A Day in Riyadh
White House Chief of Staff
Morning in Riyadh
Visiting our fourth Gulf country in four days, it's clear that these countries share much common ethnic and cultural heritage. This morning in Riyadh, outside the Al Murabba Palace, we saw our third sword dance; to my untrained eyes and ears, the understated movements and melodic chanting of the dancers were nearly identical to those we saw yesterday in Dubai and Saturday in Bahrain.
More striking to me than the similarities among the Gulf states are the differences -- especially the way each is adapting to the modern world. Saudi Arabia, where we arrived yesterday afternoon, appears the most rooted in tradition and its history as the birthplace of Islam. The latter was highlighted in our visit this morning to Riyadh's impressive National History Museum; we spent an hour and barely scratched the surface.
Next stop was a roundtable the President held this morning at the U.S. Embassy with young Saudi entrepreneurs. The dominant and sharp topic of the young-entrepreneurs session was the difficulty Saudis (especially young males) have experienced since 9/11 in getting U.S. visas. All the young entrepreneurs attended U.S. schools at some point and have positive feelings about the U.S. Two told moving stories about the kindness American friends extended to them in the immediate aftermath of 9/11; and all are deeply frustrated about unnecessary travel barriers. One even described having graduated from NYU but being unable to enroll in law school because of visa difficulties. I'm told the visa situation has been improving dramatically, but it's frustrating that we may have squandered many opportunities in the hearts-and-minds battle critical in this region. I'm more inclined than ever to agree with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that keeping America the country of choice for educating students from around the world is a national security priority.
Meeting with King Adbullah
The most important part of this stop has been a deepened personal relationship between President Bush and King Abdullah. The President keeps in touch with many key allies and friends through phone convesations, video teleconferences, and periodic international conferences like the G-8; none of these is the King's style. So in-person is the most effective way for the President to build the understanding and confidence that promote real partnership on tough issues like Middle East peace. The President and King have had large chunks of one-on-one time, especially at the King's "ranch" where we're spending the night. Their conversations require interpretation, but the rapport seems strong.
The ranch has lots of sheep, some cattle, chicken, even ostrich -- and extraordinarily beautiful horses, including retired champion Alysheba. Quite a place. Looking around the accommodations, it's clear that it's good to be king. It's also good to be travelling with President Bush.
Middle East Trip