Saudis threaten 'oil weapon' in talks to pressure Bush

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The Independent US

President Geroge Bush and Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia held pivotal talks yesterday. The failure of the talks could seal the breakdown of America's relations with the Arab world over Mr Bush's stance in the Middle East conflict, which is perceived to be irredeemably pro-Israel.

The meeting, held at the President's ranch in Texas, is being described by some Saudis as a "last chance" for Mr Bush to shore up US relations with the Arab world.

Riyadh, long a US ally, is exasperated at what it sees as President Bush's endorsement of Ariel Sharon, crystallised by his description of the Israeli Prime Minister as "a man of peace".

The Saudis have publicly dismissed Mr Sharon's proposal for a peace conference under US auspices as "absurd". Instead, Riyadh wants Mr Bush not just to rein back the Israelis but to impose a settlement. It points to Crown Prince Abdullah's plan as the way out of the crisis.

The plan, offering full recognition of Israel in return for withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967 and the creation of a Palestinian state, was endorsed by last month's Arab summit in Beirut, but it was quickly submerged by the furore over Israel's massive crackdown in the West Bank.

Most alarming, if interviews and reports from the region are taken at face value, the Saudis have already more or less concluded that no amount of pressure from the Crown Prince, the de facto ruler of the Kingdom, will induce Mr Bush to change his mind. The pessimism was reflected in the extraordinarily menacing language of a senior unnamed Saudi representative, who warned in The New York Times that if the worst came to the worst, Riyadh and other Arab states might use the "oil weapon" against Washington and – far from supporting a US attack on Saddam Hussein – demand the closure of US military bases in the region.

This would be a "strategic debacle", declared the Saudi, described as being "familiar with the Crown Prince's thinking". Saudi Arabia's rejection of Iraq's call for an oil embargo was based on certain assumptions, he said. "But if you change the assumptions, all bets are off ... because there come desperate times when you give the unthinkable a chance."

Much of this might be bluff, but such talk is a measure of the strains upon a relationship that started as a marriage of convenience – founded upon Saudi oil in exchange for US military protection – but has developed into one of the world's key strategic bilateral partnerships. America's longstanding trust of Saudi Arabia has been heavily undermined by the knowledge that 15 of the 19 hijackers of 11 September were Saudis.

Unsurprisingly, no joint appearance by the President and the Crown Prince was planned after the meeting. US officials can imagine nothing worse than Mr Bush being forced into a public disagreement with Abdullah, who is known for speaking his mind.

Perhaps the best indication of how things have gone will be whether Abdullah carries out the rest of a largely ceremonial programme for the rest of his visit, which concludes tomorrow. If he returns home early, it would be a clear sign the talks had gone badly, the unnamed Saudi told the Times.

The meeting is being minutely watched in the Arab world, including Egypt, the other key US ally in the region. The summit "will reveal American stances, and clarify a lot of issues, Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmed Maher, said. "It will be the basis for the Arabs' future steps."