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Saudi Arabia Wields Influence in Mideast Conflict - 2002-04-27

For five hours Thursday, President George Bush and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah exchanged views at the President's ranch in Crawford, Texas. They reportedly agreed on eventual goals but not necessarily on the ways to achieve them. A main issue was how quickly Israeli forces will withdraw from Palestinian territories in the West Bank.

"The crown prince and I established a strong personal bond," said President George Bush after their meeting in Crawford, Texas. And that may have to suffice since the talks apparently ended inconclusively. Crown Prince Abdullah was scheduled to have follow-up meetings with top Bush administration officials.

The Saudi leader is said to have pressed the president on the need for what he considers a more balanced U.S. policy in the Middle East. After the meeting, Adel al-Jubeir, foreign policy adviser to the Prince, said, "If Sharon is left to his own devices, he will drag the region over a cliff. That does not serve America's interests, and it does not serve Saudi Arabia's interests."

But the Crown Prince and his advisers are reported to have made no threat. Saudi Arabia, which is one of the world's largest oil exporters, says it has no intention of using oil as a weapon.

The Saudi message is blunt enough without a threat, says Abdul Aziz Said, director of the Center for Global Peace at American University. "Prince Abdullah carries with him a mandate a very strong mandate from all of the Arab states regarding a peace settlement," he says. "If Prince Abdullah leaves the United States empty handed, it would be disastrous for all sides, and I underscore disastrous. On the other had, if he leaves with an understanding about future directions that represent reciprocal commitments, then things will change. So it is very critical."

Professor Said says anti-Israeli sentiment among Arab populations puts intense pressure on the region's rulers, in particular the Saudi crown prince. He must show something for his efforts if he expects to continue to lead. "There is a very strong feeling on the part of Arabs that U.S. foreign policy toward the region is taken directly off the Israeli shelf," he says. "Arabs say that traditionally they have recognized and accepted the fact that the U.S. cannot be an honest broker. But now it has gone beyond that. The U.S. has become an auctioneer for Israeli policies."

It is not enough to talk about change in U.S. policies, says J. Gregory Payne, director of the Center for Ethics and Political Communication at Emerson College in Boston.

What about change in Saudi Arabia, which after all, has been a quite closed society and produced 15 of the 19 suicide bombers in the 9-11 attack on the United States? The Saudi ambassador to Britain recently composed a poem in praise of a suicide bomber. There have been fiery outbursts in mosques against Israel and the United States.

After a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Mr. Payne is convinced change is under way, led by Crown Prince Abdullah. "Prince Abdullah is a true leader in saying that I want Israel to be guaranteed a right to exist," he says. "That is a fundamental break with Saudi's past. I think that shows leadership on his part. He is someone who regularly meets with the people, talks to the people, and I think has tried to move that culture and that civilization more toward the consensus where all of us would like it to be."

Saudis seem to be responding to this leadership, says Mr. Payne. Even though his trip was arranged, he felt he had ample time to talk to people. "What I found were people who were friendly toward America," he says. "They were very saddened by the events of September 11. Culturally, there are some differences. Religion, of course, is a difference. The one thing I was struck by was the tremendous commitment there to family and family values, which I think rings well with the American people."

Mr. Payne says the battle is engaged between a forward looking royal family and backward looking fundamentalists. Victory is not guaranteed, says Mr. Payne, but he has no doubt who will win.