Bush Makes Nice in the Mideast

President Bush's Middle East trip continues. From Jerusalem and Ramallah — where he was focused on jumpstarting stalled peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians — to Bahrain, to Kuwait, to the United Arab Emirates, where he made a speech pushing for democracy in the region.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

The president of the United States is winding down the penultimate day of his Middle East trip. It's mid-afternoon right now in Saudi Arabia, where Mr. Bush met with King Abdullah yesterday. So what do you get a king, a king who has everything and reigns over the most oil-rich country in the world? How about a $120-million worth of smart bombs, those satellite-guided explosives? It's part of a package that will deliver military aid to other Persian Gulf countries as well.

Now some in Israel where the president started his trip last week may be concerned the deal with Saudi Arabia could constitute some kind of a threat. Last week, the U.S. gave - actually U.S. gave Israel a $30-billion military aid deal of its own. Watching this all unfold with a front row seat is Michael Abramowitz, reporter for the Washington Post. He has been on the road with Mr. Bush throughout this entire Middle East swing.

Hi, Michael.

Mr. MICHAEL ABRAMOWITZ (Reporter, Washington Post): Hey, how are you guys doing?

STEWART: Doing okay. So in the course of reading every day about the president, it - this trip seems to be a little bit about money and relationships, and they kind of intertwine. Let's start with the sale of the smart bombs to Saudi Arabia. Can you explain how this might be good for the United States?

Mr. ABRAMOWITZ: Well, I think this is actually a relatively small part of the trip, although it has some symbolic significance. About six months ago or so, the United States announced that it was going to be, you know, giving a major arms sale package to Saudi Arabia and the other - some of the other Persian Gulf nations. They also have an arms sales package for Israel and for Egypt. And basically, they have been kind of dribbling out, you know, different parts of the deal for the - you know, over the last several months. And I think they - the State Department timed the announcement of the deal that you guys are talking about so that it would coincide when the president arrived here in Saudi Arabia yesterday.

I think the message the U.S. is trying to send is that we are supporting our allies. We are going to stand. We're going to make - we're going to try to be the major power in the world, and we're going to look after our friends in the region. That's the message, I think, these sales reflect.

STEWART: Another issue for the U.S., obviously, the price of oil. The president appealed to OPEC today to just come on, guys. Turn on the spigots for us. How has the response been to the United States questions about those $100 a barrel prices?

Mr. ABRAMOWITZ: Well, we're going to hear this afternoon from the Saudi oil minister. And so I can't tell you exactly what his response is going to be. But I think the Saudis are probably going to say, you know, there's not much we can do about this. The price of oil was set by supply and demand. And right now, there's a huge amount of demand for oil in the world…

STEWART: Well, how was the it's-hurting-our-economy argument? How did that fare with all of those Saudi entrepreneurs?

Mr. ABRAMOWITZ: I think this is really mostly being done for kind of domestic political consumption in United States.

STEWART: Right.

Mr. ABRAMOWITZ: Yesterday, it's kind of interesting that we in the press corps were asking a lot of government officials who were traveling with the president, hey, is the president going to talk about the price of oil? And they kind of hemmed and hawed and said, no, we're not really sure about that. Well, they kind of thought better of that overnight, because you can't come to Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer and say you're not going to talk about oil.

STEWART: Right.

Mr. ABRAMOWITZ: Especially given - especially given where the economy of the United States is.

STEWART: Yeah.

Mr. ABRAMOWITZ: But I don't think, as a practical matter, this will really change things. But I think the president is kind of checking off a box for domestic political purposes.

STEWART: So I was noodling around the White House official Web site about this trip. And I want to read you a line from one of their releases. This was actually a Q and A back and forth between a spokesperson and some of you reporter-type people.

Mr. ABRAMOWITZ: Yeah.

STEWART: The trip will also reaffirm his personal relationship with King Abdullah. It is a close personal relationship. The president views King Abdullah as really remarkable. Can you give us a quick explainer on this close, personal relationship? And have you seen it upfront?

Mr. ABRAMOWITZ: Well, I do think that there is a bond between the president and the king of Saudi Arabia. They are both religious men - obviously, of different faiths - and I think they share that. I think there've also been, you know, some tensions over the last several years between the United States and Saudi Arabia. The king was very angry early on in the Bush administration when he thought that the United States was really taking a side too strongly of Israel in the kind of Middle East crisis, and that, you know, they're very happy now here that the president is, you know, trying to push Middle East peace, which they really see as the core issue in the Middle East.

And so I think relationships have gotten a little bit better. And I think that this is, I think, the third or fourth time the two leaders have met. The last two times, I think, was when the king was the current prince, and they went to visit the president in Crawford, at his ranch.

And so, actually, this is a bit of a kind of a reciprocal visit, because the president, later this afternoon - maybe right now as we speak - is on his way to the king's farm in the country here, where the king raises Arabian stallions. And this is a very rare type of invitation for a foreign dignitary to get, which is a sign of the kind of respect that the king has for the president.

STEWART: We're talking to Michael Abramowitz from The Washington Post, who's been traveling with the president during his Mideast swing.

I do want to get to Iran and talk a little bit about that, but I have to ask you. When you're traveling with the president, have you seen anything that's just really unusual that caught your eye that maybe you couldn't kind of get in one of your stories? I'm always curious about that.

Mr. ABRAMOWITZ: OH, that's a good question. You know, I thought that the kind of coolest thing - you know, one of the things that's funny about traveling with the president is that you really actually are traveling in a kind of a parallel universe with the president, because we're - most of the time, we're a press charter, in which you - in which we're kind of following the president to a region.

Sometimes you're lucky enough to be on Air Force One, which is, obviously, very interesting and cool. But I would say that one of the more interesting things is some of these arrival ceremonies. The Arab countries - and Israel for that matter - have really kind of pulled out the stops for these visits. And yesterday, you know, I watched as the king of Saudi Arabia, who's in his 80s and a very stately man, you know, went to greet the president at the foot of Air Force One. And I thought that was, you know, quite a poignant moment.

STEWART: Did they kiss on both cheeks?

Mr. ABRAMOWITZ: Yes.

STEWART: I like that.

Michael Abramowitz, reporter for The Washington Post. He's been traveling with the president of the United States through his Middle East swing.

Hey, thanks for making the time, Michael.

Mr. ABRAMOWITZ: Thanks for having me. Take care.

STEWART: And you know what, Rachel - take care. You, too.

Mr. ABRAMOWITZ: Bye-bye.

STEWART: We'll - you know what? We'll blog a little bit about what the president had to say about Iran, as well as King Abdullah.

MARTIN: Yeah.

STEWART: He's been forming some kind of relationship with Ahmadinejad. What exactly it is has been a cause of a lot of speculation. So we'll blog about that a little bit later on and get you some links so you can read up on it yourself.

MARTIN: Stay with us. We're also going to talk about the Electoral College. You know. You love it. Maybe you don't.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: We're going to try to explain it and a new initiative that might -wants to ban it.

This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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