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Bush gets warm welcome from king, but many Saudis leery

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DONNA ABU-NASR
January 14, 2008
— Saudi Arabia’s warm official welcome for President Bush, the scion of a family with close ties to the kingdom’s ruling family, masks his deep unpopularity among ordinary Saudis.

A recent poll found only 12 percent here view Bush positively – lower than Iran’s president or even al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden – and more think warmly toward Iran than America.


Among the reasons are the chaos in Iraq that followed the U.S.-led invasion and the widespread Arab feeling that the United States is biased in favor of Israel and not serious in seeking Mideast peace. A recent editorial said everything the president touches “turns to dust and ashes.”


That mirrors the deep distrust many Americans hold toward Saudi Arabia – the homeland of 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers – even as U.S. leaders praise Saudi Arabia’s leadership in the region and its crackdown on Islamic extremism.


Still, Bush, on his first visit to the kingdom, will enjoy a warm embrace from Saudi King Abdullah. He is staying at the monarch’s home – a rare show of hospitality for a visiting dignitary that reflects Bush’s hosting of Abdullah twice at his own ranch in Texas.


Most of the two leaders’ talks will be one-on-one. The king will introduce Bush to Saudi delicacies in a tent at his farm overlooking meadows and lakes, and then take Bush to inspect his horses, according to a Saudi official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the countries’ ties.


For the U.S.-Saudi alliance, such deep contradictions are nothing new.


Bush’s visit comes at a time of deep Saudi worry over Iran’s intentions. Yet Saudi officials have urged all players in the region to exercise restraint, and have warned of the grave consequences for the world economy of incidents such as the recent Persian Gulf standoff between Iran and the U.S.


Foreign Minister Prince Saud has said Iran will be on the agenda.


“We will listen with all ears to what President Bush will raise,” Saud said.


A rare cold front has brought clouds and rain to Riyadh for the visit. Tight security is evident: Hundreds of police cars have deployed along major roads and sharpshooters are on some rooftops. In one neighborhood, police using loudspeakers demanded that cars be removed from some streets as two helicopters hovered overhead.


It is Bush’s first trip to Saudi Arabia, which has the world’s largest oil reserves. His father, the first President Bush, had warm relations with many Saudis.


When the Saudi-American relationship began in the 1940s, it was built on a simple bargain: Saudi Arabia offered oil in return for U.S. protection. It was a relationship of accommodation between a monarchy ruled according to Islamic law and a secular, liberal democracy.


The United States became the kingdom’s biggest trading partner. The Saudis became the biggest buyers of U.S. weapons – $39 billion worth in the 1990s. They have also been major U.S. creditors, buying billions in Treasury bonds, and enthusiastic investors in U.S. business. Many Saudis sent their children to American schools.


But over the years, issues arose as the United States became more involved in the region, especially in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where Saudis, like all Arabs, feel Washington leans unfairly to Israel’s side.


Saudi-U.S. ties were hit hard after the Sept. 11 attacks when Americans questioned the kingdom’s loyalty as an ally and its support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Some Americans asked if the kingdom’s conservative society and schools bred hatred of the West.


The Saudi official said relations have “improved tremendously” since then, in part because the kingdom’s anti-terror campaign has proved its seriousness to Washington.


A senior U.S. administration official said Bush’s visit would reaffirm not just traditional ties with Saudi Arabia but also the president’s personal relationship with Abdullah.


Despite such warmth, the recent poll conducted for Terror Free Tomorrow, a bipartisan group whose goal is undermining world support for terrorism, found Bush viewed positively by only 12 percent of Saudis.


That was less than half the number with a good impression of Iran’s hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. About 15 percent had a favorable opinion of bin Laden.


Forty percent have a favorable opinions of the U.S. – a lower rating than they gave China or Iran – though 69 percent want good relations with the United States. The poll of 1,004 Saudis, conducted in December, had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.


Bush’s unpopularity goes beyond Saudi Arabia, with many in the Arab world angry over the war in Iraq and over U.S. support for Israel.


Several hundred people protested in Bahrain during his stop there Saturday. And newspapers in Egypt have been running critical editorials. Rose el-Youssef, a paper close to Egypt’s ruling party, called Bush “the leader of sabotage, the thief of Arab lands.”


Analyst Abdullah al-Fozan said in a recent column in Al-Watan daily that Bush’s “black pages” have been piling up.


“You have the opportunity now to decrease that blackness ... by fulfilling the promise you made to help establish a Palestinian state,” he wrote.


And an editorial in Saturday’s Arab News, a Saudi English-language newspaper, said Bush’s record makes it hard for Arabs to believe he can deliver.


“No Palestinian, no Arab believes he will, or can, deliver,” the editorial said. “Everything he touches turns to dust and ashes. Iraq, Afghanistan – maybe now even Iran.”



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