- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 16, 2008

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — President Bush yesterday pressed King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to increase oil production and ease rising gas prices, while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice split off from the president”s trip for a surprise day trip to meet with the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

At the end of the day, Miss Rice and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal held a press conference with reporters here at the Saudi government”s request, touching on the bombing in Lebanon, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Iran and human rights in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Bush said he was planning to raise the issue of oil production over dinner at King Abdullah“s horse farm outside the Saudi capital, but White House staff were unable to brief reporters on the talks.

“I would like for them to realize that high energy prices affect the economies of consuming nations,” Mr. Bush said earlier in the day of the Saudis. “If these economies weaken, those economies will eventually be buying fewer barrels of oil.”

Saudi Arabia is one of five founding members of the 14-nation Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC).

The price of oil hit $100 a barrel last week, raising concerns that the cost of importing 20 million barrels a day in the U.S. may add to the likelihood of a recession. Yesterday, oil fell $2.30 to $91.90 a barrel.

Speaking to reporters at the Saudi Royal Palace guesthouse, Mr. Bush said that “there”s not a lot of excess capacity in the market place” and that “demand has outstripped supply.”

Mr. Bush“s statements drew a quick response from Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi.

“Some people mistakenly think that the U.S.-Saudi petroleum equation is determined by how much oil the United States imports from Saudi Arabia,” Mr. al-Naimi said, during a press conference at the hotel housing the White House press corps.

“In fact, these are purely commercial transactions and are a function of market fundamentals rather than policy directives,” the minister said. “We will raise production when the market justifies it. This is our policy.”

He defended the withholding of about 2 million barrels a day for the building of an emergency oil reserve. When asked about the impact of a possible U.S. recession, Mr. al-Naimi said, “No one will look with pleasure on a recession in the U.S.”

Asked whether gas prices would ever dip below $2 a gallon for U.S. drivers again, Mr. al-Naimi said, “If I knew the answer to that question, I would be in Las Vegas rather than here.”

Miss Rice visited Iraq yesterday morning to congratulate the government in Baghdad on recent progress. The Iraqi parliament on Saturday passed a law allowing past members of Saddam Hussein”s Ba”ath Party to re-enter government posts, which had been described as a key component of reconciliation between the nation”s Muslim sects and tribes.

Miss Rice visited Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other officials, held a press conference, and returned in time for dinner at the horse farm with King Abdullah and Mr. Bush.

She said the de-Ba”athification law was “clearly a step forward for national reconciliation [and] for healing the wounds of the past.”

Miss Rice“s appearance with the Saudi foreign minister was punctuated by several negative comments from Mr. al-Faisal about Israel, saying the Jewish state was expanding settlements in the West Bank, which “casts doubt on the seriousness of the negotiations.”

“I don”t know what more outreach we can give to the Israelis,” the Saudi official said.

On Iran, Mr. al-Faisal said that Iran is a “neighboring country” and that “we have nothing bad towards Iran,” while also calling on Tehran to avoid escalation over its nuclear program.

Mr. Bush will depart today for Egypt before heading home later in the day.

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