CRAWFORD, Texas - President Bush prodded Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Abdullah on Monday to help curb skyrocketing oil prices, and the White House expressed hope that the kingdom's plans would ease U.S. gasoline prices that have shot above $2.20 a gallon.
"A high oil price will damage markets and he knows that," Bush said of Abdullah, the de facto leader of the desert kingdom.
Asked whether pump prices would drop, Bush said that would depend on supply and demand.
"One thing is for certain: The price of crude is driving the price of gasoline," Bush said. "The price of crude is up because not only is our economy growing, but economies such as India and China's economies are growing."
Saudi Arabia has outlined a plan to increase production capacity to 12.5 million barrels a day by 2009 from the current 11 million limit. Saudi Arabia now pumps about 9.5 million barrels daily. If necessary, Saudi Arabia says it will eventually develop a capacity of 15 million barrels a day.
National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the plan could be seen as positive news by financial markets.
"The problem in the oil market now is a perception that there is inadequate capacity," Hadley said. Reassurance that can be given to the market on available supply, he said, should "have a downward pressure on the price."
On another economic issue, the United States and Saudi Arabia are on the verge of a bilateral trade agreement that would allow the Gulf nation to join the World Trade Organization, "god willing by the end of the year," said Abdullah's foreign affairs adviser, Adel Al-Jubeir, told reporters.
Other pressing issues, including terrorism, prospects for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, Syria's future role in Lebanon and democratic change in the Middle East filled the leaders' meeting and discussion over lunch. They agreed to set up a high-level committee, headed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Saudi foreign minister, to deal with strategic issues.
Spreading democracy is a second-term goal that could affect Bush's legacy, yet high gas prices are a drag on his popularity right now.
A recent Associated Press-AOL poll found the public giving the president low marks for his handling of energy problems, with 62 percent saying they disapproved. Earlier in April, another AP survey found public dissatisfaction growing more generally, with Bush's job approval rating at 44 percent.
Al-Jubeir said Saudi Arabia is producing all the oil that its customers are requesting. He said the price is being driven up by a shortage of refining capacity.
"What we have done is explain to the U.S. what our production capabilities are," he told reporters about the meeting. "We also explained to the U.S. - and we have for months - what our plans are for adding to that capacity in the future years."
Hadley said the two leaders talked about Saudi Arabia's commitment to invest in increased production.
"The Saudis have some questions about refinery capability on our side and what they can do on their side with respect to refinery capacity," he said. "I think there's more discussion that needs to be done on that issue. ... What really came was a plan for increasing production through substantial investment - to the tune of about $50 billion over time. So it's a major initiative that they've undertaken."
A U.S. push for democratic change across the Arab world faces a difficult test with Saudi Arabia, a longtime ally ruled by a monarchy. Last week, Saudi Arabia completed its first nationwide elections, an experiment in democracy designed to take the steam out of militant Islamic movements.
The council posts that were on the ballots, however, have little power, and women were not allowed to vote. Moreover, the United States has long-standing concerns about human and civil rights in Saudi Arabia.
A joint statement by the two leaders reflected tensions over the issue of democratic change. It said: "While the United States considers that nations will create institutions that reflect the history, culture and traditions of their societies, it does not seek to impose its own style of government on the government and people of Saudi Arabia."
Both nations also agreed to cooperate in fighting terrorists. U.S.-Saudi relations were strained after the 2001 terrorist attacks, in which 15 of the 19 airplane hijackers were Saudis. But American officials have been much more satisfied with anti-terror efforts the Saudis have undertaken since militants' May 2003 attacks in Riyadh. Saudi officials have arrested hundreds and put new controls on the financing of terrorism from their country.
The president was accused during last year's presidential campaign of being too cozy with Saudi officials. But he paid such criticism no public mind. On Monday, he offered Abdullah a warm embrace and a kiss on both cheeks and gripped his hand as they disappeared into an office building on the ranch where bluebonnets, the Texas state flower, were making their spring debut.