Kuwaitis welcome Bush warmly

January 12, 2008 7:12:47 AM PST
When former President Bush visited this major U.S. ally 15 years ago, tens of thousands of Kuwaitis greeted his arrival, showering him with gifts including a racing camel from one local Bedouin.

On Friday, his son saw nothing like that storm of public adulation and no celebrations were planned to mark his visit. Arriving to a ceremonial red-carpet welcome, President Bush accepted a bouquet of flowers and greeted dignitaries.

Though still grateful to Washington for the 1991 U.S.-led Gulf War that ended seven months of Iraqi occupation, there has been increasing wariness here about the younger Bush and his Middle East policies.

"We want (the U.S.) to consult with Kuwait and the rest of the Gulf states. They have to deal with Gulf states as a true partner," said Haila al-Mekaimi, a political science professor at Kuwait University.

In 1993 when his father visited Kuwait, the horrors of the Iraqi occupation under Saddam Hussein were fresh. Kuwaitis eagerly welcomed the elder Bush, lining the airport road to see him. A merchant even donated imported perfume to spray the route of his motorcade.

However, the mood here has sobered toward the United States in recent years. Though Kuwait was the launch pad for the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Kuwaitis fear sectarian violence in the country could spill over their border.

Kuwait, like its other Gulf Arab neighbors, is also jittery over tensions between the Bush administration and Iran, and nervous about the rise of Tehran.

Days before the younger Bush's arrival, Kuwaitis wrote letters in newspapers welcoming him as a distinguished guest, but also calling on him to release four Kuwaitis held at Guantanamo Bay.

In one such letter published Tuesday in the paper Al-Jarida, Abdul-Karim al-Gharaballi said Kuwaitis wished they could receive Bush in their homes to show him local hospitality but also wanted to hold "frank diplomacy-free" chats on Iraq and the need to close down Guantanamo.

Still, criticism of the Kuwait visit was more moderate than other Arab countries - with many Kuwaitis praising U.S.-Kuwait relations. In Egypt, where Bush is set to visit Wednesday, newspapers have been flooded with anti-Bush commentary, calling his attempts to bring peace to the region a failure.

The U.S. leader, who already has visited Israel and the West Bank, is also set to travel to Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

While in Kuwait, Bush plans to meet U.S. troops at Camp Arifjan, hold talks with the emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, and have a round-table discussion on democracy with a group of women.

"The visit is timely and he is more than welcome. Whether under Bush the father, or Bush the son or the coming president, our ties will remain strong and be more than just politics," said Rashed al-Mohammed, a 41-year-old oil engineer, while at a grocery store in Kuwait City.