"The crown prince understands that it is very important ... [to] make sure that the price is reasonable. A high oil price will damage markets, and he knows that," Bush said as he welcomed Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abd Allah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, on Monday.

"I look forward to talking to him about that," Bush said.

"We'll talk about his country's capacity; it's an important subject."

Saudi Arabia is the biggest producer within the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries.

"This is an important relationship," Bush added.

Aljazeera reported that besides oil prices, the two leaders were expected to discuss Middle East peace, reforms and the Lebanon situation.

The White House is facing growing consumer unease over oil prices that have gone steadily higher during the past year, reflecting the growing demand for energy in China and India and little new global production.

Policy criticised

"The price of crude is up because not only is our economy growing, but economies such as India and China are growing," Bush said.

Record-high prices were logged in April for US crude oil, which briefly topped $58 a barrel, and for nationwide retail petrol prices, which hit $2.28 a gallon.

Saudi Arabia's oil reserves make
up a quarter of the global total

Democrats criticised the Bush administration's energy policy. "It is wrong that the president has let our national energy policy go so awry that he is asking a foreign prince for favours," Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democratic representative, said.

"The passage of the Republican energy bill will, unfortunately, make things even worse, by raising gasoline prices while our oil dependence grows even more dangerous," he said in a statement.

The House of Representatives has approved an $8 billion energy bill with incentives to increase domestic production of crude oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear and other energy sources, and it would allow oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The Senate was expected to complete its version of the bill in May.

Mutual need

Saudi Arabia's image in America was tarnished after the 11 September 2001 attacks in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens and members of al-Qaida's network led by Usama bin Ladin, who was born in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has disavowed bin Ladin.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 angered Saudis. But US-Saudi ties strengthened after the kingdom took steps to capture or kill senior al-Qaida members within its borders.

Besides oil prices, reforms and
democracy are also on agenda

"We need the Saudis and they need us, despite the poor image of the United States in Saudi Arabia and their poor image here," said David Mack, vice-president at the Middle East Institute.

The Saudis are hoping for an agreement that would clear the way for the kingdom to join the World Trade Organisation and officials have been trying to iron out the last sticking points so it can be announced at the Bush-Abd Allah meeting.

The US wants barriers eased to allow more US corporate participation in the Saudi insurance, financial services and telecommunications markets.

The Saudis want the US to play a stronger role in the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, and Bush planned to discuss his efforts to promote democracy and peace in the Middle East as well as the "battle against terrorism".