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Saudi Arabia rebuffs Bush on oil production

Image: George W. Bush, King Abdallah
President Bush sits with Saudi King Abdullah upon his arrival at Riyadh-King Kahlid International Airport on Friday.Susan Walsh / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Saudi Arabia’s leaders made clear Friday they see no reason to increase oil production until customers demand it, apparently rebuffing President Bush amid soaring U.S. gasoline prices.

It was Bush’s second personal appeal this year to King Abdullah, head of the monarchy that rules this desert kingdom that is a longtime prime U.S. ally and home to the world’s largest oil reserves. But Saudi officials stuck to their position that they will only pump more oil into the system when asked to by buyers, something they say is not happening now, the president’s national security adviser told reporters.

“Saudi Arabia does not have customers that are making requests for oil that they are not able to satisfy,” Stephen Hadley said on a day when oil prices topped $127 a barrel, continuing to set records. “What the Saudis wanted to tell us was we’re doing everything we can do ... to meet this problem, but it’s a complicated problem.”

The Saudi oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, said the kingdom decided on May 10 to raise production by 300,000 barrels, at the request of customers, and that increase was sufficient.

“Supply and demand are in balance today,” he told a news conference. “How much does Saudi Arabia need to do to satisfy people who are questioning our oil practices and policies?”

Hadley also said the Saudis briefed Bush again on their plan to increase their production capacity over time. They also argued that even an increase would be unlikely to bring down the soaring prices, driven more by uncertainty in the market, lack of refining capacity for the type of oil readily available and other complicated dynamics, he said.

Economists say prices are being driven up by increased demand, not slowed production. Energy-guzzlers China and India are stretching supplies.

Minister thinks Bush 'was satisfied'
As a result, Hadley suggested the White House was satisfied with — or at least accepted — the Saudi response. He added, however, the Bush administration will see if the explanation “conforms to what our experts say.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said the discussion with Bush about oil was friendly. “He didn’t punch any tables or shout at anybody,” the minister said. “I think he was satisfied.”

High energy costs are a major drain on the U.S. economy, which is experiencing a slowdown that some think is already a recession. At the pump, gas prices rose to a national average of $3.78 per gallon on Friday, according to a survey of stations by AAA and the Oil Price Information Service.

When Bush and Abdullah met in the kingdom in mid-January, the president also sought more Saudi output in a plea that also ultimately was for naught.

Mideast issues discussed
Iran was the other dominant topic of Bush’s overnight visit with the king.

The two shared a concern over the recent violence in Lebanon, where Hezbollah overran Beirut neighborhoods last week in protest of measures aimed at the group by the country’s government. The display of military power by the Shiite militant group, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization, resulted in the worst internal fighting since the end of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.

With Shiite-dominated Iran backing Hezbollah, Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia — eager to stop any advance of regional power by Tehran — joins the West in supporting Lebanon’s government. Hadley said Bush and Abdullah shared a concern that the recent events would “embolden Iran.” The U.S. and Saudi Arabia, he said, “are of one mind in condemning what Hezbollah did.”

On Thursday, Hezbollah and the government reached a deal to end the violence after Lebanon’s Cabinet reversed measures aimed at reining in the militants.

Bush’s Saudi stop was intended, in part, to celebrate 75 years of formal U.S.-Saudi relations and strengthen ties that, once strong, have frayed over the perception Washington favors Israel too much in the dispute with the Palestinians, the Iraq war and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Fifteen of the 19 airline hijackers were Saudis, and Americans blamed Saudis for allowing the religious extremism that gave rise to them, an accusation that stings here.

Bush was spending the day with Abdullah at his lavish farm complex outside Riyadh, talking mostly out of public view over multiple tea services and meals. Abdullah greeted Bush warmly at the airport, and rode with him in his limousine out into the desert.

The White House hoped that new agreements formalized during Bush’s visit would give the relationship a boost.

Energy talk included nuclear power
Among them was an agreement for the U.S. to assist the kingdom in developing civilian nuclear power. Another agreement involves U.S. promises to help protect any Saudi nuclear infrastructure with training, the exchange of experts “and other support services as needed.” Hadley said it would not involve U.S. troops.

But the rising price of oil commanded attention.

When Bush first ran for president in 2000, he criticized the Clinton administration for high fuel prices and said the president must “jawbone” oil producing nations and persuade them to drop rates. At that time, oil was nearing $28 a barrel — less than a quarter what it is now.

Bush’s visit comes two days after Congress voted to temporarily halt daily shipments of 70,000 barrels of oil to the nation’s emergency reserve. After Bush’s talks, his administration announced in Washington that it has canceled oil shipments into the reserve beginning in July, when the current purchase contract expires. Bush has refused to stop pouring oil into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, saying the stockpile was meant for emergencies and that halting the shipments would have little or no impact on gasoline or crude oil prices.

It’s a move that Democrats have sought for the past year to increase supply and apply downward pressure on prices. With an eye to the November election, the Senate sent the measure to the president Wednesday night without a single GOP objection. The White House has indicated that Bush will sign the reserve measure.

Also, as Bush prepared to leave Washington, Senate Democrats introduced a resolution that would block $1.4 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia unless Riyadh agrees to increase its oil production by 1 million barrels per day. The Democrats said they introduced the measure to coincide with Bush’s trip to send a message to Saudi Arabia that it should pump more oil to reduce the cost of gas for Americans.

Besides wanting to discuss oil, Bush paid his second visit to Abdullah this year — on top of a stop by Vice President Dick Cheney in Saudi Arabia in March — to talk about his goal of achieving an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal before he leaves office. Saudi Arabia’s immense power in the region means that its backing of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and any concessions he will have to make is key.

Bush meets with Abbas in Egypt on Saturday, during a one-night stay there before returning to Washington.