Saudi Prince Fights Sharon Over U.S. Mideast Agenda

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Santiago Lyon/AP

Prince Abdullah will meet with Bush at the President's ranch

Crown Prince Abdullah goes into his first-ever meeting with President Bush Thursday confident over his prospects for progress with the U.S. over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But rather than coming to lecture Bush on the consequences in the Arab world of U.S. support for Ariel Sharon, the Crown Prince will use his trip to Bush's Crawford, Texas ranch to emphasize Saudi Arabia's desire to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem in the Middle East. That had been the purpose behind the Saudis pressing the Arab League to endorse normal relations with Israel in exchange for the country's withdrawal to its 1967 borders. Now, the Crown Prince hopes to help the Bush administration find a way around the current security impasse in the West Bank to restart a fast-track peace process.

Abdullah has made no secret of his anger at the Bush administration's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis — last August he warned the President that what he perceived as the administration's one-sided approach threatened long-term U.S.-Saudi relations. Riyadh's primary concern is domestic stability, and the Saudi rulers believe their relationship with the U.S. is imperiled by the crisis in the Palestinian territories and talk of war with Iraq.

Still, despite their disappointment with Bush's performance, the Saudis are far from discouraged. Bush has, after all, been the first president to speak directly about a Palestinian state and ending Israel's occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and has recognized the need for international monitors of any truce. But the Saudis believe the problem lies in Bush's endorsement of Sharon's security-driven approach, even though Washington's own positions over a long-term settlement appear to differ sharply with the Israeli leader's. The Saudis believe Sharon has no intention of pursuing peace on the basis of ceding control over the West Bank and Gaza. They see Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent peace mission as an empty gesture, because Sharon defied U.S. demands and suffered no consequences.

The Saudis see themselves as in direct competition with Sharon to shape Washington's agenda, hoping to take it beyond the security issues to the political questions. President Bush may want Abdullah to pressure Arafat to crack down, but the Saudis dismiss the idea of Arafat restraining Palestinian militants absent movement towards Palestinian statehood. What Abdullah will offer, however, is Arab support in getting Arafat to do his part if Washington restarts the process of negotiating a final political settlement.

If Palestine is Crown Prince Abdullah's primary concern, President Bush's priority is Saddam Hussein. Although the Saudis would love to be rid of Saddam, they believe the U.S. has bungled the issue through policies that have given Saddam the PR initiative, built his popularity in the Arab world and made it more difficult to support the U.S. against him.

Rather than a direct assault, the Saudis favor "smart sanctions" that will lift most of the economic embargo but target Saddam's military, hoping to keep him bottled up until one of his generals can overthrow him. They may be willing to sign on to a U.S. military campaign to oust Saddam, but only after "smart sanctions" have tried and failed and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is on track towards fair resolution.

The President and the Crown Prince will also discuss the question of the 6,000 U.S. Air Force personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia. Despite friction over the possible use of the Prince Sultan base for offensive purposes against Iraq and elsewhere, the royal family supports a continued U.S. presence. But the political factors that cloud the relationship may require ongoing negotiations over the terms of use of the U.S. facilities in Saudi Arabia.

Despite the depth of the historic relationship, Bush and Abdullah meet at a low-point in U.S.-Saudi relations. On the U.S. side, the events of September 11 where a group of mostly Saudi hijackers answering to an exiled Saudi terrorist tycoon have cast a pall of suspicion over the kingdom's reliability in the fight against terrorism. But even before that, the Saudis were finding their alliance with America under strain because of mounting Arab rage at U.S. policies towards Iraq and Israel.

The relationship remains strongest, however, at its source — oil. Despite calls from more militant Arab quarters to use oil as a weapon to press the U.S. to change course, the Saudis have steadfastly maintained their commitment to stable prices and supplies, always raising their own output to meet any shortfall caused by Iraq's periodic turning off the tap. Crown Prince Abdullah may be hoping that his country's reliability as an oil supplier may help grease the gears of a relationship that have, of late, had a tendency to grate.