today with a 2 1/2 -hour stop in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Bush began the tour in Israel and continued to the West Bank, Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates before arriving here Monday.

The president met Tuesday morning with 11 Saudi entrepreneurs, two of them women, in this society that severely restricts women's rights. During a 90-minute tour of the Saudi National History Museum, he held a sword over his shoulder, grinning broadly and swaying to the beat of drummers during a welcoming ceremony.

When he met with reporters early in the afternoon, he said he was in a "great mood."

"Dates put you in a good mood, right? I'm in a great mood," he said, laughing and responding, "Not bad, not bad," when a reporter asked what sort of date he was talking about.

Even before Bush began his day, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had set off on a lightning visit to Iraq, to encourage Iraqi officials to move forward in political reconciliation talks.

The president said he had decided about 10 days earlier that the time was ripe for another visit by Rice, so she could "help push the momentum by her very presence."

In Baghdad, Rice praised legislation intended to re-integrate Sunni Arabs into government jobs, a measure passed Saturday by the Iraqi parliament. It will allow the rehiring of thousands of low-level members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party who were purged by former U.S. overseer L. Paul Bremer III in 2003.

"It is clearly a step forward for the process of healing the wounds of the past," Rice told reporters after meetings with top Iraqi leaders.

james.gerstenzang @latimes.com

Times staff writer Garrett Therolf in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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