RIYADH (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush, trying to counter Iran’s growing military clout, made clear his commitment on Monday to go ahead with a major arms sale to Saudi Arabia as he began his first visit to the Islamic kingdom.
Just hours after his arrival in Riyadh, the U.S. administration said it notified Congress of its intention to offer the Saudis a controversial package of advanced weaponry as part of a multibillion-dollar deal with Gulf Arab allies.
The deal has raised concerns in Israel and among some of its allies about the military balance of power in the region.
The sale appeared to be part of Bush’s effort to persuade Saudi Arabia, one of the Arab world’s most influential states, to help contain Iran and offset what he has branded a danger to the oil-rich region and to the world’s security.
Nearing the final stages of his most extensive Middle East tour, Bush flew from Dubai to Riyadh for talks with King Abdullah, ruler of the world’s biggest oil-producing nation.
Abdullah embraced Bush at the foot of his Air Force One presidential jet and they walked together down a red carpet flanked by a military honor guard as music played.
As the two leaders met at the monarch’s palace in Riyadh, the U.S. State Department announced the arms deal notification, which gives any lawmakers who oppose it 30 days to block it.
Bush was trying not only to keep the Saudis aligned against Iran but also to persuade them to support a U.S.-led drive to help Israel and the Palestinians make peace.
Saudi Arabia is considered a linchpin for any broader Israeli-Arab reconciliation as Bush presses Israelis and the Palestinians to forge a peace treaty before he leaves office in January 2009. The effort has drawn heavy skepticism.
Iran loomed large in Bush’s talks with Abdullah. While Gulf Arabs share U.S. concerns about curbing their powerful Shi’ite neighbor, they want to avoid another war on their doorstep.
“All agreed it’s a difficult problem that needs to be addressed, and at this point pursued in a diplomatic fashion,” Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, told reporters when asked how Gulf Arab leaders had reacted to the president’s entreaties on Iran.
Analysts say there are growing signs that America’s Arab allies prefer to engage Iran, as Saudi Arabia did by inviting Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the haj pilgrimage. He was the first Iranian president to receive an official invitation to the annual Muslim ritual.
Ratcheting up the rhetoric, Bush declared in a speech in Abu Dhabi this week that Iran was “the world’s leading state sponsor of terror”. Tehran denounced Bush’s comments as “words without value”.
Bush’s trip is aimed partly at clearing up confusion among Arab allies about a U.S. intelligence report that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003, contradicting Bush’s earlier assertions that Tehran was actively pursuing a bomb.
Bush, visiting the Gulf after talks in Israel and the West Bank, was asking Arab allies to support Palestinian moderates involved in peace talks and to “reach out” to Israel.
Bush scored a diplomatic coup by persuading the Saudis to attend a Middle East peace conference in Maryland last year.
But Saudi Arabia says “normalization” will come only with a final peace deal that returns all Arab land occupied by the Jewish state in the 1967 war.
The Saudi arms deal stems from Bush’s proposal last year to offer Gulf Arab states some $20 billion in weapons, including Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bomb kits for the Saudis.
The plan angered Israel’s backers in Washington, but Israeli security sources said this week that the United States would provide the Jewish state with better “smart bombs” than those it plans to sell Saudi Arabia.
The deal unveiled on Monday called for 900 JDAMs valued at $120 million for the Saudis, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
With the high price of oil on many Americans’ minds, White House officials acknowledged that Bush had raised the issue with Gulf Arab leaders this week.
But they declined to say whether any promises had been made, and said it was not known whether Bush had discussed oil with Abdullah. The Saudis wield the greatest clout in OPEC.
Bush spends two nights in Saudi Arabia before going to Egypt on Wednesday for the final stop of his weeklong trip.
Editing by Caroline Drees