MIDEAST: Bush Sent Home Empty-Handed

It is not often that a president of the United States tours the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries with a long wish-list. And less so when the ‘world’s most powerful leader’ returns home with just a few symbolic gains.

But that may describe George W. Bush’s visit to four of six GCC countries that ended on Tuesday. Apart from Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, Bush also visited Israel, the Palestinian territories and Egypt as part of his broader tour of the Middle East.

On Washington’s agenda was building a stronger rationale for a Sunni-Arab Gulf alliance with the U.S. against Shiite Persian Iran; seeking Arab support for a renewed Palestinian-Israeli peace effort; pushing the political reform agenda among the region’s monarchies; exploring ways of reining in oil prices; and arms sales.

According to regional analysts, except for getting closer to a 40 billion US dollar arms sales deal with the Arab Gulf countries — in the pipeline and cornerstone of their security alliance, but still requiring Congress approval –Bush failed to make any headway on the other issues.

Bush’s visit also served as a reminder of the mismatch between the perceptions of the public and that of the governments. While the governments need the U.S. to serve as a security guarantor in the region, the public views it as a bigger threat than Iran.

Topping the U.S. diplomatic agenda was undoing the damage done by last month’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which emphasised that Iran had halted a covert nuclear weapons programme in 2003. This had served as a breather for Tehran in its high-voltage drama with the U.S. and eased tension in the region.

In the UAE, where Bush delivered the tour’s keynote address, Iran was branded ‘‘the world’s leading state sponsor of terror,’’ which is a ‘‘totally different stance in Bush speak,’’ perhaps conditioned by his lame-duck status with less than a year in office, according to noted analyst Prof. Ebtisam Kitbi.

After the NIE cited the U.S. commander in Iraq as saying that Iran was contributing constructively to reduce violence in Iraq, Bush again said in Bahrain last week that Iran’s role in Iraqi violence stood exposed.

Kitbi, who teaches political science at the UAE University, told IPS: ‘‘Earlier all he (Bush) did was to talk about Iran’s nuclear policy, but now it’s about Iran being the reason for terror and instability in the region. In the past, the U.S. always linked terror with al-Qaeda, but now, it seems Iran is taking over.’’

Iranian-born academic Ali Sheikholeslami voiced similar opinions. ‘‘Bush’s main purpose is to divert the attention of the Arab people from the Palestinian situation. He is trying to convince the Arab countries that they should not worry about Israel’s existing nuclear weapons and the daily ill-treatment of the Palestinian people, but focus on the non-existing but potential Iranian nuclear weapons.’’

Iran and the Arabs have been neighbours for long and will continue to remain so, the emeritus professor at Oxford University in Britain told IPS over e-mail. The Arabs realise that ‘‘the U.S. has appeared in the Gulf only recently, and there is no guarantee that it will remain in the Gulf for long”.

The official regional response was no different.

After the face-off between U.S. and Iranian vessels in the Straits of Hormuz just ahead of Bush’s visit, Saudi foreign minister Saud Al-Faisal said: “Saudi Arabia is Iran’s neighbour. We are keen that harmony and peace should prevail among states of the region. We have relations with Iran and we speak regularly to them. If we sense any threat, we will speak to them (Iran) about it.”

The GCC governments are certainly wary of Iran’s hegemonic designs and the spread of Shiite influence in the Arab world. But Iranian and Gulf Arab leaders have exchanged visits during the last 18 months as a confidence-building measure.

In fact, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was an official guest at the GCC summit in Doha and a personal guest of the Saudi King at the annual Haj pilgrimage, both in December. This, apart from Iran’s proposal to form a security alliance, indicate a regional effort to limit external and third-party interference from spiralling out of control over minor incidents.

Even on the economic front, GCC-Iran ties have shown maturity with Iran proposing a free trade agreement last year. Despite the tension, their bilateral business was worth 16 billion dollars in 2006. UAE-Iran trade in 2007 was over 14 billion dollars and Iran agreed in December to supply gas to Bahrain.

Bush attempted to use the trip to reach out to the Iranian people by saying that Washington was only targeting the regime, which is counterproductive, said Prof. Sheikholeslami. ‘‘Bush’s attacks on the Iranian government embolden those in power. He has created a situation where the shortcomings of President Ahmadinejad’s government cannot be reasonably discussed. Iran is in the midst of a fuel crisis. This is a damning indictment of a government sitting on a sea of energy resources. However, such questions cannot be raised when the security of the country is threatened by the U.S.’’

The academic of Iranian origin added that ‘‘every time the U.S. attacks the Iranian government, Ahmadinejad gains in strength. Every time, Bush criticises the regime, reformists sound like U.S. mouthpieces’’.

Commenting on Bush’s non-emphatic call for improving political freedom in the region, Kitbi said that ‘’even his call for democracy in the region has changed tune. Earlier the U.S. always sought a total democratic transformation, but now Bush is calling for democratic reform that is in sync with the region’s priorities as well as political and cultural sensitivities.’’

This new approach of ‘‘admiring Islam and Muslims is an attempt to improve the image of the U.S.,’’ she felt.

On the issue of courting Gulf Arab support for a renewed Middle East peace initiative, which derives more public sympathy than the Iranian threat factor, Kitbi identified it as Bush’s personal initiative which does not have any scope for success. ‘‘With U.S. presidential elections looming, Americans will be too involved in domestic politics to be seriously worried about investing time to resolve such a longstanding conflict.’’

The Islamic Ulema Council, the highest Shiite cleric body in Bahrain, issued a statement critical of the efforts at peace building. ‘‘There is nothing in this visit that would serve the Muslim and Arab nations. All indications are that it will aggravate the situation and contribute to squandering Islamic and Arab rights in venerated Palestine and Jerusalem.’’

With Saudi Arabia — a leading producer of oil in the world and one of the chief suppliers to the U.S. — saying that market demand and not production levels, determines oil prices, Bush’s effort to get some form of concession for his country’s economic woes also did not materialise.

In fact, the verdict on the utility of Bush’s visit was declared as soon as he started the tour. A scathing front page editorial in the UAE’s ‘Gulf News’ daily concluded by saying: ‘‘We hope you have enjoyed the trip so far. The scenery is great. The food is exotic. As for the more ‘serious’ things, it is unlikely you will make any difference.’’