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Bush urges Saudis to boost oil production
US President Bush prodded Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah on Monday to help curb skyrocketing oil prices, and the White House expressed hope that the kingdom's plans would ease U.S. gasoline prices that have shot above $2.20 a gallon.
"A high oil price will damage markets, and he knows that," Bush said of Abdullah, the de facto leader of the desert kingdom.
Asked whether pump prices would drop, Bush said that would depend on supply and demand.
"One thing is for certain: The price of crude is driving the price of gasoline," Bush said. "The price of crude is up because not only is our economy growing, but economies such as India and China's economies are growing."
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the plan could be seen as positive news by financial markets.
"The problem in the oil market now is a perception that there is inadequate capacity," Hadley said. Reassurance that can be given to the market on available supply, he said, should "have a downward pressure on the price."
Other issues, including terrorism, prospects for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, Syria's role in Lebanon, and democratic change in the Middle East, filled the leaders' meeting and discussion over lunch. They agreed to set up a high-level committee, headed by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Saudi foreign minister, to deal with strategic issues.
Spreading democracy is a second-term goal that could affect Bush's legacy, yet high gas prices are a drag on his popularity.
A recent Associated Press-AOL poll found the public giving the president low marks for his handling of energy problems, with 62 percent saying they disapproved. Earlier in April, another AP survey found public dissatisfaction growing more generally, with Bush's job approval rating at 44 percent.
Bush has been urging Congress to pass his energy plan, but even the president has said that it will do little to give motorists short-term relief from high gas prices. In Washington, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said Bush's meeting with Abdullah was a reminder of America's dependence on foreign oil. He said fewer than 5 percent of the incentives in the energy bill were devoted to developing alternative energy sources.
Kerry said U.S. dependence on foreign oil tethers the United States to unstable regions of the world. "We risk being drawn into dangerous conflicts, and an already overburdened military is increasingly stretched too thin," he said.
Al-Jubeir said Saudi Arabia is producing all the oil that its customers are requesting. He said the price is being driven up by a shortage of refining capacity.
"What we have done is explain to the U.S. what our production capabilities are," he told reporters about the meeting. "We also explained to the U.S. — and we have for months — what our plans are for adding to that capacity in the future years."
A U.S. push for democratic change across the Arab world faces a difficult test with Saudi Arabia, a longtime ally ruled by a monarchy. Last week, Saudi Arabia completed its first nationwide elections, an experiment in democracy designed to take the steam out of militant Islamic movements.
The council posts that were on the ballots, however, have little power, and women were not allowed to vote. Moreover, the United States has long-standing concerns about human and civil rights in Saudi Arabia.
A joint statement by the two leaders reflected tensions over the issue of democratic change. It said: "While the United States considers that nations will create institutions that reflect the history, culture and traditions of their societies, it does not seek to impose its own style of government on the government and people of Saudi Arabia."
The president was accused during last year's presidential campaign of being too cozy with Saudi officials. But he paid such criticism no public mind. On Monday, he offered Abdullah a warm embrace and a kiss on both cheeks and gripped his hand as they disappeared into an office building on the ranch where bluebonnets, the Texas state flower, were making their spring debut.
Before he left Crawford, Abdullah bought chips, a Snickers bar and cookies at a local store and restaurant called the Coffee Station where a gallon of regular gas was selling for $2.18.