AL ASAYL EQUESTRIAN CAMP, United Arab Emirates – U.S. President George W. Bush followed up a mild lecture about expanding democracy among the Middle East’s comfortable dynasties with an opulent picnic at the desert playground of one of the region’s wealthy leaders.
Bush traded his suit for a casual jacket and took a helicopter as close as he could get to this remote encampment where Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan, raises horses and prize falcons. His motorcade bumped over sand dunes for the last few kilometres, ending up at a tent pitched high on a wind-swept crest.
And what a tent.
A tent with thick carpets, pillows for lounging, blazing lanterns, and food. Lots and lots of it, from bread with honey to grilled meats and sweets, all served by uniformed staff.
Before the feast with a small group of White House aides and Emirati elite, the crown prince showed the president around. Next to carpets laid on the sand stood small pedestals, each stuck in the sand like a beach umbrella and each holding a magnificent falcon.
At his host’s urging, Bush hoisted one of the birds, using a protective mitt, and held it as the news cameras whirred. When the bird shifted suddenly, a startled Bush jumped slightly, then recovered.
“You’re making him nervous,” Bush told the assembled media. “He never had a press conference before.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice trailed her boss and kept her distance from the fierce-looking birds.
“I’m not good with animals,” she was heard to remark. A few minutes later, however, she, too, was holding a bird, though not for long.
Bush, who likes short meetings and early bedtimes, spent more than three hours at the tent as a grey sky turned dark under a dramatic moon. Although Bush overstayed his scheduled early evening departure, by Arab standards he left early.
He has done an unusual amount of sightseeing on this lengthy trip, including stops at sacred biblical sites, where Bush choked up, and at a Holocaust memorial in Israel.
Bush has avoided any direct criticism of human rights or political freedoms in the governments hosting him in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere in the Arab world, although U.S. allies surely knew who he meant when he decried the treatment of opposition political candidates and dissidents in the region.