Around the Persian Gulf, No One Will Do but Bush

THE official at the Ministry of Information ushered his last visitor of the morning out of the office, removed his Arab head dress as he leaned back in his chair and pressed a button on the remote control.

There, on videotape, were George Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot, squaring off in the first presidential candidates' debate that had finished only a few hours earlier in St. Louis.

His foreign minister had called him, the official confided, wanting to know how the debate had gone.

The minister is unlikely to have been pleased by the American pundits' verdict that President Bush fared badly in the encounter. For in the Arab states bordering the Persian Gulf, support for the US leader is almost unanimous, in spite of his troubles in the polls.

"Everyone who thinks about the US election" - and that includes most educated people in the Gulf - "is hoping that Bush will come back," says Jamal al-Suwaidi, a political science professor at the University of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). "He is seen as a guarantee of the status quo."

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Kuwait, where people's gratitude for their liberation from Iraqi occupation last year is focused on George Bush personally.

On the walls of the United States Embassy in Kuwait City, one of the graffiti spray-painted in the euphoric days following the arrival of coalition troops has been preserved under glass.

"Thanks for Bush!" it gushes. Scribbled underneath, almost as an afterthought, the writer added "and American people."

US Ambassador Edward Gnehm has been left in little doubt as to Kuwaiti sympathies in the US presidential battle. At one diwaniyeh after another, where local notables hold informal court and discuss the issues of the day, Mr. Gnehm has had to explain to disappointed would-be contributors to the president's reelection campaign that US law forbids foreign donations.

To the vast majority of Kuwaitis, Bush is the sort of cowboy they like: the sheriff, as he is often dubbed, who cleaned their town up and drove the black-hats out.

The ultimate failure of the US to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power, a source of perpetual concern in Kuwait, has been relegated to secondary importance in many people's minds. And recent allegations that the Bush administration knew of improper bank loans to Iraq that appear to have helped fund Saddam's weapons program before the invasion have made no impact at all.

Elsewhere in the Gulf, support for Bush is equally strong, even if it is not tinged with the Kuwaitis' sense of gratitude.

Political analysts and officials here say the Arab Gulf states learned from the Kuwaiti experience to trust Bush, and to rely on his commitment to defend them.

"If Bush wins, we know there will be stability in US foreign policy," says Dr. Suwaidi. "With Clinton, there is bound to be at least a year of instability" while he rearranges US priorities, he fears, "and the last thing we need in this region is instability."

Governor Clinton's lack of experience in foreign affairs and his tight focus on strengthening the domestic US economy is also a cause for concern in the Gulf. Almost all the Arab governments in the region have turned to Washington and Europe to meet their defense needs.

"Their only hope is in the West, and in the West if the Americans don't take the lead, nobody else does," comments Aroun Solomon, an editor of the daily Gulf News.

"Everyone in these parts is hoping that Bush wins, because if he does they will be dealing with an outward-looking policy, and they expect Clinton to look inward. That would give Iran even greater clout in the region," he explains.

At the same time, some observers are confident, US interests in this region are such that Clinton will be obliged to pay it close attention.

"Like any other US president, he has a keen interest in Gulf oil," argues Dr. Abdullah Abdel Khaleq, of UAE University. "Even if he is not interested in any other part of the world, this is an area where the United States will have strategic interests for at least the next 20 years."

THOUGH Mr. Perot's insistence that rich businessmen could do a better job of running the country than politicians strikes a chord with many businessmen in the Gulf, who chafe under the traditions of rule by royal family, his lack of any clear foreign policy means nobody in this part of the world knows what to make of him.

Clinton, similarly, is seen as an unknown quantity, but one who could well win. In a region as tense and volatile as the Gulf, unknowns are unwanted.

Even advocates of greater popular participation in the government of the autocratic sheikhdoms that line the Gulf find little to hope for in Clinton's pledges to encourage democracy among Washington's allies in the developing world.

They worry that any American president, should he have to choose, will favor short-term stability over a risky transition to democracy.

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