Bush in the Middle East: What he learned and left behind

A country-by-country post-mortem.

bush israel 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
bush israel 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Few would say that the Middle East felt any drastic changes after US President George W. Bush ended his eight-day tour of the region this week. The hyped-up expectations ahead of his visit, indeed, left many with a feeling of deja vu. The underlying aim of Bush's visit to the region, which included stops in Israel, the West Bank, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, was to cement Bush's legacy a year before his term ends. Some of the motivation for the trip may be related to the economic benefits of Washington's cooperation with the oil-rich Gulf countries, but there are other factors that were also at play here. Bush would like to push the Israeli-Palestinian peace process forward, promote democracy among the US's Middle Eastern allies, and muster support for Washington's hard-line approach to Iran's nuclear program. But did the president leave the Middle East with what he wanted? In several of his destinations Bush was warmly welcomed by the leaders, but on the streets he was dismissed as persona non grata. Israel[Jerusalem] Bush began the visit in Israel, a recipient of considerable aid from Washington and a strong strategic ally of the US in the Middle East. Most Israelis consider the US supportive of Israel, but Bush has set a standard of support that future presidents will find hard to match. Various organizations used the opportunity to push their agenda while they had the eyes and ears of the most powerful man in the free world. Public appeals included demonstrations pressing for the cessation of negotiations with the Palestinians while terrorist attacks continue, protests against incitement in the Palestinian curriculum and a billboard campaign in Jerusalem urging Bush to free Jonathan Pollard, an American Jew convicted in the US of spying for Israel. Bush reiterated his understanding of Israel's security concerns, which have resulted in measures that limit freedom of movement for Palestinians. He was also clear in maintaining a hard line towards Iran's nuclear program and Teheran's verbal attacks on Israel. But MK Yuval Steinitz (Likud) said these expressions of support are not new, and "go without saying." Bush's visit was no more than a token gesture of friendship, Steinitz said. In Steinitz's view, rather than thinking about the future of Israel, Olmert is far more concerned about using the Bush visit to secure his own position, especially since the Winograd report, due to be published in two weeks, is expected to sharply criticize his performance during the 2006 Second Lebanon war, and might again prompt calls for the premier's resignation. MK Michael Nudelman, from the ruling Kadima party, said that it was good for Israel to welcome such a powerful leader. However, he cautioned, the visit could turn out to be damaging to Israel because Bush is rushing both sides into a process that needs to be handled slowly and carefully. "Our leaders just nod and jump into negotiations," Nudelman said. "Bush is making things move faster than they should." Palestinian Territories[Ramallah] President Bush was given a warm official welcome on a chilly day in Ramallah. But the Palestinian street was skeptical he would bring them the future they hoped for. Bush is often portrayed in the Palestinian media as a warmongering cowboy who dictates his policies to the Arab world. Israel is often depicted as Washington's sidekick or favored protégé. However, there was still an element of optimism among some Palestinian analysts. Hisham Abdallah, a Palestinian journalist, said the fact that the president was in Ramallah talking about a Palestinian state was not a matter to be taken lightly. "It's meant to create momentum that was lost after the Annapolis conference," he explained. The problem, Abdallah said, is that Bush is not likely to apply any pressure on the Israelis to make concessions on the main points of the negotiations. Views on the Palestinian street tend to be less optimistic. "He did not make progress in peace over the past seven years, and I don't think he will do it now," said Kareem Elian, 31, sitting in the grocery store near Al-Manara Square in the center of Ramallah. But what really upset some people was the Bush refusal to pay a visit to the grave of Yasser Arafat. "That was an insult to all of us. Arafat is the symbol of the Palestinians. To march by without stopping - that wasn't nice," said Farah Hussein, a 25-year-old journalism student. "He came to add more checkpoints and curfews on the people, who have been suffering from these measures by Israel for almost four decades," said 45-year-old Abu Ahmad. Kuwait[Kuwait City] The US president's two-day visit to Kuwait was marked by discussions with Emir Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah over the contentious issue of citizens still being held at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, as well as the Iranian nuclear file, the situation in Iraq and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. In a press statement to state-run news agency KUNA after the two leaders met, Deputy Foreign Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sheikh Mohammed Sabah Al-Sabah said His Highness pointed out at the meeting that the continued detention of four Kuwaitis at Guantanamo was "an insult to the principle of American justice," and hoped that they would be handed over to Kuwaiti authorities. He added that, "President Bush promised to take this request into serious consideration and notify us as soon as possible about measures that will be taken in this regard," according to the news agency's report. The issue was brought up again during a roundtable discussion on developing democracy with 10 prominent female activists the next day, when Maasouma Al-Mubarak, Kuwait's first-ever female cabinet minister, said: "Regarding the issues we really have in mind, Mr. President, as women and as mothers, we're really asking you, as a person and as a leader of the great United States, to put an end to the agony of mothers in Kuwait, for the people and for our fellow citizens in Guantanamo." "He [Bush] said two [Kuwaitis] would be charged and he would work toward releasing the other two if there aren't any accusations against them," Rola Al-Dashti, chairperson of the Kuwait Economic Society, told the Associated Press after the meeting. In a conflicting report issued on the same day by AFP, citing the newly launched Al-Wasat daily, informed sources were quoted as saying that the US authorities had informed Kuwait that its remaining citizens detained at Guantanamo did not constitute a danger to American national security. The daily quoted the sources as saying the prisoners would be released before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins by mid-September. AFP went on to quote Sheikh Mohammed as saying he would travel to Washington within the "next few days" carrying a letter from the emir to the US administration regarding the Kuwaiti detainees in Guantanamo. He also confirmed reports that promises had been made to free Kuwaitis from the prison, but denied that a date had been set for their release. There has been no official White House statement confirming this information. Before departing for Bahrain, Bush met with Commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq David Petraeus and US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker at Camp Arifjan where he was briefed about the situation on the ground. Bush then addressed the approximately 2,000 troops stationed at the camp. Bahrain[Manama] President Bush's trip to Bahrain was choreographed from beginning to end, said Jalal Feirouz Ghuloum, a member of Bahrain's parliamentary Foreign Affairs, Defense and National Security Committee. Feirouz is a high-ranking official within the Al-Wifaq party, which holds 17 seats in Bahrain's parliament. "Bahrain was waiting for and expecting a great deal from Bush; now that he is gone, we can't help asking, why did he bother? Nothing was signed, nothing was agreed. To us it feels like it was just a PR exercise, but we can't work out what was being publicized." Bahrain's ruler, Sheikh Hamad Bin Issa Al Khalifa, said in his welcome address that, "Bahrain considers the US a friend, an ally, and a partner and appreciates the continued support and keenness to ensure peace and progress for all, out of our common belief in the values of freedom, pluralism, human rights and empowerment for women." Bush stressed the friendship between the US and the people of Bahrain and spoke of the US basing its navy's Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and the free trade agreement with Bahrain. Feirouz agreed this has positive implications, but only up to a point. Strong ties, he thinks, mean more arms sales, which is bad for the people of Bahrain. "We have a very good relationship with the US and the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) will go some way towards improving trade. But we do not need the weapons, and if the US were to put the proper levels of pressure on Israel, we would not need them at all." In the past, Feirouz has complained that the main obstacle to stability in the region is Israel, which forces Bahrain to spend a large percentage of its budget on defense. NATO would never get involved in a solution for the conflict, he said, because the US controls the alliance. "Each year, every government in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) spends one third of their budgets on arms. Why?" Feirouz asked. "We have no history of conflict with anyone, but because of perceived hostilities coming from Israel, each country has huge military resources." That money, he believed, could be better spent on healthcare, schools and universities. Bush, he said, is surrounded by the military and weapons dealers. It is in their interests to create the impression of threats from countries like Iran, but Feirouz does not think Iran is a threat at all. "Why would we feel threatened by a country which has never been to war with a GCC country?" Bahraini politicians have signed a condemnation of any military action toward Iran. Bush's welcome by Bahraini officials sparked a certain amount of protest. Anti-American and anti-Israeli slogans could be heard at many of the small demonstrations that were held. But Feirouz said this was not evidence of a divided country. "It is easy but wrong to assume that Bahrain's Shiite majority felt further marginalized by the welcome of a symbolic figure like Bush by the Sunni ruling minority," he said. "Whilst Bush stands for many things, he also stands for democracy and human rights, things that we are all campaigning for in Bahrain. The sides are not divided along a sectarian line; rather, they are divided between those who fight for these things and those who choose to keep them from the people. "That is what the demonstrations last month were about and that is what is hidden behind the anti-Bush rhetoric." UAE [Abu Dhabi] During most of Bush's visit to the Middle East, the focus was on diplomacy and peacemaking. The same was true of his visit to the United Arab Emirates, tucked between Saudi Arabia and, just across the Gulf, Iran. But in this wealthy state, comprised of seven different emirates, business is arguably key. Some in the UAE business community believe the very fact that Bush visited the UAE (for the first time) will in itself have boosted his view of the country. "Seeing is believing, when it comes to visiting the UAE, and you have to see it to believe it," said Kim Childs, president of the American Business Group of Abu Dhabi. "I believe the president will be even more enthusiastic in promoting open investment and trade between the two countries." Thousands of foreigners flock to the UAE seeking to make their fortune, but Westerners seeking riches in the country believe the UAE has a long way to go before it reaches its full potential. They see the expansion of the burgeoning economic relationship with the US as central to that growth. However, it would be misleading to think the UAE's economy depends on the United States, pointed out management consultant Jaser Al-Habashi, of DMD Consulting. "President Bush's visit to the region will... not have a direct impact on economic ties, but may perhaps instill a certain level of confidence in US investors, who may previously have shied away from investing in the UAE." Saudi Arabia [Riyadh] For some time, Saudis have regarded Bush as a lame duck. Has his first trip to Saudi Arabia changed that, and has it won over and inspired those who were skeptical that the US could play the role of honest broker in the region? While most Saudis witnessed the ceremonial pomp and handshaking of his arrival splashed across the state-run media, many confessed that they quickly switched channels to more palatable fare. Bush is not very popular here. In fact, his popularity rating is at rock bottom. Maha, a schoolteacher said: "The message was clear during his first stop in Israel. That was the first priority: Israel and its security and its people." Maha said that while Bush gave $30 billion in military aid to Israel (which trains US forces in surveillance and other military tactics), he is asking the Saudis to spend $20 billion on military aircraft, "weapons we don't need." Khaled, a bakery owner on the outskirts of Riyadh, added: "Mr. Bush is not here to promote a solution for the Palestinians. He is in the region to gather support against Iran. After what he's done in Afghanistan and Iraq, his advisers should have talked him out of this trip, because he will not get the agreements he wants, which is to make war against a neighboring country." Riyadh-based James, a long-time resident of the kingdom, said that "it's rather pathetic that he comes here now and puts on this silly show. His speech in Abu Dhabi was ridiculous. He doesn't have to come here to repeat his rather cartoonish and stereotypical story about Iran. He used the same vocabulary and arguments for Afghanistan and Iraq, and he isn't even creative enough to change them." Other Saudis asked about Bush's visit were equally negative, about both the arms deal with Saudi Arabia and about Bush himself. Not one interviewee had a positive response to the trip. Egypt [Sharm] President Bush's words praising the Egyptian people's efforts to achieve "progress towards political openness" were far from warmly received. There was general consensus that such words no longer enjoyed political credibility. Deputy Director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies Nabil Abdel-Fattah said: "I believe that the messages President Bush sends to the Egyptian government lack political credibility with Egypt's political community. The US is not serious about actively and effectively supporting these issues." Blogger Wael Abbas doubted Bush's sincerity, given his alliance with oppressive regimes such as those in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Abbas accused Bush of oppressing democracy by occupying Iraq and violating the civil liberties of Iraqi citizens. "All we ask is for him to stop hurting us by supporting the Mubarak regime. The money it receives from the US is used to buy rubber bullets and tear gas that the security apparatus uses against us!" he said. Abbas's reaction was shared by Gehan Shaaban, a journalist at the Center for Socialist Studies, who said that Bush's actions contradicted his words. "He used democracy as a card to achieve certain interests. Since the Islamists won elections in Palestine and Egypt, the US no longer mentions democracy as forcefully," he added. Conclusion Bush's trip is unlikely to alter the negative perceptions of America in the Middle East. While Bush may have strengthened ties with his strategic allies in the Middle East and secured some economic agreements during the high-profile visit, America still has a long way to go before it becomes popular in this part of the world. Reporting was contributed by Bassem Roomie in the West Bank, Johan Janssen in Kuwait, Tim Lyddiatt in Bahrain, Sherin Deghedy in the UAE, Tariq Al-Maeena in Saudi Arabia and Mandi Fahmy in Egypt.