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In Egypt, Bush says Saudi oil boost not enough

President Bush is pivoting to the Arab side of the Middle East peace dispute, and he may well get a less glowing reception than he did in Israel earlier this week.
US President Bush meets with Egypt's President Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh
President Bush shakes hands with Egypt President Hosni Mubarak after arriving in Sharm el -Sheikh, Egypt, on Saturday.Larry Downing / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush said Saturday that the Saudis' modest increase in oil production is "something but it doesn't solve our problem" of soaring gas prices.

Taking note of the kingdom's recent decision to raise production by 300,000 barrels a day, the president said the United States must act, too, to ease the gasoline crisis. He mentioned steps such as developing alternate fuels, improving conservation and expanding domestic exploration.

"We've got to do more at home," the president said on a lawn of a resort overlooking the Red Sea. He spoke after a private meeting with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai.

While in Egypt, Bush will also be meeting with other leaders who are key to U.S. goals in the region: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. On Sunday, Bush is meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, Jordan’s King Abdullah II, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and several Iraqi leaders.

Bush said he told Saudi King Abdullah during their talks this week that the king should be concerned that high energy prices are hurting some of Saudi Arabia's biggest oil customers, including the United States.

The kingdom decided May 10 on the production increase to help meet U.S. needs after Venezuela and Mexico cut back on oil deliveries. Oil minister Ali al-Naimi made that announcement Friday.

"One of the interesting things about American politics is, those who are screaming the loudest for increased production from Saudi Arabia are the very same people who are the fighting the fiercest against domestic exploration, against the development of nuclear power and against expanding refining capacity," Bush told reporters.

"So I was pleased they had increased production by 300,000, but I'm also realistic to say to the American people, we've got to do more at home," the president said.

Congress stymies moves
As gas prices keep climbing, Bush is promoting moves that long have been part of his agenda. They include opening a coastal strip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil exploration and production and making it easier to build new oil refineries and nuclear power plants in the United States.

All those ideas have been stymied in Congress, and critics say Bush's ideas would do nothing to offer short-term relief to families.

Bush said he made his concerns about the oil supply clear to King Abdullah on Friday in Saudi Arabia, telling the king: "You've got to be concerned about the effects of high oil prices on some of the biggest customers in the world. And not only that, of course, high energy prices are going to cause countries like mine to accelerate our move to alternative energy."

He said Saudi Arabia was increasing refining capacity as well as pumping more oil.

"It's not enough. It's something but it doesn't solve our problem," Bush said. "Our problem in America gets solved when we aggressively go for domestic exploration. Our problem in America gets solved if we expand our refining capacity, promote nuclear energy and continue our strategy for the advancement of alternative energies as well as conservation."

Unlikely partners?
Bush was seeing Mubarak in a formal meeting session as well as over lunch at a luxury hotel overlooking the sea. The Egyptian leader, nearly three decades in power, could be an unlikely partner for Bush’s push to spread freedom in the Middle East.

Egypt was the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel and has long been seen as a key mediator in the Middle East dispute that Bush has said he wants to solve by the time he leaves office next January.

But the United States has seen its longtime alliance with Egypt sour over the pace of political reform there.

Over the past year, several secular newspaper editors in Egypt have been tried, some sentenced to prison, for anti-Mubarak writings. The country’s most outspoken government critic, Egyptian-American Saad Eddin Ibrahim, has gone to the United States for fear of arrest; he faces trial on accusations of harming national interests. The Egyptian government also has waged a heavy crackdown on its strongest domestic opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, arresting hundreds of the Islamic fundamentalist group’s members.

Egypt, the largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance behind Israel, would still continue to get $1.3 billion annually in U.S. aid for the next decade under a package the administration sent to Congress last year.

Meetings with Abbas
Bush’s meetings with Abbas late in the day — they have dinner after a more formal discussion session — follow his two-day visit in Israel coinciding with the Jewish state’s 60th anniversary celebrations. That milestone is seen by Palestinians as a catastrophe because of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who either fled or were driven out of their homes during the 1948 war over Israel’s creation.

Bush did not visit the Palestinian territories while in Israel, nor did he mention their plight. In a much-anticipated speech Thursday to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Bush only gently urged Middle Eastern leaders to “make the hard choices necessary,” without mention of concrete steps, and spoke of Palestinians only in one sentence that predicted they would have their own state by 2068.

Bush is seen in the Arab world as tilting much too far toward Israel. Comments Friday from Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal about Bush’s speech suggested that had not changed.

“We are all aware of the special U.S.-Israeli relation and its political dimensions,” he said. “It is, however, important also to affirm the legitimate and political rights of the Palestinian people.”

He also sharply criticized Israel for the “humanistic suffering weighed upon the West Bank and Gaza Strip population” of Palestinians. He said Israel’s “continued policy of expanding settlements on Palestinian territories” undermines the peace process.

Israelis and Palestinians have been negotiating since December, but nothing visible has emerged from the secretive process.

Both the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are weak among their own constituencies and fresh violence from the Gaza Strip and settlement activity by Israelis are diminishing an already precious supply of trust. The president did no negotiating while in Israel and left the Holy Land with no new progress on an accord.