Bush Soaks in Dubai Culture in Mideast

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- President Bush on Monday got a flavor of this cosmopolitan banking and business hub, whose glass skyscrapers and booming construction have turned it into the capital of Middle East bustle.

The soaring Persian Gulf city-state is Bush's second stop in the seven-state United Arab Emirates federation, following his gentle lecture on democracy in Abu Dhabi and an opulent picnic at a desert horse camp Sunday. The Dubai visit is part of a trip aimed at invigorating Mideast peace talks and keeping pressure on Iran.

Even before Bush touched down in Dubai, he had an impact. The government declared Monday a national holiday and shut down many main roads and bridges.

On a day of cultural diplomacy, Bush began with a stop at the historic home of the former ruler of Dubai, now a museum loaded with photos and artifacts of the emirate's history.

The president grinned and tapped his foot as a group of girls stepped rhythmically to Arabic music, their long hair swinging from shoulder to shoulder. The light rain that fell during Bush's arrival did not dampen the mood, as rain is considered here to be good luck during the visit of a foreign leader.

Bush then had lunch with students of the Dubai School of Government, a research and teaching institution that focuses on public policy in the Arab world. The president and his hosts sat on cushions, set in a circle, their food in bowls on the carpeted floor before them.

"I'm most impressed with what I've seen here. The entrepreneurial spirit is strong, and equally importantly, the desire to make sure all aspects of society have hope and encouragement," Bush later told a gathering of entrepreneurs and others affiliated with a young leaders' group.

The session was held in a conference room high atop one of Dubai's signature buildings, a luxury hotel shaped like a tall ship sail. The Burj Al Arab occupies its own manmade island.

"I also want you to understand something about America - that we respect you, we respect your religion and we want to work together for the sake of freedom and peace," Bush told the group.

Bush was departing the Gulf region later in the day for meetings in Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. security ally and often the region's decision leader.

Dubai, concerned about being a target for Islamic extremist terrorism that has hit other nations in the oil-rich region, has installed one of the world's most comprehensive homeland security and anti-terrorism systems. Many anti-terror analysts believe the threat in Dubai is growing - fueled by the city's image as a bastion of Western-style capitalism and nightlife, its new status as home to the world's tallest building and the frequent port calls by U.S. Navy ships.

Dubai has a flashy reputation; alcohol flows freely in its many hotel bars, and bikini-clad Western tourists soak up the sun on its beaches.

There are still some wounded feelings here from a Dubai state-owned company's attempt in 2006 to buy operations at six U.S. ports, a Bush-supported move that put him at odds with a Congress that was run by his own party at the time. The Dubai ports deal was ultimately blocked after loud protests by lawmakers. Partly in response to the controversy, Congress passed legislation beefing up the government's process for reviewing the security implications of foreign investments.

Dubai has a powerful Iranian business community, and the West, led by the United States, is cracking down on business in and out of Iran to protest against its nuclear ambitions. Dubai is caught in the middle - eager to maintain its lucrative business with Iran, but wary of angering the United States and the United Nations.

Bush used a speech Sunday to gently nudge authoritarian Arab allies to satisfy frustrated desires for democracy in the Mideast, but he saved his harshest criticism for Iran, branding it "the world's leading state-sponsor of terror."

Speaking in the Persian Gulf country of the UAE, about 150 miles from the shores of Iran, Bush said Tehran threatens nations everywhere and that the United States was "rallying friends around the world to confront this danger before it is too late."

The warning about Iran was much tougher than Bush's admonition about spreading democracy in the Middle East, which had been billed as the central theme of his speech.

Before flying to Dubai, Bush began his activities Monday by viewing a cultural exhibit and visiting business leaders in Abu Dhabi. At an exhibit on energy economy in the Gulf, Bush praised the United Arab Emirates federation for examining how to move beyond a reliance on oil.

"It's amazing, isn't it?" Bush said. "This country has gotten its wealth from the ground and is now reinvesting in alternative forms of energy."

© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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