Saudis Now Dis Bush and Put Their Hopes on Obama

A senior Saudi official refers to the "trials and tribulations" of the recent Bush years.

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In the latter part of the Bush administration, a few signs of deepening Saudi Arabian unhappiness with U.S. policy were breaking out. King Abdullah decided to opt out of an invitation to a formal state dinner at the Bush White House. And the monarch breezily rebuffed Bush's plea to increase oil production to bring relief to American gasoline consumers at a time of high prices.

Just how deeply disappointed the Saudi royal family must have been with George W. Bush, who along with his father once enjoyed personally cordial ties with the royals, became a bit clearer on Monday at a conference in Washington. "Trials and tribulations of the recent past" is how the kingdom's current minister of commerce and industry, Abdullah Alireza, described the Bush years.

He also referred to the last eight years as a "long hibernation." That was an apparent reference to the Saudi (and widespread Arab) view that the Bush administration had taken a long absence from even-handed mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Alireza called for a "new, value-added relationship between our two countries." He urged a relationship that goes beyond traditional ties largely based on oil supplies to matters that involve "intellectual capital and knowledge-sharing" as Saudi Arabia seeks to propel its economy into new sectors. He was speaking at a conference sponsored by the New America Foundation and the Committee for International Trade of the Saudi Chambers of Commerce.

In contrast to his only slightly veiled criticism of Bush policy, Alireza said that President Obama's early moves are being warmly welcomed in Saudi Arabia as "a serious glimmer of hope." Obama has embarked on an effort to reach out to Muslim communities around the world and has promised to re-energize Mideast peace diplomacy.

Saudi annoyance with the Bush administration was driven first and foremost by Bush's decision to invade neighboring Iraq in 2003. The kingdom's diplomats, while no fans of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, feared that U.S. military intervention would trigger violence between Shiites and Sunnis, lead to Shiite control, and open a path for Iranian influence. To varying degrees, all of those things happened.

The Saudis also faulted Bush for maintaining what they regarded as such tight ties to Israel—to the exclusion of Arab views—that Washington was incapable of netting significant progress on the peace process. And the Saudis saw the Bush administration as unwilling to push Israel to curb military attacks on Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza that resulted in civilian deaths. A Saudi-authored outline for peace also languished during the period.

The Saudis made clear that they still have their worries. Alireza warned that an attack on Iran would "open up a Wild West in the Middle East." He added, "Saudi Arabia probably would be one of the first casualties after an attack on Iran by certain quarters," presumably a reference to Israel.

Prince Turki Al-Faisal, a former Saudi ambassador to Washington and former head of the Saudi intelligence services, cautioned that "the time is drawing short" for moves to implement an Israeli-Palestinian peace. And on Pakistan, Al-Faisal contended that U.S. drone attacks on terrorist suspects were undermining Pakistan's military, an institution he described as key to stability there.