Bush looks to mend Arab world fences

Recent tensions may make Saudi crown prince's visit `high noon in Crawford'

April 25, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Amid grievances on both sides, President Bush will welcome one of America's most powerful Middle East allies to his Crawford, Texas, ranch today in hopes that discussions in a relaxed setting will bridge a widening rift between the United States and the Arab world.

The visit of Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia offers Bush a possible vehicle for seeking an end to the 19-month guerrilla war between Israelis and Palestinians. Bush has praised a peace proposal by Prince Abdullah, adopted last month by the Arab League, that offers Israel normal relations with the Arab world in return for a full withdrawal from land that the Jewish state occupied during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

But today's meeting comes against the backdrop of widespread Arab anger over U.S. support for Israel and mounting resentment in the United States over a failure by Arab leaders to condemn and combat terrorism against Israelis.

Adding to the strain is a public disagreement over Bush's announced intention to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

It may be "high noon in Crawford," said Simon Henderson, a British business consultant and analyst of Saudi affairs. "If something positive comes out of it, it will be very important, both for U.S.-Saudi relations and U.S. involvement in the Middle East. But there is a danger that nothing will come out of it, and it will be a setback."

A U.S. ally for most of its 70 years as a modern state, Saudi Arabia has long wielded powerful influence in Washington as a vital oil supplier to the industrialized West, a base for American forces in the Persian Gulf and a major purchaser of U.S. aircraft, weapons and energy technology.

The United States protects Saudi Arabia against regional threats, particularly Iraq and Iran, in exchange for a continuing supply of oil at stable prices.

Near breaking point

But soon after Bush entered office the relationship began to deteriorate. Now it is almost at the breaking point. Angered last summer by the White House's hands-off posture in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Prince Abdullah warned Bush in an exchange of messages that the two countries might have to go their separate ways, according to people familiar with the exchange.

The rift widened further after 15 Saudis were found to have been among the 19 al-Qaida terrorists aboard four jets that slammed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11.

Although the attacks were repeatedly condemned by Saudi Arabia, they exposed strong hatred for the United States among many Saudi citizens and anti-Western hostility among the kingdom's powerful Wahhabi Muslim establishment.

According to a survey reported recently in the Saudi newspaper al-Watan, 60 percent of Saudis "totally hate America" because of U.S. policies in the region.

"Domestic pressure on the crown prince to break with the United States is rising very swiftly," said Chas W. Freeman, a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

De facto ruler

Prince Abdullah, who is about 79, has been de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia since his half-brother King Fahd was incapacitated by a stroke in 1995. King Fahd cemented already close Saudi-U.S. ties after Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait in 1990, threatening the region's oil supplies. He allowed hundreds of thousands of U.S. and allied troops to wage war from Saudi Arabia to drive Iraqi forces out of Kuwait and to prevent an attack on the Saudi kingdom.

In contrast with King Fahd, Prince Abdullah is described as a blunt Arab nationalist. "George W. is going to find that the crown prince is not the pussycat Americans have dealt with for the last 40 to 50 years," said a Washingtonian with long experience in dealing with the Saudis. "He believes Saudi Arabia has got to stand on its own and not be a patsy for the U.S."

After resisting a Bush invitation for months, Prince Abdullah agreed to visit Crawford to speak frankly with the president about the Middle East and to counter what Arabs see as strong pressure on Bush from supporters of Israel.

He is one of a series of Arab visitors to meet with Bush in recent days. In the past week, Bush has met with Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of Lebanon and King Mohammed VI of Morocco. Bush's outreach could offset heavy domestic pressure on moderate Arab leaders to distance themselves from the United States.

Saudis were stunned to hear Bush describe Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whom they view as an aggressor, as a "man of peace." Arab leaders have voiced disappointment to U.S. officials that Bush didn't follow his father's intensive - and in their eyes more balanced - role in the Mideast peace process.

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