Former president also recalls close friendship with UAE ten years after that historic first trip
George W Bush in Abu Dhabi: Steps into immigration debate, has strong words on Putin
President George W Bush returned to Abu Dhabi almost exactly ten years since his first visit with praise for the UAE’s leadership, a sideways swipe at Donald Trump and an outright attack on the conduct of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
President Bush also made clear his concerns about the populist forces that elected President Trump and have driven many of his policies, including selective bans on the admission of people from several Muslim majority countries.
On the issue of immigration, he said that it was “important to realise is that the United States has had a history of assimilation, that we welcome people regardless of their religion and where they were born because we've got confidence in what we stand for".
“That confidence is diminished now, but it’s still evident among most Americans," he said.
President Bush was speaking at the first Milken Institute Mena Summit on Saadiyat Island, and described Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Commander of the UAE Armed Forces as “one of the best leaders in the world. He’s smart, he’s got vision and he’s a dear friend".
In January 2008, Mr Bush became the first – and so far only - sitting US president to visit the UAE, joking this time: “I might have to tell the other ones you know. About time they got here.”
That visit was recalled by Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE Ambassador to Washington and a Minister of State in his introduction telling the audience that the “trust and good relationship" between the two countries stemmed from that visit.
He also described the visit to a desert camp arranged for President Bush, his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed.
“Think of a family picnic out in the desert, but instead of your family think of the president of the United States... the national security adviser, the Vice President of the UAE, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi all hanging out together,” Mr Al Otaiba recalled.
On this latest visit, President Bush expressed regret that Americans did not always understand the significance of their role in the world, using the example of the battle against HIV in Africa during his terms in office, funded though US aid.
“The problem is most Americans have no clue that their generosity saved 11 million people’s lives,” Mr Bush said, adding: “When I hear talk about letting other people solve problems… it troubles me deeply. Because ours is a nation of great compassion and when the United States puts its mind to something we can get things done.
“It’s too bad. If they could see what you and I have seen, they would realise how important it is to stay engaged with the world. When you are the leader of your country it’s hard to convince your nation to look elsewhere when there are problems at home.”
Mr Bush, who held office between 2001 and 2009, appeared critical of the climate of hostility generated toward immigrants by the election of President Trump.
“We’ve got to enforce our border, go to enforce our laws,” he said. “But there are people willing to do jobs Americans aren’t willing to do. Lots of Americans don’t want to pick cotton in 105 degrees, but there are people who want to put food on their family's table, and are willing to do that.
“We ought to be able to say thank you, and to welcome them. Have a plan in place that enables workers to do work Americans won’t do.
“When there's a populist sentiment it makes it harder to get that kind of issue resolved."
President Bush also stepped into the current debate about deporting those children born to illegal immigrants, a policy President Trump has expressed support for.
"These kids, they were born in America, their parents were here illegally and they say they have to go home,” President Bush said.
“Well they don't have a home. America’s their home - and they've got to get it fixed.”
But his strongest words were reserved for President Putin, who President Trump claims to have good relationship with.
“He can’t think ‘how can we both win?’ President Bush said of the Russian leader. “He only thinks ‘I win, you lose’. which makes him difficult to deal with.
“It’s important for our friends to know who our friends are, and for our enemies to know that we've got a problem with them. There can't be any ambiguity. Same dealing with Putin.”
And with allegations still swirling about President Trump's election campaign and Russian involvement, he added: “I would say he’s [Putin] not a direct threat to the homeland except for the elections.
“And its problematic that a foreign nation is involved in our election system because Democracy is really only as good as the people's trust in results.
“And there’s pretty clear evidence that the Russians meddled. Whether they affected the outcome is another question. But they meddled and that’s dangerous for a democracy.
President Bush has made it clear previously that he does not intend to comment specifically on his successors, and yesterday’s remarks, in conversation with the founder of the Milken Institute, Michael Milken, also conspicuously avoided the more controversial polices of the Bush administration like the invasion of Afghanistan and the war in Iraq.
But he did reflect on some of lessons he learned as leader of the world’s only superpower.
“Know what you don't know and surround yourself with people who know what you don't know," he said.
“And listen to them.”