Oil Woes Could Stir Tension at Bush, Abdullah Meeting

Sky-high oil prices and the prickly issues of terrorism and bringing democracy to the Middle East could provide some tense moments between old friends when Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah (search) visits President Bush at his Texas ranch Monday.

The two men also were expected to discuss Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip (search), Syria's role in Lebanon and a U.S.-Saudi economic agreement that would speed the kingdom's entry into the World Trade Organization.

Bush has promised to press Abdullah during Monday's meeting to do more to help ease global oil prices, which have soared well beyond $50 a barrel. But he has acknowledged there may be little the Saudis can do to quickly bring down prices.

There were hints the two oil men also may address a complaint by Bush's critics that his energy bill does little to promote alternative energy approaches.

An article in Tuesday's English-language Arab News, a prominent Saudi newspaper, urged Bush and Abdullah to "take a joint and noble stand" by launching a major study into current and alternative world energy resources.

Saudi Oil Minister Ali Naimi (search) promised last week to increase production capacity from the current limit of 11 million barrels a day to 12.5 million barrels by 2009 and possibly 15 million barrels after that.

The kingdom now pumps about 9.5 million barrels daily.

Hassan Yassin, former head of the Saudi Information Office in Washington, wrote in the Arab News article that Bush and Abdullah should launch a major study into the availability of world energy resources because if current growth persists in China and India, additional production will not be enough to meet global energy needs.

"Such a study would require worldwide cooperation, it must be thorough and transparent, and it must make recommendations for current energy sources as well as for alternative and cleaner energy sources," Yassin wrote.

Yassin suggested Bush should not press too hard on another key American concern: bringing democracy to the Arab world. Entrenched Arab regimes say it cannot be imposed from outside.

"Western rhetoric and outspokenness should give way a little more to local forces and more discrete but effective discussions," he wrote.

Saudi authorities say political reforms are being made, but long-standing rights concerns and restrictions on democracy advocates — including trials of three liberal intellectuals — are sure to come up in the meeting.

Saudi Arabia completed its first nationwide election last week, a flirtation with democratic elections for municipal councils, but only men could vote and half the council seats are appointed.

Qenan al-Ghamdi, a prominent Saudi political analyst, also urged the United States not to push too hard on how it wants Riyadh to combat Islamic extremism. Washington has been pressing the Saudi government to stifle hard-line clerics who preach intolerance.

Hashem Abdou Hashem, the editor-in-chief of Okaz daily newspaper who was traveling with Abdullah, wrote that he expects "a series of agreements and measures that will give a further push to relations in political, security, economic, defense, trade and cultural fields."

"The two countries are bent on promoting their strategic relations based not only on partnership but also on integration, so each treats the other as a most-favored nation," he wrote.

To that end, Abdullah was not going to Crawford, Texas, empty-handed.

Only days before the visit, the kingdom announced an ambitious plan to lure $623 billion in foreign investment over the next 15 years, primarily targeting American companies.

Omar Bahlaiwi, a senior official at the Saudi Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Commerce Minister Abdullah Yamani was leading a 50-strong business delegation to the United States this week offering projects to U.S. firms in areas including oil, power, water and telecommunications.

The plan is part of Saudi Arabia's strategy for future economic growth and is hoped to help its effort to join the WTO. A bilateral trade deal between the two countries is reported to be near, though it was unclear if it would be finalized in time for announcement in Texas.

The last time Abdullah and Bush met was seven months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, which shattered U.S.-Saudi relations. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. The Saudis hope their extensive crackdown on militants since then will help heal those wounds.

Bandar al-Obayan, head of the foreign relations committee in the Shura Council, Saudi Arabia's appointed advisory parliament, said the country is moving toward restoring its "historic partnership with the world's most powerful nation."

"Both of us have passed through a very difficult time. But our strategic relations are far more important for both of us to be affected," al-Obayan told The Associated Press.