Bush Gets a Taste of the Sheik's Life
ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates, Jan. 13
When President Bush showed up Sunday to meet United Arab Emirates President Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan, he was presented with the biggest bling Secret Service agents said they had ever seen: a giant necklace set with hundreds of rubies, emeralds and other precious stones, holding a medallion that included a hand-painted enamel American flag.
It was just one example of the kind of lavish wealth on display as Bush makes his way through Persian Gulf countries bursting with oil money.
The president and his party stayed here Sunday night at the Emirates Palace, a giant Taj Mahal-like hotel that cost more than $3 billion to build. The hotel has a nearly mile-long private beach with sand imported from Algeria. The interior hallways are lined with gold and marble.
But before he went to bed, Bush helicoptered to the desert encampment of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheik Khalifa's younger brother. There he dined under tents on lamb, veal and chicken, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed showed Bush the falcons with which he hunts on his property, according to White House press secretary Dana Perino. She likened the atmosphere to the kind of relaxed feeling at a neighborhood barbecue back home.
Perino said the president had "a really nice time."
Bush is not done with Middle Eastern royal hospitality: On Monday, he will fly to Riyadh for two days of bonding time with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, who famously distrusts telephones and prefers to practice his diplomacy in person. Bush will have dinner Monday with the king at his palace in Riyadh, where the main reception area includes a giant plexiglass fish tank that is 30 by 12 by 15 feet , according to the White House.
On Tuesday, Bush will travel to the Al Janadriyah Farm, the country retreat where the king maintains a stable of some 150 thoroughbred stallions. The dining room has a giant U-shaped table with capacity to seat up to 300 guests.
Perhaps the biggest question facing the two leaders is not how they will cope with Iran or the Middle East peace process but how the two will manage to stay alert when they meet: Bush is an early bird, while Abdullah is a night owl known to greet visiting dignitaries at very late hours.
At a background briefing yesterday, an unnamed senior official broke into laughter when told that reporters seemed to have a wager about how long the meetings might last.
"You know, this is a matter of great sensitivity, and I don't really want to be wading in," he replied. "But if someone wants to offer me 10 percent on the side, I could see what I could do."