Friday, January 14, 2011

Qatar Jan 13

We wound up the trip in Doha, Qatar, where Clinton was participating in "The Forum for the Future" -- a sort of regular gabfest for officials, business types and NGO people from the region. Last year it was held in Morocco (that was my first trip with Clinton) and this year Qatar -- perhaps the richest of the Gulf Arab emirates.

The first bit of the trip was dominated by the crisis in Lebanon. We got a "senior administration official" to speak to us on the plane from Oman, and he repeated the U.S. backing for Lebanon's stability and the work of the U.N. Tribunal, which Hezbollah is trying to thwart. They weren't terribly strong comments but they were the first official U.S. reaction, so I was able to "snap" them (send one sentence alerts) via blackberry as the plane landed.

Because we were late, we went directly to the Ritz, where the conference was being held. After a week touring various five star Gulf hotels they all begin to look alike..a lot of marble, "statement" chandeliers, people milling around. The security was pretty tight tho, presumably because they have so many sheikhs and emirs and whatnot attending.

We waited again for Clinton who showed up an hour late for what is billed as a "press avail" -- she appears with the foreign minster of whatever place it is that she is visiting (in this case Qatar) and they take a total of four questions -- two from the U.S. side and two from the Qatari side.

Our questions were focused on Lebanon and she gave a strong statement -- that the U.S. viewed the crisis as an intentional effort to subvert justice, as embodied in the U.N. Tribunal. It was intersting that the Qatari journalists' questions were all about Sudan...but then Qatar has been trying to mediate there so perhaps they feel that is their baby.

Anyway after that we finished up our stories and headed to our hotel. We were billeted at the Kempinski Suites...and it turned out that each of us was allocated a three (or in one case four) bedroom apartment. It felt spooky and crazy. A brand new highrise, not particularly well built, surrounded by other newly built or in the process of being built highrises. The entire place creaked in the wind, but the inside was all pared down modernism in its most basic form. It would have made a great setting for a modern day Gulf ghost story -- nobody around, these vast echoing apartments, each room with a huge flatscreen TV pre-set to a somnabulatory music channel that played the same plinky piano etudes...weird.

But when you're tired one bed is good, and if there are three bedrooms you just pick one and sleep.

We went back to the Ritz in the morning. Clinton was due to take part in a panel discussion at about 10, so a colleague and I decided to have breakfast at the Ritz. We were a little worried about the cost, but luckily we found that the Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa was also having breakfast there, so we did an interview with him about Lebanon (that means I can expense the breakfast!). He didn't say much -- which seems par for the course for the Arab League -- but at least it was another voice speaking about the story of the day.

Clinton's address to the panel was surprisingly frank -- she said many Arab governments risk "sinking into the sand" because they are not keeping pace with the technological, demographic, and political changes in their countries. She said this was leaving a opening that al Qaeda and other militants can exploit. It was obviously not a message that many government reps in the audience -- almost all of them representing non-democratic regimes -- would like to hear, at least so publicly. But Clinton steps up in times like this, at least to make the public's not as tho the U.S. is going to put any real pressure on these guys, given that they keep America's cars running. But a nudge here and there publicly makes for interesting PR.

And..that was it. We stopped off at the embassy for the traditional "meet and greet" and then back to the airport and on the plane home. My seat (a window "economy" seat in the way back) was broken -- it was stuck in full recline mode. Not good for the back. But we did see some things along the way home. Above is one of the real estate developments taking over the islands for the plutocrat who wants privacy, but in a community (only one house built on this particular archipelago, at least that I could see). I think we also saw Mt. Ararat in the distance as we were flying over Kurdistan.

In Shannon, where we refuel, Clinton came out briefly for a picture with some of the troops headed (still!) to Afghanistan. At moments like this you realize that, declining as it may be, America is still an Empire.

It is good to be home tho.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Oman, Jan 11

From Yemen we flew into Oman. I was probably most excited for this part of the trip -- I had always heard about Oman as a sort of Arabian Nights place, and one that had connections (bad connections -- slave trade) with Africa, and Zanzibar in particular. I had seen some of the Omani-style architecture in Zanzibar and wanted to see the real thing.

We arrived at night so I didn't see much at first. But even in the dark the place is a stunning contrast from Yemen. Its streets are wide and well kept, often bordered with elaborate flower arrangements. The roadway snakes up and down, through mountain passes, and then deposited us at our hotel -- another grandiose Gulf place, with a HUGE lobby adorned with gigantic crystal chandeliers. The rooms were looking a little worn tho, and we were so tired I just went to bed.

Daybreak revealed a whole new aspect. The hotel is set on a small bay, where sharp, steep mountains drop directly into the ocean. It is a stunning backdrop. The hotel beach stretched empty in the morning so I had a good walk.

We were loaded into the vans and proceeded to Clinton's only public event of the day, another "town hall" meeting, this time with Omani NGO people.

The drive there showed how well set up..or at least orderly, Oman is. The Sultan (famously unmarried) is apparently very persnickety about how his people organize their lives visually. All the buildings are more or less the same cream color, and most of them are some variation on traditional Arab. Even the air conditioners sticking out of windows are covered with a "traditional Arab" sort of sounds silly, but it does give the place a uniform, well-kept feeling.

The landscape really is fantastic..jagged peaks, some of them topped with small old stone watchtowers, diving into the sea..and bay after bay. The "town hall" was similar. Held in a museum made out of an grand old house, it featured about 30 Omanis (all speaking excellent English) asking polite questions about Clinton's opinion on generating civic engagement. Oman is, after all, a dictatorship but the Sultan does allow elections for "consultative committees" and his people seem satisfied with that. Unlike Yemen, where the town hall audience shouted and waved their hand to be picked, cat-called each other and were generally raucuous, this was a very well behaved crowd and the event went off without a hitch -- completely free of news.

Clinton then went off to meet the Sultan, meaning we had some free time. So we headed to the "souk"..again, a very tidy version of an Arab bazaar. There wasn't much to buy but it was fun to walk around and nice to see the main bay of Muscat, with the Sultan's huge motor yacht parked right at the center. There's a nice sort of corniche that people walk on, the weather is balmy, it all seems very relaxed. Good place, and I'd love to see some of the interior where the countryside is far wilder. Maybe next time.

We got on the vans about 1 p.m. to head to the airport to meet Clinton. We've waited in various palces the airport, on the airplane, and, after we arrived in Qatar, we are now waiting at the Qatar Ritz Carlton. Clinton was supposed to hold a press conference, but the government of Lebanon is collapsing right at this moment and she is likely to face questions on that. I'm not sure they know what the next step is, so they may not be eager to go in front of the press...

Anyway, here we wait.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Yemen Jan 11

Today was the "big day" of the trip -- Clinton made an unannounced stop in Yemen to try to solidify the weak alliance against al Qaeda.

We were not allowed to report her plans to go until the plane touched down.

We left Dubai at around 9:30 a.m. after a great night at the Palace hotel, which certainly lived up to its name. I was amazed by Dubai. I hadn't been there since Gulf War II and the growth is astounding. The hotel where we stayed to desk copy during the U.S. invasion of Iraq was, at the time, at the very end of a long road leading out from the city into the hinterlands. It is now right in the middle of the action, overshadowed by huge apartment and office towers all built in the last few years. Most of them are nearly empty, we were told -- another real estate boom town gone bust, but this one on a pretty massive scale. We drove through the new center of town, marked by the 111 story (is that the number?) Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. It has a sort of sinister aspect, just stretching up into the sky getting progressively skinnier. Looks like some sort of tendril reaching into space.

Then on to the plane and headed for Yemen. The landscape below, once you leave the Dubai metro area, is absolutely featureless except for drifts of blowing, pinkish sand against a greyer sand base. It is beautiful in a sort of inhuman, otherworldly way. It certainly could pass for another planet.

Sanaa itself is on a plateau and we arrived after about two hours. This was a "high risk" environment so the Diplomatic Security detail was all pretty jumpy. The motorcade drove in the swervy, herky-jerky "defensive driving" style that they use in Pakistan, I guess to make the moving target move that much more erratically. The outskirts of the town were nondescript, but it is set in a series of mountain valleys that are austere and beautiful.

First stop was the President's palace,where Clinton had what ended up being several hours of meetings with President Saleh, the autocratic leader. We saw him briefly as she entered and then were shuttled off to what looked like a sort of Arabian beer garden tent outside, where we waited and tried to make our wireless internet cards work (mostly unsuccessfully). We had spoken to Clinton on the plane so we had the guts of the story out -- she was there to "balance the relationship" with Yemen, to add more social/economic aspects to what is primarily a military/security dialogue, and to try to tell Yemenis that they've got a lot to gain by partnering with the United States.

Saleh, who feels threatened by al Qaeda himself, is apparently keen to keep the deal purely security -- it avoids embarassing lectures on democracy like the one that Clinton attempted to deliver at a later meeting with civil society activists. But the U.S. side left feeling they had at least made their point about the root causes of extremism (poverty, lack of opportunity, lack of voice). I'm not sure how much Saleh took on board.

We then convoyed in the motorcade through the oldest part of Sanaa, which is really something to see. I wish we could have stopped to really look around, but that was impossible, so all we got were fleeting views out of the windows of the van -- squeezing down narrow lanes and alleyways sometimes with inches to spare. My pictures are just these jolty snapshots with the blackberry, which is a shame because it looks like one of the most photogenic cities you could want: narrow streets, crenelated old ramparts, buildings built up and leaning on each other, but all with the same grey sand stucco and light trim. The markets were full -- it is the main tourist drag, but there didn't seem to be many tourists. But there were plenty of Yemenis taking in the show: women in burqas, little kids in army like uniforms, army guys who looked like little kids in wild orange and green camouflage gear and holding Ak-47s. Almost every non-military man between 15 and 60 had a cheek bulging full of qat -- the narco habit that apparently Islam allows and which is sucking Yemen's water supplies dry at a frightening pace.

The security guys were not happy about the bazaar convoy -- from a security perspective it must have been nightmarish. But it was great to see at least a little bit of the place. It helps to make "Yemen" real beyond headlines about underwear bombers and U.S. imams preaching jihad.

I'll try to fill more of this in later but now it is time for bed. Oman, where we are now and where tomorrow's program takes place, looks clean and tidy and absolutely antithetical to its southern neighbor.

Monday, January 10, 2011

United Arab Emirates, Jan 9-10

Back with Clinton to the Gulf, less than two months after the Bahrain trip. We left on Saturday night with everyone glued to their blackberries about the shooting of the Arizona congresswoman. Clinton arrived at Andrews AFB in a Gulfstream and walked across the tarmac to get on the State Dept jet.

Big crew this time -- 16 reporters (including TV crew) -- which is more than we are usually used to. This mean bad chances in the ritual seat draw for the few "business class" seats that reporters are allocated. My luck ran out yet again and I got one of the economy seats -- a broken one, at that, with a back stuck in permanent recline mode. Somehow you would think that the Air Force "Special Air Wing" would do a better job of upkeep but no time to complain.

Flew through Shannon, and then on to Abu Dhabi, arriving at 11 p.m. local time. Convoy to the Emirates Palace hotel, which is supposed to the grande luxe hotel of Abu Dhabi. It certainly is mammoth, with lots of Arabian style minarets and a huge "triumphal arch" in front. Inside it was all marble, and the room, when I could find it, was done up in very frilly television-style grandeur. Too tired really to appreciate (or hate) it. Had to file a story on Clinton comments to us on the plane about Israel's latest assessment of Iran's nuclear program (they don't think it is quite as advanced as they said earlier) as well as some stuff criticizing the Israelis for another settlement push.

Sleep..or almost. One thing about grande luxe hotels in this part of the world is that they seem to be obsessive about light/electronic controls, with hugely complicated panels dimming and undimming every light and the television and nightlights etc. None of them work in any "intuitive" way and it took me literally 15 minutes to figure out how to turn out the light. An hour later I had to get up to go to the bathroom and turned them back on...meaning another 15 minutes to try to shut them off. Maybe the usual guests have flunkies who do that for them, but it was aggravating.

Morning breakfast spread was vast, but it took 20 minutes to walk to the main dining room. Lots of indeterminate people (Russians? Italians? Chinese? They all looked sort of mixed up and all were wearing very sloppy clothes, which must mean that they are rich). Given the time difference and the fact I hadn't had dinner the night before I figured I was ok to have a piece of roast beef for breakfast.

Clinton gave another one of her "townterviews" with students and it was broadcast on the local version of "The View" women's television program. We were encouraged when some of the locals translated the title as "Baby Talk" but it turned out to be something more along the lines of "Between Us". Too bad..would have been great to quote Clinton speaking on "Baby Talk". She made a bit of news in saying that the U.S. also now feels that Iran's atom program has been set back by sanctions, so that was a story, and she said she felt the Arizona congresswoman had been shot by "an extremist" which is likely to raise some eyebrows at home (is he an extremist or just a nutcase? Is there any difference?)

From there it was on to lunch, where she met Abu Dhabi's all powerful Crown Prince at a restaurant called, weirdly, "Joe the Baker". Then on to Masdar City (see photo above), which is oil rich Abu Dhabi's bid to take the lead in clean energy technology. It is only partially built (and not really a city, just a development) but they are working on being carbon neutral and recycling everything. The picture shows her taking in the "solar beam down" project which, as far as we could understand it, involves some new technology to concentrate and utilize energy from the sun -- which they have a lot of around here.

Abu Dhabi is a lot like Bahrain but richer. Every crane is actually working building something, and lots of the things they are building are sort of silly looking, in a modern architecture sort of way. The picture here is of the new U.S. Embassy with a new, off-kilter office tower nearby poking out behind. The total effect is funhouse rather than ultra-modern, but at least I give them credit for trying to be creative.

We drove an hour to Dubai and then checked into another (much classier, I have to say, even if not as expensive) hotel. Old friend Maher came out to meet me for dinner so it was nice to catch up.

Early call tomorrow.