Analyze This: Give our regards to Riyadh

After Yad Vashem and Capernaum, Bush touches down in S. Arabia.

Saudi King Abdullah 88 (photo credit: )
Saudi King Abdullah 88
(photo credit: )
When George W. Bush is done paying his respects to the memory of the six million at Yad Vashem and walking in the watery footsteps of Jesus at Capernaum, the US president can look forward to a far different experience when he touches down in Saudi Arabia next week. There, according to the official White House press guide for this Middle East tour, the president will enjoy a tea service with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh's Nasiriya Guest Palace, which is "lavishly decorated in traditional Western European style, with Baroque furniture and numerous crystal chandeliers from the Czech Republic and Austria"; have dinner in the king's Riyadh Palace, with its "marble floors and walls containing sheets of gold, colored with precious stones and embedded jewels"; and enjoy a visit to Abdullah's Al-Janadriyah weekend farm retreat, which boasts "150 Arabian thoroughbreds" and an enormous tent-like structure with "tent-poles made of ebony and ivory with precious stones enclosed" and a "dining room that also includes an 80-inch flat-screen television the king often watches while eating." Courtesy demands that a guest being welcomed in such posh settings should bring a suitably generous present for his hosts. In Bush's case, this consists of a $20 billion arms package that includes the JDAMS (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) laser-guided "smart bombs" that Jerusalem would prefer the Saudis did not receive, even if it is reluctant to challenge the White House directly on this issue. One Israeli official told The Jerusalem Post this week it was "interesting" that Bush was heading to Saudi Arabia bearing gifts, while here it is the Israelis and Palestinians who seem to feel the need to give him the "present" of a peace agreement between them. But the reasons are fairly easy to discern, and from the White House perspective, entirely legitimate. Riyadh is worried, and rightly so, about the threat of Iranian belligerence, as well as the future prospect - perhaps sooner rather than later - that the US will greatly reduce or completely withdraw its forces from Iraq. Boosting Saudi Arabia's defense capability is part of the price Riyadh is asking for its participation in a US-backed anti-Iranian coalition, especially after it agreed to attend the Annapolis conference, thus preventing an embarrassment Bush can little afford. But there's another price that's involved here, which should also be noted. Ebony and ivory gem-encrusted tent-poles and 80-inch flat screens don't come cheap - so it's a good thing for the Saudis that the price of crude oil reached a record $100 a barrel with the start of the new year. "Hundred-dollar oil is a reflection of supply and demand" Bush told Reuters last week, while also acknowledging the growing economic toll the price of fuel is taking on the American consumer. Yet as demand grows, the Saudis have actually reduced their supply during the past two years, by 450,000 barrels a day, and have resisted calls by Washington, along with the rest of OPEC, to raise their production. You can be sure this subject will be on the president's agenda as he moves from palace to palace in Riyadh. Of course, it is not "all about the oil," as some commentators like to say; it is also about Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war on terror, and yes, Bush's personal political and religious feelings about Israel, and the cause of freedom and democracy in which he sincerely believes. But you better believe that oil is a part, a big part, of Bush's visit to this region, in which he will also be visiting Kuwait, the UAE and Saudi Arabia for the first time as well, spending more days in those key oil-producing states than here in the Holy Land. "In Israel you're thinking this trip is all about you," says one Washington observer, "but it isn't; the Saudi leg is just as important, even more so, maybe much more. Of course they want to hear of progress for the Palestinians. Most of all, though, the Saudis need reassurance. They're nervous about Iran, about Iraq, and King Abdullah was embarrassed by the recent controversy over the Saudi woman who was sentenced to a whipping after being raped, along with other outside pressure to carry out reforms. Bush is spending two full days in Saudi Arabia, which is unprecedented for a US leader, and most of it is personal face-time with Abdullah." In a Jerusalem entranced by the first visit of one of Israel's strongest-ever supporters in the White House, Bush's Middle East trip is being viewed almost exclusively through the prism of his stop in the Jewish state, and his involvement in our own security and political interests vis-à-vis the Palestinians and Iran. And when he flies off on Friday to continue his travels with our neighbors, our attention on his journey will dramatically wane as we maintain our focus on specifically Israeli concerns, internal and external. Keep in mind, though, that President Bush has other business here in the region, and it indeed may be in Riyadh that the most substantial discussions of his trip take place. The US president may not be going on a personal pilgrimage to Mecca, as he did here to Jerusalem and Capernaum. But you better believe that on this trip, the mountain is going to Muhammad - this time, bearing smart-bombs. [email protected]