- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 15, 2008

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Bush arrived here yesterday to strengthen the U.S. alliance against Iran with one of the Middle East’s most powerful countries during two days of meetings and social events with Saudi King Abdullah.

Mr. Bush will spend more time in the Saudi kingdom than anywhere else besides Israel on his eight-day, six-country tour of the Middle East, ending his visit here today with a trip to the king’s horse farm.

It is an opportunity for Mr. Bush and King Abdullah to discuss a wide range of issues, including Iran’s nuclear program, Islamic terrorism, democracy in the region and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

The Bush administration yesterday announced a nearly $20 billion weapons sale to the Saudis and other Gulf states, which is subject to congressional scrutiny. Congress has 30 days in which to block the sale by a joint resolution.

The package includes satellite-guided ballistic missiles to Saudi Arabia and is intended in part to strengthen King Abdullah in the face of a rising Iranian power.

National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley said yesterday’s notification to Congress is one part of the $20 billion deal but said it is “a pretty big package [with] lots of pieces.”

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the U.S. government has discussed concerns over the use of the missiles to target Israel and said the U.S. has “spent a lot of time ensuring that we abide by our commitments to a qualitative military edge, QME, for Israel.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, said he will “explore the formal package very closely.”

“We need to be convinced that the sale makes sense militarily and ensure that it in no way harms our security or those of our allies,” Mr. Biden said.

Ed Gillespie, the president’s counselor, said Saudi officials expressed “a lot of interest” in the U.S. economy — which faces a housing crunch and a weakening dollar — and in the U.S. presidential election.

Mr. Gillespie also said the price of oil in the region, which hit $100 a barrel last week, was discussed. Mr. Bush talked about the U.S. interest in alternative sources of energy, and the Saudis emphasized that prices are being driven by rising demand from China and India.

“They talked about the nature of the market and the vast demand that’s on the world market today for oil,” Mr. Gillespie said. “That’s a legitimate and accurate point.”

In addition, Mr. Bush raised the issue of human rights in Saudi Arabia with King Abdullah, said Mr. Gillespie, adding that the human rights message is “clear” but specified that “it’s not antagonistic or anything like, ‘You need to be like us.’ ”

Mr. Bush will end his trip to the Middle East tomorrow with a stop in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt, to meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.