RIYADH, Saudi Arabia President Bush warned Tuesday that surging oil prices threaten the U.S. economy and urged OPEC nations to boost their output. His plea drew little sympathy from oil-rich Saudi Arabia, which said production levels appear normal.
Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also pressed Arab countries to do more to reach out to Israel and help achieve a Mideast peace agreement before the president's term runs out next January. Avoiding specific orders to Arab allies, Rice said the delicate question of diplomatic relations with Israel, the Arab world's historical enemy, was "another matter and undoubtedly down the road."
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister wondered what more could be expected of them than they are already doing. But Bush, nearing the end of an eight-day Mideast trip, expressed confidence that Arab countries would support both sides in an Israeli-Palestinian accord backing Washington sees as crucial to striking and sustaining any agreement. "They want to see a deal done," Bush said. "And they want progress because the issue frustrates them."
As economic anxiety grows in the U.S. and dominates the presidential campaign, Bush is under increasing pressure. After a stop in Egypt on Wednesday, Bush returns home to weigh whether to join Democrats and Republicans in offering some sort of short-term economic stimulus package.
He promised to tell Saudi King Abdullah that American families are being hurt by oil prices that have topped $100 a barrel, more than three times what they were when he took office.
"These are times of economic uncertainty but I have confidence in the future immediate future," Bush said when asked if the U.S. was sliding toward a recession, as some economists fear.
In public, the same Bush whose early career was in the Texas oilfields and who said during his 2000 presidential campaign that the president must "jawbone" oil-producing nations to drop rates had been silent about the issue on this eight-day trip until Tuesday.
He raised the subject here, in the country with the world's largest supply of oil, during a morning meeting with Saudi business leaders, saying oil prices were very high and "tough on our economy." He spoke more directly, but still gently, in an afternoon meeting with reporters who were unexpectedly summoned to the guest palace where he stayed one of his two nights.
"I hope that OPEC, if possible, understands that if they could put more supply on the market it would be helpful," he said.
Bush conceded that, in reality, increasing ouput would be difficult. The demand for oil, particularly from China and India, is stretching available supplies, he said. And "a lot of these oil-producing countries are full out" in terms of what they can produce, he said.
Besides, any increase may not have a big effect on prices, as many economists say the key factor driving them is increased demand, not supply.
In a chilly response to Bush, Saudi Arabia's oil minister, Ali Naimi, told reporters the kingdom would raise production levels only when the market justifies it and that today's inventory seems normal.
Bush met Abdullah for a second day at his weekend retreat and farm in the desert. At the stables where 260 Arabian horses are kept in air-conditioned stalls, Bush was treated to a trainer parading sleek horses around a showing ring. The president spent the night at the farm in a return gesture for the king's stays, while crown prince, at Bush's ranch in Texas.
Bush couched his concern about oil prices both in terms of the pain suffered by U.S. consumers and the possible consequences of that for Saudi Arabia. "It could cause this economy to slow down," Bush said. "If the economy slows down, there will be less barrels of oil purchased."
The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which accounts for about 40 percent of the world's needs, next meets Feb. 1 in Vienna, Austria, to consider increasing output.
Returning to a recurring theme of his trip, Bush stepped up warnings to Iran not to meddle with U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf after a Jan. 6 encounter that was deemed threatening by American officials. The president said there would be "serious consequences" for Iran if a U.S. vessel was attacked, whether or not it were ordered by the government in Tehran or was the result of a rash decision by an Iranian boat captain.
"It's not going to matter to me one way or the other if they hit our ships, and the Iranian government has got to understand that," Bush said.
Bush said he tried to clear up confusion in the region created by a new U.S. intelligence finding that Iran had stopped a secret nuclear weapons program in 2003 contradicting White House claims that Tehran was still pursuing such arms. He said he told Sunni Arab leaders worried about Shiite Iran's ambitions for regional power that "all options are on the table" for dealing with the continuing threat from Tehran but that "I'd like to solve this diplomatically."
The Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, called Iran "a neighborly, important country in the region." "Under any circumstance, escalation in the region is in nobody's interest," he said.
Rice slipped away from Bush's entourage in the Saudi capital at 6:40 a.m. Tuesday for an unannounced trip to Iraq. Bush said he had been encouraged by signs of legislative progress in Baghdad and decided about 10 days ago that he would send her but not go himself, as some speculated because she could "push the momentum by her very presence."
In Baghdad, Rice congratulated Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on the political progress that has moved along "quite remarkably," citing passage of U.S.-sought legislation reinstating former Saddam Hussein loyalists to government jobs.
She flew back to Saudi Arabia in time for dinner with Bush and the king at the ranch and then hurried to Riyadh for a news conference with Saud.
"I don't know what more outreach we can give the Israelis," Saud said, referring to an Arab peace plan and the sentiment in the region that Israel hasn't been meeting its obligations under an internationally sponsored roadmap, and that the U.S. is too lenient on that point. He said Israel's continued Jewish settlement activity in the Palestinian territories "cast doubt on the seriousness of the negotiations."
Bush acknowledged widespread skepticism about him in the Middle East. "Of course. I mean, my image: 'Bush wants to fight Muslims,"' he said in an ABC News "Nightline" interview. "I'm sure people view me as a war monger and I view myself as a peacemaker. They view me as so pro-Israeli I can't be open-minded about Palestinian peace. ... You just have to fight through the stereotypes by actions."
Bush said that throughout his trip, he encountered "genuine concern about protectionism" in the United States, including questions about whether foreign capital was welcome and what message U.S. visa restrictions send. "That troubles me because that's not the way our country is," he said.