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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 March 2007, 22:48 GMT
Solana's busy Mid-East schedule
EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana is on a tour of the Middle East aimed at helping resolve crises in the region. Over three days, he has visited Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria. The BBC's Jonny Dymond has been trying to keep up with Mr Solana's busy schedule.

DAMASCUS, 14 MARCH

In Beirut there were bright blue gusty skies; in Riyadh the brilliant sunlight bleached the landscape, sucking colour from wherever it may have been hiding.

Mr Solana (right) meets Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
In Syria, Mr Solana held talks with President Bashar al-Assad

But now in Damascus the sky alternates between a cool blue and a leaden grey; early in the morning light rain spits down on the souk.

And, just as the weather has turned, so has the purpose of Javier Solana's trip.

In Lebanon and Saudi Arabia he was in listening mode. Now he has come to tell the Syrians what they need to do if they want to end the isolation of their country.

Inside the surprisingly small Foreign Ministry, the camera crews are led inside in batches of five. All the while Mr Solana chats and banters. It all takes some time

It is not entirely clear why all the stations need their own shots. "They are," says one foreign embassy observer, "all controlled by the government."

'Gawky teenager'

Mr Solana sits opposite the Syrian foreign minister, on either side sit the various deputies and press officers. In the middle of everything, watching over the proceedings, is the standard colour portrait of the President Bashar al-Assad.

President Assad would have been an ophthalmologist but was instead thrust into the curious role of hereditary president of what is nominally a republic.

Mr Solana and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallim hold a joint news conference
Mr Solana and the Syrian foreign minister gave a press conference

His portrait is pretty much everywhere - in every government office, in most open spaces, as you arrive at the airport, as you leave the airport. He looks very young to be a dictator, but then, no one has ever said there is a minimum age requirement.

It is when we get to one of the presidential palaces, way up in the hills, well away from the grime and traffic of Damascus, that some of the style of the presidency becomes clear.

Immaculately manicured gardens surround the palace; a kilometre-long drive, perfectly straight, leads up to a huge stone portico. Inside, a vast hallway stretches off into the distance, bisected by a red carpet. White marble is the order of the day.

A guard shushes bystanders off the carpet; it is for Mr Solana, not low-life journalists. But when, rather than sully it with my shabby brogues, I leap across it, the guard breaks out into a broad subversive grin, the kind of grin that may be bad news for dictatorships.

When Mr Solana and the president do the pre-meeting publicity shot, the banter is painfully forced.

"Where have you been before here?" asks the president. "Lebanon," replies Mr Solana, tactfully omitting any reference to the killing of Rafik Hariri - widely believed to have been at the instigation of the Syrian authorities - or the subsequent expulsion of the Syrian armed forces.

President Assad nods, looking more and more like the gawky teenager he must have been just a few years ago. And then it is time for a one-on-one between the two men.

Judging by the pre-meeting briefings - and the difference in the men's ages - you rather expect to overhear Mr Solana giving President Assad a good telling off, or the president promising that he will do better in the future. But international diplomacy is not like that.

Conference chaos

The one-on-one lasts an hour and then Mr Solana makes the long walk down the ludicrous hallway and out into the grey Damascene day.

At the airport the farewell news conference descends into some good old-fashioned Middle East mayhem when the sound system takes on a life of its own.

The Syrian foreign minister, perhaps a little unused to the rough and tumble of accountable government, is unable to project his voice beyond his lectern and so a pack of journalists wheel and jostle to perch their microphones.

Mr Solana looks bemused. His beefy bodyguard looks alarmed. His spokeswoman looks like she is going to cry, or laugh, or both.

Then it is over; Mr Solana's jet is in the sky. Most on board are heading for home. But not Mr Solana. Instead, he is off to Nuremberg for another conference, another set of briefing notes, another hotel room.

RIYADH, 13 MARCH

There is no stopping Javier Solana.

Javier Solana
Javier Solana is on a whirlwind tour of the Middle East

Almost as soon as the EU policy chief's jet has taxied to a halt beside the bulk of Riyadh airport's Royal terminal, he is gone, whisked away into the hot night in a fleet of cars, on his way to brief ambassadors from EU countries.

Meanwhile the journalists who trail somewhat bleary-eyed in his wake are led through the silent terminal. It is too late to go to a restaurant, so the cars head for the diplomatic quarter.

Concrete blocks form a chicane which the vehicles have to snake through under the eyes of armed guards. A pick-up truck with a machine gun mounted on the back lurks under a tree.

Nearly every diplomat in Riyadh lives and works in this heavily protected area, where pink and white flowers bloom in the shadow of car-blocking concrete barriers.

It is nicer than Baghdad's Green Zone - a lot nicer - but there are uncomfortable parallels.

As the journalists stumble tie-less into the German ambassador's residence, there is Mr Solana, first bellowing into a mobile phone, then briefing nearly two dozen senior diplomats on progress so far, and plans for the next couple of days.

As the second day of the trip breaks there is a highly unusual lull.

Sight-seeing

The minister for internal security has cancelled a meeting and Mr Solana will spend an entire morning without getting in and out of convoys or making comments to the waiting media.

Suddenly lost for things to do, the journalists head for the sights of Riyadh. This is not a long trip.

map

There are only two sights in Riyadh - a reconstruction of a fortress, and the area known to locals as "Chop Chop Square".

On one side of the large empty square is a modern mosque; on another is the headquarters of the religious police, its upstairs windows heavily shuttered, those on the ground floor, mirrored.

Outside two sets of fountains rise out of the paving stones.

This, our guide informs us, is where criminals are beheaded after Friday prayers, in front of large crowds fresh from the mosque.

The machines selling soft drinks seem more than a little incongruous.

By early afternoon we are back on track. Mr Solana has a meeting with the Saudi foreign minister. Then there is a pause before an audience with the king.

The waiting takes place in the government guesthouse where visiting leaders stay.

"Guest house" gives the wrong impression. It is a six-storey government-owned hotel, with gilt-laden decor from the late 1970s, tinkling fountains and bad coffee.

Chance meetings

Mr Solana's companions snooze on the not-very-comfortable sofas.

He of course does no such thing, but instead finds the only journalist in the Middle East who has not interviewed him in the last two days and gives him an interview.

The pause lengthens into a tedious wait.

But such is Saudi Arabia's new-found diplomatic prominence that South African President Thabo Mbeki just happens to be passing through with four ministers and 60 businessmen. There is an impromptu photo call with Mr Solana.

Then there is an unscheduled dinner with Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, who is dropping in for a chat with the Saudis.

Just as everyone is hunkering down for a long wait for the call to the palace, it comes.

There is the now routine scramble for cars, the weaving convoy in the packed Riyadh highways and then the palace.

The air outside is cloyingly sweet, heavy with smell of the flowers from the gardens that surround the huge building.

Inside there is a handshake and what one diplomat describes as "bilateral flattery". After half an hour or so Mr Solana is on his way out, smiling broadly.

The cars start up, exhaust fumes mingle with the thick odour of flowers, and another leg of the Middle East trip draws to a close.

RIYADH, 12 MARCH

Javier Solana is either on a cocktail of exotic stimulants or he has been cloned so that one version sleeps while the other is the EU's foreign policy chief, with some elaborate late-night swap every couple of days.

Javier Solana and Fouad Siniora
Mr Solana met Lebanese PM Fouad Siniora in Beirut
There is no other way to explain how he manages to remain not only awake through his ludicrous working day, but also sound coherent through most of his press conferences and, one presumes, cogent in the rounds of meetings he makes during this whistle-stop tour of the Middle East.

Things kick off at a military airport just outside Brussels.

It is just after dawn when the Belgian Air Force jet lifts off. The jet is one of those toys that some small boys - and nearly all grown men dream about.

It seats 12; there is a lot of wood and carpet; the lavatory has a cushioned cover.

Best of all, there is a table in the back of the cabin that unfolds from beneath the seats and then lifts electronically from the floor to seat height. Top Gear meets James Bond.

High speed

In the front sits Javier Solana, Marc Otte, the EU's Middle East envoy, and Mr Solana's spokeswoman, Christina Gallach - the only person in the world to work harder than Mr Solana.

For much of the flight they labour, yellow highlighters in hand, over piles of policy and position papers.

An attempt is being made to carve order out of the intricate mess that is the modern Middle East. On board the jet, there is a sense of calm, of purpose. And then we arrive in Beirut.

It is everything you have seen on the news. At least, it appears to be.

It is a little difficult to tell - because the seven or eight car convoy is being driven at around 110km/h (70mph) through the city streets, swerving from lane to lane, forcing other road users off the highway.

So there are snatched glimpses of pockmarked buildings, of posters of the murdered former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, of a rather large number of startled pedestrians.

But most of all there are the outstretched arms of the police outriders making the hand signal that is grossly offensive in some parts of the Middle East, that in others is the sign that you very much appreciate your meal - but here I am pretty sure it is an indication that the recipient should get out of the way and wait. Now.

This is a strange way to see a city.

Either Mr Solana's visit is a big deal or it is a slow news day. By the time his convoy screeches up to see Nabih Berri, the Hezbollah-aligned Speaker of parliament, there are more than two dozen camera crews waiting.

They duly wait for the entirely anodyne comment to emerge from Mr Solana - it could have been about the decor, it did not really matter - before there is another screeching convoy ride to the prime minister's Serail, or palace.

Moving on

Mr Solana is whisked away, the last thing seen of him being a rather startled face in a wildly overcrowded lift.

In the grand inner courtyard of the Serail the SUVs of various ambassadors sit, whilst heavily built, shaven-headed bodyguards fiddle with their earpieces.

There is a whiff - just the slightest whiff - of Baghdad.

Mr Solana goes five or six rounds with the local press corps - which is notably more women than men - and then there is another insane drive around Beirut to pay homage to Rafik Hariri.

What was once his home is now a shrine; huge colour photographs of him hang on the walls or are perched on easels. In what must be the world's largest living room Mr Solana chats with Mr Hariri's son, Saad.

And then, after another quick word to the press, the convoy pelts to the airport. There is time to squeeze in one more interview - does the man never stop? - and then the jet is in the air.

As the sun sets in the distance, Javier Solana prepares for his next round of meetings, his spokeswoman's leopard-skin print coat draped over his legs for warmth.


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