Bush Visits U.A.E., Continues Push for Mideast Peace

President Bush is in the United Arab Emirates and heads next to Saudi Arabia. Both states are allies of the U.S., but that comes with some caveats. Part of the trip is aimed at reenergizing Mideast peace talks and keeping pressure on Iran.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

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.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Bush Visits Saudi Arabia Amid Changing Alliance

President Bush visits Saudi Arabia on Monday, a nation that has struggled to maintain good relations with Washington while also trying to rein in Islamic radicals at home.

The al-Qaida attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, sparked a wave of animosity and suspicion toward Saudi Arabia, the country of origin for many of the hijackers. If anything, though, Saudis say the rocky road of the past five years has shown the durability of their long alliance with the U.S.

It is a relationship founded on oil and the Saudi commitment to seeing that vast Middle East reserves continue to flow to the energy-hungry West.

But that relationship has altered significantly in recent years. These days, China and India are more dependent on Saudi oil than the U.S., which has diversified its suppliers. At the same time, although most U.S. troops have been moved out of the kingdom, the security component of the relationship has moved to the forefront as Riyadh and Washington share intelligence and resources in the fight against Islamist militants.

It was the 2003 al-Qaida attacks in Saudi Arabia that helped change the American perception of the kingdom from an exporter of militants to a target of Islamist violence. Saudi officials say those attacks also turned the local population against al-Qaida.

Gen. Mansour al-Turki, spokesman for the Saudi Interior Ministry, said security forces have been able to thwart a series of attacks in recent years in part because of much more active assistance from the public.

"They have recognized that the al-Qaida ideology is an ideology to inflame terrorism rather than trying to set up a new approach for Muslim societies," he said.

Al-Turki also said communication in other areas remains poor. Last week, for instance, the national security adviser in the U.S.-backed government in Iraq announced that "hundreds" of Saudis had been arrested in Iraq on suspicion of militant activities and were ready to be returned to their homeland. Saudis learned about that announcement in the media, al-Turki said, because except for an occasional conference, the two security forces rarely communicate.

"We're surprised that sometimes a Saudi could be arrested in Iraq and then released again inside Iraq," he said.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Saudis say, it was the invasion of Iraq that has had the most profound effect on U.S.-Saudi relations. Saleh al-Mani, dean of the college of law and political science at King Saud University, said the invasion and the way it was handled, led inevitably to the current crisis with Iran by removing Saddam Hussein and his Sunni bulwark against the regional ambitions of the Shiite leadership.

"The invasion of Iraq has really disturbed the balance of power in the region," al-Mani said. "So we have now a problem with Iran having so much influence in the region and in Iraq."

Many Saudis say they are baffled by U.S. policy toward Iran, but they are most worried about another military conflict on their doorstep. Al-Mani said the U.S. would be wise to let diplomacy and sanctions have their full effect, because Iranians appear to be getting fed up with hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his allies.

"There is a strategic change going on in this part of the world, whereby Iran is really trying to play the big card," al-Mani said. "But they're playing the big card on the military level — and they're losing. It's costing them economically. We have one year left in Ahmadinejad's administration, so I think perhaps the next administration will be much more cooperative, like Khatami and so on."

Iran's relatively moderate former President Mohammad Khatami has been more vocal lately. Many American conservatives are pressing for aggressive action against the current leadership. Saudis hope that their relations with this American president, which began amid terrorism, war and Middle East turmoil doesn't end the same way.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.