Bush Meets with Saudi King; Rice Petitions Baghdad

President Bush's eight-day trip to the Mideast continued Tuesday with another round of talks with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah at the monarch's desert horse ranch. The president also dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Baghdad to urge Iraqi leaders to speed reconciliation efforts.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

President Bush got the royal treatment in Saudi Arabia today while his secretary of state was dispatched on a quick trip to Iraq. The president and his policies are unpopular in the Middle East. This was mainly a visit about shoring up key alliances.

NPR's Michele Kelemen has been traveling with the president. She joins us from Riyadh. And first of all, Michele, why don't you give us the sense of the president's stop there in the Saudi capital today?

MICHELE KELEMEN: Well, he's staying out tonight at Kim Abdullah's ranch in the desert. He had a chance to see some of the king's thoroughbreds who are also, apparently, given the royal treatment. Trainers give these horses aqua therapy, according to the White House staffers who were out there. At dinner at the ranch, President Bush and his staff were all wearing these full length Saudi robes lined with fur because it's unusually cold here this week.

As for the talk, President Bush said he's going to be raising the high price of oil with the Saudi king. He said that's been tough on the U.S. economy. He said he wanted to tell the king that if there's an economic slowdown in the U.S., that would mean less barrels of oil purchase. I mean, it's an odd ways to do it in this very lavish tent, but that's what he said he was going to be talking about tonight.

Of course, there's a lot of other things to talk about, but it seemed, at least from my perspective, that this was mainly a day to show how strong this relationship is and to show the personal ties between these two men.

BLOCK: And in the meantime, Secretary Condoleezza Rice was sent on a quick trip to Baghdad and then back to Saudi Arabia. Tell us about that.

KELEMEN: Well, the Bush administration was really pleased that the Iraqi parliament over the weekend passed this law to let former Baath party members get government jobs. And President Bush said he decided Rice should go to build on that momentum. The secretary had a news conference tonight here in Riyadh, and she said that the legislation might not have been exactly what everyone wanted, but she said this is, and this is a quote, "fragile as it is, it's clear that the Iraqi people are finding their way toward reconciliation."

BLOCK: Michele, President Bush started this trip in Israel and the West Bank, and he was sounding very optimistic there about the prospects for peace. What did he have to say about Middle East peace today with the Saudis?

KELEMEN: Well, he told reporters that as he's been travelling throughout this region, he's been in other Gulf states as well, that the Palestinian issue is — this is the way he brought it, he said it's kind of a touchstone on the mind of a lot of people here and a lot of other problems in the Middle East. So you solve this one and then a lot of other problems go away. And he said, I hope they're right.

What he's been talking about here is that he wants to see Arab states reach out to Israel. Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, said he doesn't know how much more outreach his country can give the Israelis. Saudi Arabia has offered to normalize ties after a peace deal is agreed. And he said Saudi Arabia, you know, has this peace plan that it has on offer, and he said that it includes security for Israel. Secretary Rice said she thinks that the Saudis and others could do a little bit more.

BLOCK: The president has also been talking about his hopes for political reform in the region. He talked about that in a speech in Abu Dhabi. Did he raise that same issue or did he talk about repression, say, there in Saudi Arabia?

KELEMEN: Secretary Rice said that it's an issue that always comes up in his conversations. She said that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have a kind of a relationship where they can talk about these issues. She said she's never gotten a stonewall from her Saudi colleague on these issues. But she wasn't specific at all. She didn't even talk, for instance, about the lack of women's rights here. And when she was asked if she raised an issue of a jailed Saudi blogger, she said she's raised that before with the ambassador. So she didn't get specific, really, at all.

BLOCK: Okay. Thanks a lot, Michele. That's NPR's Michele Kelemen in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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