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Thursday, 25 April, 2002, 15:06 GMT 16:06 UK
Analysis: Tough task for Saudi prince
Crown Prince Abdullah
Abdullah wants backing for a Mid-East peace plan
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By Frank Gardner
BBC Middle East analyst

Down on the ranch in Texas, the gloves are coming off.

Saudi Arabia's plain-speaking Crown Prince Abdullah is carrying a blunt message for the US president: use your influence to rein in Israel's Ariel Sharon or risk a damaging rupture with the Arab world.

Pro-Israel rally in Washington
Polls show most Americans sympathise with Israel
But all the signs are that the septuagenarian Saudi prince will have to shout to make himself heard above a chorus of contrary advice.

Influential hawks in Congress, the Pentagon, the National Security Agency and the CIA all blame Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian militants for the recent violence in the Middle East.

America's powerful pro-Israel lobby is pushing for more assistance to the Israeli Government, not less.

A recent opinion poll in the Washington Post showed that 49% of Americans sympathise with Israel, as compared with just 14% for the Palestinians.

Of those polled, 60% want US assistance to Israel ($3bn a year) maintained at current levels.

Suicide bombings

All of this is helping to steer President Bush towards delivering his own message to Crown Prince Abdullah: do more to condemn terrorism, especially the suicide bombings inside Israel.

Saudi fundraising
Saudi Arabia sent money to bombers' families

It would be interesting to be a fly on the wall in Texas when that particular request is translated for the Saudi guest.

Saudi imams (prayer leaders) have been praising suicide bombers as martyrs engaged in a legitimate fight to end the Israeli occupation of Arab land.

Last week, Saudi Arabia's state media took part in a telethon that raised millions of dollars for bereaved Palestinians, with large donations going to the families of suicide bombers.

Crown Prince Abdullah has vigorously rejected recent accusations in the US media that his country is sponsoring terrorism.

In the wake of 11 September his office hired a US public relations company to improve the Saudi image and to brief the media on his Arab-Israeli peace proposal that was adopted by the Arab summit in Beirut last month.

But no amount of spin can hide the cracks in the US-Saudi relationship and this week's meeting will give a strong indication of how much the two countries still have in common.

Saudi options

A new and effective US impetus towards a fair settlement of the Palestinian problem would be seen as a major achievement for Crown Prince Abdullah.

US troops at a Saudi air base
Saudi Arabia allows US forces to use its air bases

But if President Bush chooses to just listen and do nothing then the Saudis have few cards left to play.

True, they could threaten an oil embargo.

But this isn't 1973. America could look elsewhere for its oil, and Saudi Arabia would end up poorer.

Yes, they could ask US forces to leave Saudi bases.

But those forces, mainly airmen, are providing the Saudis with daily intelligence on what Saddam Hussein is up to, just across the common border.

And yes, Saudi Arabia could threaten a boycott of US business.

But Saudi professionals know that would be ruinous to an economy that needs western investment and technology.

Relations under threat

In the end, almost the only weapon left in the Saudi armoury is the warning of what might be to come.

America's perceived bias towards Israel is already putting a heavy strain on its Arab allies - namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan.

If the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was to worsen dramatically, with no effective intervention from America, then moderate Arab regimes may be forced to cut ties with Washington, simply to ensure their own survival.

But even as the US and Saudi leaders sit down in Texas, there are those in Washington who believe that particular scenario is a price worth paying, for supporting their friends in Israel.

Frank Gardner is a correspondent for BBC's Newsnight programme

See also:

25 Apr 02 | Middle East
Saudis to press US over Israel
16 Mar 02 | Middle East
Saudis press Cheney on Israel
12 Mar 02 | Americas
US freezes Saudi charity assets
28 Feb 02 | Middle East
Saudi looks to repair dented image
29 Jan 02 | Middle East
Saudi Arabia 'still friends' with US
23 Sep 01 | Middle East
Gulf states back US
26 Mar 02 | Middle East
Profile: Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah
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