THE BLOG
01/15/2008 10:51 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Shadow Play in the Middle East

Much of the reporting of President Bush's trip to the Middle East is shadow play, an incredible con game. The suckers are the American public.

Today's headline, for instance, has Bush telling Saudi King Abdullah that the high price of oil is hurting the U.S. economy. This, the White House press people, reporters and editors apparently all agree, is front page material. But who are they kidding?

The Saudi leaders and their good, old family friend, George Bush have known for ages about the havoc that rocketing oil prices are wreaking on the U.S. economy. All along, in fact, the Bush administration has been cautiously attempting to convince the Saudis, OPEC's largest producer, to keep prices down. To no avail.

Back in April 2005, for instance, in Crawford Texas, when Bush last met King Abdullah face to face before he took over the Saudi throne, the subject of high oil prices came up. Oil then was selling for $54 a barrel. It's now $94.

What new leverage does George W. Bush suddenly have?

Instead, he comes bearing gifts. To thank the Saudis for supporting the latest, feeble U.S. peace efforts in the Middle East, Bush is promising them 20 billion dollars in sophisticated weapons--including 121 million dollars worth of precision guided bombs.

But to defend the Saudis against whom? Iran? Does anyone really think the mullahs in Tehran are going to dispatch their forces to attack the Saudis? Or are the Saudis supposed to use those arms against Iraq's shattered forces? Or is it just a great way for the Saudis to recycle some of their petroleum wealth back to U.S. industry?

Which brings us to another irony of the current Bush trip. A few days ago in Abu Dhabi, trying to whip up support for U.S. policy, he gave a speech condemning Iran and extolling the virtues of democracy from the cavernous marble auditorium of a 3 billion dollar gold plated hotel.

A strange choice of venue: the rulers of Abu Dhabi and Dubai and the rest of the emirates give short shrift to democracy themselves.

They still run their lands as tribal domains, hundreds of billions of dollars pouring into the coffers of a few thousand incredibly wealthy individuals. One after another, their new, high walled, sprawling mansions line the broad residential avenues in Abu Dhabi.

The tribal sheiks maintain their hold over the 4 million residents of the Emirates by distributing enough of their vast wealth to the small proportion--only 17%- of their population, who are actually citizens, to keep them fat and happy, and unconcerned about such issues as freedom of the press. There are estimates, for instance, that the average citizen of Abu Dhabi is a millionaire.

Their rulers, on the other hand, are not dumb. Many have been educated in top U.S. and European universities.

Ironically, while George W. Bush has consistently avoided the tough policy decisions that would be necessary to wean American from its dependence on petroleum, the oil producing states, who face the problem themselves, have been no where as passive.

The rulers of Dubai for instance, realizing that their oil deposits are rapidly running out, have launched a massive investment program to transform the Emirate into one of the worlds major destinations for international business and tourism.

They've also spent billions to launch their own airline and what will soon be the largest airport in the world. Their neighbors in Abu Dhabi though they have much greater petroleum deposits, are following suit.

At this moment, more than 2.3 trillion dollars is being spent on the construction of new apartment complexes, skyscrapers, high speed monorails and highways in just Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

To carry out this vast enterprise they've enlisted tens of thousands of expats, professionals from around the world who have flocked to the Gulf to manage and profit from the spectacular economic boom.

The expats enjoy salaries, spacious homes with servants and maids and drivers and schools. But no real hope of ever becoming citizens of the countries they are transforming. After a few years, they're out.

They in turn oversee an underclass of millions of temporary migrants primarily from India, Pakistan Sri Lanka and the Philippines, the ones actually building the startling new skyline that so awed George W. Bush. These foreign workers, admitted without their wives, make two or three hundred dollars a month, and send much of it back home.

You don't see them in the sprawling new shopping malls, the surrealistic hotel lobbies, indoor ski domes, or wide boulevards. They live apart in distant military-style barracks, transported back and forth to work in large buses. Their visas are tied directly to their employers, which means, if the construction workers or maids or drivers become too uppity, complain about salaries or living conditions, unpaid wages, or being raped or brutalized by their employers, they're expelled. In any case, they're out after a couple of years.

As even the U.S. State Department pointed out, abuses are legion:

"trafficking in women and children; legal and societal discrimination against women and non citizens; corruption and lack of government transparency; common abuse of foreign domestic servants; and severe restrictions on and abuses of workers' rights."

One would think that the ability of the Emirate's rulers (and the Saudi princes) to continue milking the region, as their fortunes swell from the hundreds of billions to the trillions, would have to be limited. After all, they are just a few thousand immensely rich living in a vast swathe across the Middle East and Central Asia now ravaged by poverty and political turbulence.

Indeed, that same political chaos has proved a gold mine for the Emirates. Wealthy Lebanese, for instance, have fled their own once prosperous now shattered land to invest in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The same is true for Iraqis, Egyptians, Pakistanis and Afghans--and even Saudis, leery of future stability in their own country.

The U.S. threat to freeze suspicious accounts from Middle East states has also convinced many wealthy Arabs they are safer investing at least a part of their fortunes much closer to home in the Emirates.

But still the question remains: how much longer before the whole surreal economic edifice in the Gulf comes tumbling down?

That's, of course, the fear that George W. Bush aims to exploit to fortify an alliance against Iran, just as Saddam Hussein did with the same sheiks when he sought their support against Iran in the 1980s. (Remember, from the very beginning, Khomeini railed against the corrupt, feudal rulers of the Gulf, threatening to expand the Shiite revolution across the Gulf. At that time, of course, the U.S. enlisted Saddam to head the anti-Khomeini coalition.)

But though, on one level, the sheiks may fear their Iranian neighbor, they know that Iranian leaders also have a major financial stake in the Emirates' well-being. Iranian government leaders and businessmen -- often one and the same -- are investing huge sums of money in the Emirates.

While U.S. authorities do their best to banish Iranians from the international banking system, in fact Iranians don't have to put their money into accounts in the Emirates. They put their billions to work buying and selling the huge apartments , condominiums and office buildings sprouting like mushrooms all along the Gulf coast and making enormous profits in the process.

Al Qaeda, it is whispered, also speculates in the booming real estate market.

But rather than being upset about such involvement, the Emirate sheiks are supposedly delighted. As an American ex pat banker told me, "It's the best insurance the sheiks have got,"

At the same time, it's also said that Islamic militants receive huge "protection" payments from the Emirate Sheiks.

Otherwise, how explain the fact that though the sumptuous modern hotels and malls, nightclubs and bikini-clad beach resorts would, in theory, be ideal targets for Islamic terrorists, there's been not a single attack.

The West should be as lucky.