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Middle East tour diary

George W Bush has concluded a Middle East tour which included his first visit as US president to Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as stops in the Gulf and Egypt. BBC correspondent Matthew Price, who travelled with him, wrote a diary on his progress.

16 JANUARY - 2230 GMT

Matthew Price boards Air Force One
Up the steps of Air Force One...

I suppose the strangest thing about travelling on Air Force One is the knowledge that just a few metres in front of you on the same plane are some of the worlds most powerful people: Bush, Rice, Hadley. Sitting just up in front. Or in the case of Bush possibly lying in his bed, which is right up in the nose of the plane.

After our mad dash to the airport we rushed to the back of the plane where secret service men checked our passes off on a list and we went on board. Not where you walk on a commercial flight but much lower, similar to where the luggage goes. Up the stairs, probably 20 in all and then there's a landing with the media area, the staff area and the secret service too.

Inside - well, it's grey. Pretty nasty actually. And the media cabin is a bit like being in business seats with economy service. First timers like me get a goody bag. It used to have a box of cigarettes inside with the presidential seal on them, but Nancy Reagan, I'm told, objected, so now you get White House seal M&Ms.

There's no safety announcement. I guess if you're looking after the big man everyone else can fend for themselves. And we didn't have to turn off mobiles - although there's no signal at 33,000 feet! There are 14 seats in the journo area and a couple of TVs.

Bill Clinton used to come back and chat. The photographer next to me said it was bad. You'd be trying to sleep after a gruelling trip and he'd be trying to banter. No such problem with GW. He stays well away from us.

The most interesting thing was how this is the REAL bubble. The motorcade raced us to the tarmac then the plane then we taxied and flew and never once met a real person properly. I know that's modern politics, but I can't help thinking that George W Bush had hardly been abroad when he was elected president and then for the last seven years he has been in a presidential bubble - he's been subjected to this! And he lives in Washington, divorced as that place can be from real life too!

Matthew Price aboard Air Force One
...and settling down for the trip to Washington DC

I just realised while writing that I woke up this morning in Riyadh, dropped in on Sharm el-Sheikh, and am now in Washington DC. And all day I think I've had only one chat with a person from any of the three countries.

We landed a little early, around half-seven, and trotted out into a cold Andrew's Air Force Base. To the right Marine One, the presidential helicopter. And there, the man himself walking towards it.

He cuts a lonely figure, slightly hunched. The chopper taxied then lifted off, at 7.48. Back to the White House, the end of a visit that has seemed to be more about keeping up good relations, than real achievements.

Me? I shared a taxi into town, to a funky little hotel. It's been an amazing trip. I think I'll sleep well tonight.

16 JANUARY - 1230 GMT

Now in the motorcade, but the old hands are nervous. We're too far back from the front of the motorcade.

Finally into Air Force One! And back to the US with the president. More to follow the other end.

16 JANUARY - 1145 GMT

Not sure if I've ever seen so many secret service people. Men in black glasses are everywhere here at the hotel where President Bush and President Mubarak hold their news conference in a few minutes.

The view from Matthew Price's seat
The view from my seat. Spot the president!
The Egyptians are big on security. There have been several bomb attacks in Sinai in recent years so along our route here were dozens of plain clothes agents sitting out in the desert by the road side.

So now a moment of quiet while we wait for the two leaders.

I'm flying home on Air Force One, and the White House people are saying we have to run for the motorcade when it finishes. There's a frantic American woman who keeps telling us the president won't wait for us!

The photographers are telling us all to stay sitting so as not to obscure their view. Everyone's a little on edge. When they get here I'll be a couple of metres away from arguably the world's most powerful leader. Whatever your opinion of the man that's pretty exciting.

Or have I been in the bubble too long?

16 JANUARY - MORNING

One hour and twenty minutes of sleep. In a week of hardly any rest. The radio producer Yolande got no sleep. She was packing the equipment.

The press pack board their flight out of Saudi Arabia
The press pack board their flight

It's 0630. The sun is just about to come up. The sky is clear.

It is going to be one of those beautiful days you get so often in the Middle East when the light makes everything appear so sharp, so well defined.

The cars are swerving across the lane in front of our bus. But the traffic on the way to the airport is moving fast and we'll be there soon.

Off to Egypt for a few hours. Then back to the USA.

I always feel the same when leaving the Middle East. Slightly sad.

This is a special place, a place that has suffered so much, a place that is so misunderstood by so many people.

I wonder if George Bush now feels he understands it a little better?

15 JANUARY - AFTERNOON

I got out of "the bubble" today - for a whole 45 minutes.

I jumped in a taxi, and asked the driver to take me to a shopping street. The driver, from Bangladesh, laughed when I asked if he likes it here.

US President Bush meets Saudi entrepreneurs in Riyadh on Tuesday
Riyadh residents have little good to say about George Bush

"It's not a good place," he said.

He's here, like all of the foreign workers, to earn money - in his case for family back home.

We pulled up and I got out. In a stationary shop a man in the red and white chequered headscarf favoured by Saudis said: "George Bush? Don't like."

In a cafe round the corner, BBC World TV was showing on the flat screen television, and at one table sat a man with a laptop watching YouTube on wireless internet.

I asked about Mr Bush's "Freedom Speech" in Abu Dhabi the other day.

"He always says this, this is his usual speech about freedom and democracy and things. Even in America they don't have this," he smiled.

"George Bush is not a peaceful man. He just, you know, starts a lot of wars."

We drove back to the hotel. I asked the Bangladeshi taxi driver about the cost of fuel here.

"No, not expensive," he said. Not sure that will make US consumers, nor George Bush, feel any better about the cost of a barrel of oil!

14 JANUARY - EVENING

What a day. Everyone covering this visit says today they hit a brick wall.

I think the White House press people did too. Everyone looks exhausted. The schedule is gruelling.

Journalist covering George Bush's Middle East tour
The heavy schedule is taking its toll on some journalists
The story nose dived a bit so there was no adrenalin fuelling us all.

Journalists like a bit of meat on the bones of the story, but today all we really found out about the president was that he was shown what he said were "beautiful birds" of prey.

Then we got his dinner menu - artichoke soup, and apple pie with ice cream.

And you'll be glad to know no doubt that the Saudis held that dinner "relatively early for our early-to-bed president" according to his press secretary. Like I said, no news.

So the American journalists had to satisfy their networks with stories about how tomorrow we might witness the first snowfall in Riyadh in decades.

"At least they won't have to go far to find sand for the roads" one correspondent reported.

14 JANUARY - MIDDAY

"Welcome to the Middle Ages, baby!"

That's what someone in the travelling White House press corps said as we hit the ground in Saudi Arabia. Women on board discussed whether they have to wear headscarves. The gulf of understanding (or misunderstanding) is obvious.

On the bus to the hotel women were told that since we're on a high-level visit they can choose whether or not to wear a headscarf.

Yolande Knell
BBC producer Yolande Knell dons headscarf to set up a sat phone
Since we're in a very conservative Muslim society where women are obliged to cover up, that seems strange official advice.

The Bush family is friendly with the Saudi royal family, so the president will know the limits of his so-called "freedom agenda" here.

A day after he called for countries across the Middle East to be more democratic and liberal, to introduce economic and social reforms, this is as good a place as you get to see that's not going to happen in any meaningful way during George W Bush's presidency.

He says each country must manage changes in its own way, but here to many it feels like he's trying to impose Western cultural values on the Arab world.

There's also a question over whether Mr Bush's strategy to isolate Iran because of its nuclear ambitions will work here. The short answer is "no it won't".

The Saudis have always played a very clever balancing act to maintain regional stability. They've been worried recently about Iran, but seem to have adopted an approach of trying to reach out to Tehran to diffuse tension.

President Bush will spend much of his two days in Saudi Arabia sightseeing rather than talking politics
There's an understanding among states in the region that Tehran doesn't react positively to aggression of either a political or military type.

In Saudi Arabia, and also the other states in this region, there's a sense that Iran's nuclear ambitions have changed the rules of the game.

When once the Saudis, like the Egyptians, called for a nuclear-free Middle East (remember Israel is believed to have dozens of nuclear warheads - although it never admits this) now they have shifted their position.

They say they want to develop their nuclear capability to diversify their energy resources, but the stated ambition is a clear response to Iran.

As usual the Saudis have to work hard to balance what's good for their close ally the United States, and what their regional neighbours, including Iran, need.

Perhaps that's why President Bush will spend much of his time here in the next two days sightseeing rather than talking politics.

14 JANUARY - MORNING

An early start today. Another early start!

We piled onto minibuses, with all our gear and drove the half hour or so to the airport.

Air Force One is a stunning sight on the tarmac to my left. The sun rising behind it and lots of reporters getting their photos taken in front.

On board, we get offered a mimosa - one last drink before arriving in Saudi Arabia.

We've just been reminded there's no alcohol in Saudi. And the women travelling on the trip have been told to dress appropriately.

Prepare for take off. Better go!

13 JANUARY - EVENING

It's not just the Bush White House I'm learning about on this trip. It's also the American media machine.

The people who work alongside me in the radio reporting operation are all seasoned correspondents. One is a household name in the US after years of service and renowned journalism.

The BBC's Matthew Price files a radio despatch from the press centre in Abu Dhabi - 13/1/2008
Matthew Price's despatches are "almost a book" by some US standards
And yet they all spend most of the day filing the shortest of radio pieces. So short indeed that they call them "spots"!

Sometimes they get to do longer analysis, and their work is professional and of a high standard. But it seems their stations no longer want more than a few seconds of coverage.

One of them, I'll not say for which network, the other day lamented the stories being covered on the station's website. Entertainment and wacky tales dominated.

Then today, I was doing a recording to camera with an American TV crew. I spoke for about a minute and a half to try to explain some of the background to the president's speech. That's almost a book, the cameraman said when I finished. He said in the US it's just a lot shorter.

The Bush tour media pack arrives in Abu Dhabi - 13 January 2008
Another day, another city - on Sunday it was Abu Dhabi
There is good journalism in the States, of course. Newspapers have quality stories and TV and radio deal with some weighty issues. And I'm travelling in the main with some excellent journalists who take their jobs seriously.

This isn't a criticism of them, but overall the coverage most of their companies provide is dominated by quick, catchy stories. And it seems even their own president doesn't get much of a look in.

Some would argue the British media have already started down that path. If that's the case, the future doesn't look to be a terribly well informed one.

Enough! To sleep, briefly. Tomorrow we're off early to Saudi Arabia on the next leg of the trip. Day six. Country five.

13 JANUARY - MORNING

They call it the bubble, and when we touched down in Bahrain it felt like we were stuck right inside it.

The view from the bubble, through a rainy bus window
The view from the bubble, through a rainy bus window
The bus drove us out of the airport, it had parked next to the aeroplane and we simply walked onto it. For some reason our convoy had a police escort, and we passed junctions where the local traffic had to wait for us as we drove through red lights. We drove along the causeway towards the skyscrapers of Manama.

Other journalists took their cameras out, asking questions about what we were seeing. Excited tourists. Then we got to the hotel and were whisked in.

The reason they call it the bubble, is because this whole process means that from touchdown to media centre you literally look out of the bubble at the real world around you. In Kuwait I don't think I met a single Kuwaiti. Though to be fair most hotel staff there are from Asia or elsewhere.

It's basically like being embedded with the president - with all the issues that raises for journalists. Not that the White House in any way tries to affect our reporting.

President Bush at Naval Support Activity Bahrain
Breakfast in Bahrain: President Bush joins the troops for some food
They have never approached me about a story I've been filing. I've got total freedom, but because of the tight schedules don't get to meet the people of the country we're passing through. That's okay. The job is to report on the president's visit, but it does mean you need other sources of information about where you are.

One other quick thing. Mr Bush while here in Bahrain welcomed a new Iraqi law that allows thousands of former junior supporters of Saddam Hussein's Baath party to take up government jobs. It's worth remembering that it was Mr Bush's administration that supported the removal of Baath party officials from office in the first place, soon after the occupation of Iraq in 2003.

The feeling in the region? Among many I suspect "Why didn't he follow the new line on former Baath party officials in the first place?"

Right, got to pack. We're now off to Abu Dhabi.

12 JANUARY - 1200 GMT

You can't miss George Bush in a crowd. That hand held high waving. That swagger and grin. I was quite surprised though when he walked through the Arifjan military camp in Kuwait at the reaction from the US soldiers and other personnel there.

They cheered of course, but I'd thought they would have cheered for longer. Perhaps his unpopularity back home is rubbing off here?

As he told the troops that the US would be victorious in Iraq, Condoleezza Rice stood at the back, nodding in agreement behind her large black designer sunglasses.

Mr Bush has seemed more nuanced in his statements on this trip than he perhaps has in the past. He also seems to have a firm grip of the issues as he sees them, and there's a confidence about him.

It doesn't mean he's going to be successful of course.

Many here argue his presidency has done too much damage in the Middle East even to contemplate a bright future any time soon. But as one American official told me, maybe, with US domestic attention focused on Mr Bush's successor, perhaps he feels less constrained by US politics.

Perhaps, as this official speculated, he's enjoying simply the most powerful man in the world.

So. Now to Bahrain. We just boarded, after a mad rush of filing our stories. The plane's taxiing past Air Force One now. Another day, another country.

12 JANUARY - 0430 GMT

Early morning wake-up call again!

We're all in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Kuwait with a load of our kit laid out on the floor and us security agents going through it. We're off to Camp Arifjan, the biggest US military base here.

The president's going to speak to the troops and to his top general in Iraq. He'll meet the US ambassador to Iraq too. Today the agenda's certainly less about Israel and the Palestinians.

11 JANUARY - EVENING

Amazing. I just did something I never thought I would. I got on a plane and flew from Tel Aviv to Kuwait. It took about two hours. Easy.

When I lived in Jerusalem and travelled to Iraq I would go through Kuwait. But the journey would take over seven hours - because there are no direct flights between the two countries. Until you're travelling with the US president.

George W Bush arrives in Kuwait, 11 Jan 2008
On Friday, it only took two hours to reach Kuwait from Tel Aviv

The reason there are no direct flights is because Kuwait like many Arab countries doesn't have normal relations with Israel.

That's something Mr Bush wants to address here. He's hoping to encourage allies of his, like Kuwait, to have some contact at least with Israel. Even before we'd stepped off the plane Condoleezza Rice had said we shouldn't expect any developments on that, but she says there is progress.

And most Arab states like Kuwait will always find it an unreasonable demand to form any sort of tie with Israel, as long as Israel occupies Palestinian land.

You can see how it's all interlinked. That's why George Bush's strategy is - while not new - probably the only sensible way to proceed. He's worked out the issues that he thinks need addressing, and he's trying to address all of them at the same time hoping progress on one will aid progress in others. A virtuous circle if you like.

If it works maybe one day everyone will be able to fly from Tel Aviv to Kuwait in two hours.

11 JANUARY - AFTERNOON

The travelling press pack is now off to Kuwait, following hot on the heels of the president.

We are going to have to play catch-up on this leg as he will have done his official duties by the time we arrive.

George Bush waves goodbye to President Shimon Peres (l) and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as he leaves Israel, 11 January 2008
George Bush left Israel talking of his confidence

The ride out from Jerusalem was beautiful. It is a bright sunny day and now, travelling out of Ben Gurion airport is proving so easy.

I spent four years getting all sorts of lengthy personal security questions coming in and out of this airport.

This time, after a very brief delay our bus simply drove into the airport and right up to the plane. We will be airborne within half an hour so.

The logistics that go into a trip like this are phenomenal.

It cost a huge amount of money - the White House is reluctant to say how much, but it is in the millions of dollars.

George Bush clearly thinks it is worth it. He left this troubled land still talking of his confidence.

Now he has to get some of his Arab allies on side to enlist their help in persuading the Palestinians and the Israelis to move forward.

10 JANUARY - EVENING

The great thing about being involved in a trip like this is that you get a special press pass that so far seems to open all sorts of doors.

When the rest of the city is shut down, I just whip out my "White House Middle East" card and sail through.

George W Bush (l) and Mahmoud Abbas (r)
A cordial meeting between Mr Bush and Mr Abbas

"The trip of the president to the Middle East" it says on it. Note, not any old president, just THE president!

And there is a confidence about the president and his people to be honest.

George Bush admitted today in an aside that he can sometimes be criticised for not speaking English so well. But on this trip so far he's appeared literate, on top of the issues and actually rather believable about the whole prospect of Middle East peace.

If I hadn't worked here for almost four years before covering the US, I might even be a little less sceptical about his chances of success.

His National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley came and spoke to us today. He said that the meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, had gone well, and that both sides had exchanged "reminiscences" during a working lunch.

He made it all sound very cordial.

And I spoke to another US official, who said he'd been in a private meeting of the president and US staff working here in Jerusalem.

The president - as he spoke about the chances of peace - had "welled up" he said. Visiting the Holy Land - as a religious man - has clearly affected George Bush deeply.

9 JANUARY - EVENING

Poor old George Bush. He certainly picked a good day to be travelling to the Middle East. All eyes in America were on who might be the next US president, rather than him.

Clinton and Obama were names you heard far more frequently on the US networks on the first day of his trip here than you did the name Bush.

President Bush (L) and Ehud Olmert 9/1/08
Mr Bush's visit has not been making a splash back home
A friend of mine who works here for a big US network says they were seventh story in the running order and possibly not getting onto the main evening news. And he was working with the White House correspondent!

What I thought was most interesting today was what felt like an ever so slightly more critical approach towards the Israelis from the Bush administration.

They are still the closest of allies of course.

However, in the last 24 hours I think every White House briefing we've had has mentioned how Israel has to stop settlement expansion, just as the Palestinians have to stop attacks against Israelis.

For years you rarely heard more than a cursory mention of Israel's settlement growth (remember one of Israel's commitments is to stop building Jewish towns and villages on occupied Palestinian land).

It'll be surprising if it makes a huge difference on the ground - but as President Bush said with a smile to Prime Minister Olmert today, "if you need a little nudge then you know I will give a nudge." He sounded like he meant it too.

9 JANUARY - MORNING

The streets are quieter than I ever remember them, apart from when this country closes down on Yom Kippur.

People have stayed away from the city today, because the streets around the president's hotel are closed. There are police everywhere. When the president's convoy moves from venue to venue they simply shut down the route he takes to other traffic.

Empty streets in Jerusalem
Some of Jerusalem's principal thoroughfares are closed to traffic
I walked up to the hotel, which is surrounded by Israeli and US security people. People hang around to take a quick photo and are told not to use their cameras.

There's a strange feeling in the air. I left a United States in the grip of early election fever where George W Bush feels somewhat irrelevant. Here he's greeted by all as the most powerful man on Earth.

He hopes that will help encourage the Israeli and Palestinian leaders to focus on what he wants them to do - launch a proper negotiating process.

The thing that's so noticeable is the difference between what you hear from Bush's aides, and what you hear from people on the streets here.

His aides tell us they're still confident that there can be a negotiated peace deal by the end of the year. And why not? After all most people understand the broad layout of what such a deal would look like. In theory and on paper it is possible.

But then you talk to the people here, like my taxi driver this morning, who told me with that weary sigh everyone here has when talking about such visits: "It won't achieve anything."

8 JANUARY

Midnight on a mild January night. Far warmer than the freezing conditions I left behind in Iowa after reporting on the first stage of the process to chose the next president of the world's most powerful nation.

The United States - caught up in the excitement of Clinton v Obama - almost seems to have almost forgotten that its current president has exactly a year left in office.

I wheel my case across the tarmac, towards the charter plane that's taking reporters to the Middle East on President Bush's eight-day trip, and chat to a colleague who covers the White House for another network.

"He's got to go abroad," we joke. "No one here's interested in him anymore!"

But if George W Bush - America's least popular president in years (both at home and abroad) - gets it right, there will be more than just interest in him.

In pre-trip interviews he's said he genuinely believes there can be a "comprehensive peace treaty [between Israel and the Palestinians] signed by the end of this year".

Having left Jerusalem last August, after almost four years reporting from there, that strikes me as pretty unlikely.

As we taxi for take-off the steward makes a mistake during the safety announcement.

"In the event of a water execution..." he trails off.

"Do you mean water-boarding?" shouts a journalist. Much laughter.

Everyone here's covered President Bush's refusal to say whether he considers - as many do - the interrogation technique to be torture.

We settle back for the ride. In the next eight days we'll visit six countries, one occupied territory, and a host of world leaders.

It's going to be tiring, but fascinating.

Map of Middle East





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