Bush faces chilly reception in Egypt

Anticipating the arrival of US President George W. Bush on Wednesday, Egyptian Islamists, liberals and leftists found common ground on Tuesday in criticizing the controversial leader”s planned four-hour visit to the Red Sea coast. Saad al-Katatny, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood”s parliamentary group, told a demonstration on Tuesday: “We have come to express the Egyptian people”s anger at US policy in the region. We reject the visit, which is aimed at … invading Gaza and preventing the return of Palestinian refugees.”

Still in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, Bush urged the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) nations to put more oil on the world market, warning that soaring prices could cause an economic slowdown in the US.

“Don”t get me wrong – paying more for gasoline hurts some of the American families,” Bush told a small group of reporters before heading into more talks with Saudi King Abdullah. “And I”ll make that clear to him.”

Shortly after Bush spoke, the Saudi oil minister said the kingdom, responsible for almost one-third of OPEC”s total output, would raise oil production when the market justified it.

“When consumers have less purchasing power, it could cause the economy to slow down,” Bush said. “I hope OPEC nations put more supply on the market … It would be helpful.”

At the same time, Bush acknowledged that there is little excess capacity in the marketplace. “A lot of these oil-producing countries are full out” in terms of what they can produce, he said.

And he said a growing demand for oil, especially from India and China, is helping to strain supply and lift prices. Many economists agree, saying oil prices may not fall much even if Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries raise production.

Asked whether he thought the US economy was sliding toward recession, as some economists predict, Bush said, “These are times of economic uncertainty, but I have confidence in the future.”

In Washington, two government reports released Tuesday added to fears of a recession: Wholesale inflation shot up in 2007 by the largest amount in 26 years and retail sales fell in December. Bush”s administration and Congress are looking at ways, such as tax cuts, tax rebates or other incentives, to give the economy a boost. Bush declined to discuss specific steps. “We”re going to watch very carefully,” he said.

The Saudi oil minister, Ali Naimi, said that the US economy is significant to the oil market and demand.

“All our effort is to maintain prosperity and growth in all countries, particularly the number one consuming nation in the world,” Naimi said.

But, the minister said: “The concern for the US economy is valid, but what affects the US economy is more than the supply of oil.”

Earlier, Bush spoke before meeting with Saudi business owners, many of them young and educated in the United States. He then visited Al-Murabba Palace and the National Museum, stopping in a gallery describing the Prophet Mohammad”s life.

Later, Bush rode out in the desert to the king”s weekend retreat and farm where 260 Arabian horses are kept in air-conditioned stables. On a chilly afternoon, the two men sat in a glass-enclosed viewing room and watched as a trainer paraded sleek horses around a showing ring outside.

The excursion repays the two visits that the king, while crown prince, made to Bush”s ranch in Crawford, Texas, in 2002 and 2005.

Arriving for dinner later, the American president wore a full-length fur-lined robe, and a sweater underneath against the cold temperatures. The president was preceded by an incense-bearer who left a trail of pungent smoke. Bush was spending the night at the ranch and having breakfast with the king before leaving for Egypt on Wednesday.

Bush will spend less than four hours in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Wednesday on his way between Saudi Arabia and Washington. He will see Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak but is not expected to answer any questions.

The brevity of the visit and the choice of venue, hundreds of kilometers from large population centers, suggested that the US and Egyptian governments are wary of putting Bush into contact with many ordinary Egyptians.

The newspaper of one opposition party, a faction of the liberal Ghad Party, stated in a headline: “The state of Sharm el-Sheikh receives the American butcher.”

The Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition group with one fifth of the seats in Parliament, has opposed the visit from the time it was announced, on the grounds that Bush”s aim is to help Israel and incite Arab governments against Iran.