Bush Visits U.A.E., Continues Push for Mideast Peace
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.
President Bush is in the United Arab Emirates today, and he heads next to Saudi Arabia. Both states are allies of the U.S., but that comes with some caveats. More on Saudi Arabia in a moment.
But first, we're joined by two NPR correspondents in the United Arab Emirates. NPR's Michele Kelemen is with the president in Dubai. NPR's Ivan Watson is in Abu Dhabi.
And Michele, we'll just start with you. Yesterday, the president gave a lecture on democracy in Abu Dhabi, but Iran seems to have been the main focus of his talk. Yesterday, he called Iran the world's leading state sponsor of terror.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Iran's actions threaten the security of nations everywhere. So the United States is strengthening our longstanding security commitments with our friends in the Gulf and rallying friends around the world to confront this danger before it is too late.
MONTAGNE: And what response does the president hope to get from rhetoric that's anti-Iran?
MICHELE KELEMEN: Well, the president - he's said a lot these things before, but it was doing it here, so close to Iran, that was to send a signal that he's still worried about Iran and he wants this region to pay attention to it.
MONTAGNE: How important is the United Arab Emirates to the U.S. strategy against Iran?
KELEMEN: Well, in some ways it would be crucial because this is a huge trading partner with Iran. But it's also a country that's not going to be going along with any sort of sanctions unless the sanctions come from the United Nations Security Council. You know, this is all a very long diplomatic road.
Dubai also is - it's interesting because this is also sort of a listening post for the State Department on Iran. They've beefed up the embassy here to have more Iran experts because there's such a big, not only trade, but a lot of Iranians who live here.
MONTAGNE: And turning to you, Ivan, you've been spending time talking to folks there in the Emirates, you know, on the street. What's their response both officially and unofficially to the idea that Iran is a threat?
IVAN WATSON: Well, Renee, I think that officials in the UAE will be, to some degree, reassured. They tell me, in confidence, that they are worried about Iran. One UAE official says that he believes, in fact, that Iran is working on a nuclear program. But at the same time, they blame the Bush administration's policies and what they say are mistakes in the region for setting up a situation that Iran has capitalized on, as one political analyst I talked to put it. He said that President Bush was only half-right in his speech yesterday. He was correct in assessing the Iranian threat to small, wealthy Arab oil kingdoms like the United Arab Emirates, but he said that that threat is the product of America's mishandling of the region over the past seven years.
MONTAGNE: Generally, what is the response to President Bush's visit?
WATSON: Well, he's pretty unpopular here among Emiraties, even though...
MONTAGNE: Although it's not traditionally anti-U.S. there.
WATSON: No, it's not. The U.S. is a vital military ally for the UAE. But this administration, in particular, is very unpopular here. The leading English language newspaper, which is normally very timid, published a front page open letter which condemned President Bush's human rights record, which condemned the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And there are a lot of questions coming from Emirati citizens - why is President Bush, why has he waited until the last 11 months of his presidency to come here? What can he really accomplish so late in his term?
And in addition to that, though, the rulers have unrolled the red carpet. They've showed President Bush everything from tents out in the desert to prize hunting falcons to a future community that's supposed to be carbon-free. And they have declared this a national holiday in Dubai. They've stopped all traffic in and out of that city as a security precaution, and that has prompted some residents to make the somewhat tongue-and-cheek congratulation to each other, Happy Bush Day - an example of local Emirate humor.
MONTAGNE: That was NPR's Ivan Watson and Michele Kelemen, both speaking to us from the United Arab Emirates.