CRAWFORD, Texas – Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, outlined a $50 billion plan Monday to boost production in what U.S. officials called a “very ambitious” step toward tamping down surging oil and gasoline prices.

Prince Abdullah, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, presented the plan to President Bush during talks at the president’s ranch.

U.S. officials said the 81-year-old prince also promised Saudi assistance in the Middle East peace process and continued cooperation in the war on terror.

In a joint statement afterward, the two leaders vowed “to forge a new relationship” and move beyond more than three years of tension following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against the United States. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia.

Evidence of the thaw was visible in tiny Crawford when the Saudi prince, clad in a white headdress and dark brown robe, swept into The Coffee Station, a popular local cafe, and spent nearly 20 minutes chatting through an interpreter with Nick and Dorothy Spanos, the owners.

A member of the prince’s entourage ordered a cheeseburger and fries, but the visitors left before the order arrived.

The discussions over energy came against a backdrop of spiraling oil prices, which, in turn, have resulted in rising U.S. gasoline prices, escalating calls for the United States to reduce its dependence on foreign oil.

Saudi Arabia, which sits on one-fourth of the global oil supply, is the world’s leading oil producer and exporter. About 15 percent of U.S. oil consumption comes from Saudi Arabia, according to Energy Information Administration.

Under the plan detailed on Monday, Saudi Arabia would increase daily production from 9.5 million barrels a day to 12.5 million a day by the end of the decade, increasing to 15 million barrels after that.

Saudi Oil Minister Ali al Naimi has previously unveiled elements of the initiative, and Saudi officials presented further details during Monday’s discussions.

Saudi Arabia is believed to be pumping oil at near capacity, and any investment to boost its extraction would be unlikely to have any effect on world oil prices for three years or more, according to experts.

Adel al Jubeir, Abdullah’s foreign affairs adviser, said the kingdom is ready to boost production to meet demand, but he suggested that Saudi Arabia could play only a limited role in curbing oil prices. Consuming nations must also seek other solutions, including expanding refining capacity, he said.

The White House nevertheless welcomed the Saudi announcement.

“The Saudis really came with a plan,” said White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, who joined Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in briefing reporters. He called the development “good news for the markets” that would have “a positive effect on prices.”

Prior to Abdullah’s arrival, Bush told reporters that the crown prince “understands that it’s very important” to ensure “a reasonable price” for oil. “A high oil price will damage markets, and he knows that,” Bush said.

The president also briefly turned his attention toward Washington, saying, “now is the time” for Congress to pass his energy bill.

Consumer anger over rising gasoline prices has figured in a downturn in Bush’s popularity ratings. Oil prices have risen steadily over the past year. Crude oil prices are now approaching $56 a barrel.

A contrast

Monday’s summit reflected what Rice and Hadley called a very positive relationship between the two leaders and contrasted with the tense start of their first meeting at Bush’s ranch three years ago, months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

During that first encounter, Abdullah lectured Bush about U.S support for Israel. The latest talks, Hadley said, included a walk on the ranch with only an interpreter and an extensive working lunch that “permitted some good, candid and informal conversation.”

Abdullah, who’s making a five-day trip to United States, arrived in Texas over the weekend with an entourage of high-level officials, including members of the royal family and government ministers.

The Saudi leader stopped in Dallas for a private meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney on Sunday.

The Saudi delegation will return to Dallas for an invitation-only dinner Tuesday with more than 300 Texas business leaders to promote economic ties between the two countries.

Saudi leaders recently announced plans to draw $623 billion in foreign investment over the next 15 years, primarily from the United States.

Saudi Arabia recently completed a series of municipal elections that constituted the government’s first limited experiment in democracy in more than four decades, but the United States is pushing for more aggressive reforms, including more rights for women, who were excluded from the elections.

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