TABUK, Saudi Arabia, (AP) -Vice President Dick Cheney worked to overcome Saudi skepticism over the U.S. military strategy to secure Baghdad and the leadership capabilities of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Cheney met with King Abdullah at a royal palace in this northern city on Saturday. The king, while considered an important U.S. ally in the Arab world, increasingly has sent signals that he doubts the effectiveness of President Bush’s troop buildup in Iraq.
Abdullah also has signaled that he sees al-Maliki as a weak leader with too many ties to pro-Iranian Shiite parties to be effective in reaching out to Iraqi’s Sunni minority. Saudi Arabia has a predominantly Sunni Muslim population.
Cheney was given a red-carpet arrival ceremony at the airport. At the palace, as he and the king exchanged pleasantries, Abdullah asked about the first President Bush. The elder Bush assembled a broad international coalition, including Saudi Arabia, to confront Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.
Cheney, who was Bush’s defense secretary, said the former president was doing well. “He’s still willing to jump out of airplanes,” Cheney said. For his 80th birthday, Bush made a 13,000-foot tandem parachute jump over his presidential library in Texas in 2004; the 41st president, now 82, jumped alone on his 75th birthday.
“I did not want to do it when I was 60 and he’s done it twice now,” the 66-year-old Cheney said.
Cheney is touring Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states in an attempt to win wider support for ethnic reconciliation in Iraq and to counter efforts by Iran to spread its influence in the region.
After a four-hour meeting with the king that included dinner, Cheney headed for Aqaba, Jordan, to spend the evening before meetings on Sunday. He was expected to visit Egypt later on a weeklong trip that began in Iraq.
Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride told reporters after arriving in Jordan that Cheney had “a very good meeting” with the Saudi king. “They discussed a wide range of regional issues and tonight’s meeting served to reaffirm and strengthen old friendships,” she said.
Earlier Saturday, Cheney urged greater support for U.S. policies in Iraq when he held meetings in Abu Dhabi with leaders of the United Arab Emirates.
A senior Bush administration official traveling with Cheney said afterward that the Emirates’ president, Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, pledged to do as much as possible to support the struggling Iraqi government.
Iran also was a major focus of the meeting, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. The Emirates’ leaders, the official said, were keenly aware of the looming presence of Iran, a $20 billion a year trading partner. “They have a very large neighbor less than a hundred miles away,” the official said.
The UAE maintains close ties with the U.S., which has three air bases in the Emirates, yet must exist in the virtual shadow of a much larger and more powerful neighbor just across the Straits of Hormuz, through which pass roughly a quarter of the world’s oil supplies.
Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was scheduled to visit the Emirates on Sunday, is trying to persuade the Gulf states to drop their military alliances with Washington.
Cheney’s mission to Saudi Arabia included an effort to smooth over recent divisions between the oil-rich kingdom and the United States.
The kingdom has taken an aggressive leadership role in efforts to quiet Mideast troubles. In a possible attempt to gain more credibility in the region, Abdullah recently has openly challenged the U.S. military presence in Iraq, calling U.S. troops in Iraq an “illegal foreign occupation.”
The king refused to see al-Maliki when the Iraqi prime minister toured Arab countries late last month.
Cheney went to Saudi Arabia last November for meetings, requested by the king, that are still shrouded in secrecy.
Reports at the time suggested the two discussed what role Saudi Arabia might play in reaching out to Iraq’s Sunni minority as conditions in that country deteriorate.
This time, the king did not request the meeting. Cheney was sent to the region by Bush.