• Keep it clean, keep it green: More on the book CleanUAE.
Cynthia McKinney was planning to ride a bicycle from Abu Dhabi to Dubai to draw attention to a new "green" initiative. The 55-year-old American environmental activist and former Green Party US presidential candidate seldom does things in a low-key manner.
She had to be gently persuaded that it was a highly dangerous and foolhardy idea, if not illegal, but it says a great deal about the former congresswoman that she was prepared to do it. McKinney's heart is and always has been in the right place.
In the end, her first visit to Dubai was spent in a more sedate manner, in the rather more comfortable and elegant surroundings of Dubai's Desert Palm Resort, giving the keynote speech at the launch of CleanUAE, a new book designed to create awareness of the effect of high-impact lifestyles and rapid development on the UAE's environment. Hopefully, it will become an annual publication.
It's a subject close to McKinney's heart. Three years ago she turned her back on front line Democratic Party politics in the US, having served six terms as a member of the House of Representatives, in order to lend her support to the Green Party and environmental issues.masdar
She believes that there is a major grassroots urge among ordinary Americans to redirect official government policy from military action towards funding sustainability.
"The earth is sending us a message that there's got to be a different way. Our economic and political organisation has got to change in order to accommodate that. The global community is now at risk. If we could have a more humane and more respectful policy coming out of the US, then not only would the global community be protected but the dignity of the global community is promoted," she says.
Despite the UAE having one of the biggest carbon footprints per head in the world, the environment and sustainability are high on the agenda here, McKinney says. It was one reason she was keen to visit. "Certainly it is on the minds of the leadership here with the Masdar initiative, and you have the solar desalination plant that's coming and the innovations with respect to the use of water in agriculture and creating thunderstorms in the desert," she says.
McKinney, who was the Green Party's presidential candidate in the 2008 election, is an outspoken supporter of Arab causes.
She sees a direct link between supporting the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King Jr and supporting the people of Palestine, and says she left the Democratic Party because she believed too many of her colleagues were simply toeing the party line.
"It was the right thing for me to do. I'm a child of the civil rights movement. I am a direct beneficiary of the sacrifices that black people in the US made in order to do a simple thing and that is to cast a vote, and blood was shed just for that simple right.
"The party is wrong. The party has been captured by special interests that subvert the will of the people, and one of those special interests is the pro-Israel lobby, which utilises the US Treasury and the US military for its own ends. For me it's not only that I'm an American first, it's about truth, justice. I'm a Southerner, so it's not only that I am black but I was at the epicentre of what the US was and still is going through."
The divorced mother of a 25-year-old son, McKinney, who was born in Atlanta, Georgia, is the daughter of Billy McKinney, a former policeman and civil rights activist who became a Georgia state representative. As a mother, she is well aware of the risks she takes being so outspoken. She experienced real terror when she decided to accompany a group of human rights activists delivering medical supplies to the people of Gaza two years ago. The Free Gaza Movement boat that she was on was rammed and disabled by the Israeli military.
"One of the doctors on board yelled to us all that we must prepare ourselves mentally to die and I commenced to do just that.
"I wondered how the world would view me, a divorced mother of one, who had left her son who was about to enter law school, to go off and try to save the lives of children I did not even know. And when the Israelis rammed us, it dawned on me that I didn't even know how to swim.
"All of a sudden, I became so scared - I had even put my life jacket on upside-down and inside-out. The English doctor noticed and took it off me, turned it correctly, put it back on to me, retied it, and said, 'There now'.
"I was afraid of falling into the sea, being crushed between our boat and the huge Israeli warship and afraid of what it would feel like to drown. And there was the embarrassment of being afraid of what others would say of me as a mother after I was dead."
She says it was the thought of her ancestors who had braved the slave rebellions and the civil rights movement and her father's battle against discrimination that made her pull herself together. "And then, all of a sudden, I was no longer afraid," she says simply.
She has no regrets about taking part in attempting to break the Gaza blockade, although she was criticised for being irresponsible and provocative. "The only people who say that my efforts to assert the human rights of the people of Gaza were wrong are the people who want to deny those human rights."
Her politics were learnt mostly from her father, who died last year. He would carry her on his shoulders to demonstrations and they served together in Congress representing Georgia. Her eyes fill with tears when she talks about him.
"My father had been in politics for 30 years. He was everything to me. When I was first elected to the Georgia legislature my father told me that politics is a man's world. But he also said, 'They put their pants on, just like you do'."
McKinney believes that the foundation of a strong peace lobby is the way forward in the US. "There is a way out of the policy dilemma posed by the presence and predominance of the pro-Israel lobby on US politics, the formation of a peace and dignity lobby inside the US."
In the wakes of Hurricane Katrina, the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the Pakistan floods and the earthquake in Haiti, the world needs to put environmental issues at the top of the political agenda, she says, instead of spending billions on developing nuclear power.
"How many reports do we need in order change ourselves and to demand change from our governments?", she asks. "Unfortunately, in the midst of all of this, the world's sole superpower spends more than 50 per cent of its discretionary national receipts on weapons of mass destruction and war, and cajoles other rich governments to spend inordinate amounts of their national treasure on weapons of war, death, and destruction and less on diplomacy and human and earth dignity.
"Mother Nature won't wait. Either we step up to the plate and do what is necessary or mankind loses."
• Keep it clean, keep it green: More on the book CleanUAE.