Bush plays down call for Gulf reforms
President George W. Bush on Sunday toned down his rhetoric on democratic change, as he sought to persuade the Gulf states to reduce their ties with Iran.Although Mr Bush”s speech was billed by the White House as a “signature” address on “democracy and advancing freedom”, it fell short of the bold statements of his second inaugural address, when he promised to “seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world”.
Delivering the set-piece speech of his Middle East trip to an invited audience in a $3bn Abu Dhabi hotel, Mr Bush hailed the United Arab Emirates for having “shown the world a model of a Muslim state”.
He also praised the country for having held “historic elections” in late 2006 to the Federal National Council – a consultative body to which only a minority of UAE citizens can elect representatives. The elections were a more tentative approach to democracy than the steps taken by some other states in the region.The US president told his audience Sunday that a “future of liberty” awaited them.But he acknowledged there had been “setbacks” to democratisation efforts in the region as well as “steps forward”. While he commended Algeria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain and Yemen for reforms, he steered clear of criticising any states by name.
“You cannot build trust when you hold an election where opposition candidates find themselves harassed or in prison,” he said in an apparent allusion to Egypt, which has jailed Ayman Nour, the leading opposition candidate in the country”s only contested presidential election.US officials say the focus of Mr Bush”s visit to the Gulf states, which sees him visit both Dubai and Saudi Arabia Monday, is his effort to increase pressure on Iran.”Iran”s actions threaten the security of nations everywhere,” Mr Bush said in his speech.”So the US 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.”
In particular, Washington is concerned at the extent of banking ties between Dubai and Iran. It wants the financial centre to go beyond the current United Nations sanctions on Tehran by stopping business with big Iranian banks – such as Bank Saderat, Bank Melli and Bank Mellat – that are already the subject of unilateral US sanctions.There is some evidence that the message is getting through. The UAE central bank is understood to have advised domestic lenders, including those in Dubai, to be cautious when underwriting exports to Iran.