Nowruz in Abu Dhabi
11 Dec 2008 12:35
Desert storm: Emiratis and Qataris flex their muscles (with a little help from their friend).By GOLNOUSH NIKNEJAD in Abu Dhabi
[Tehran Bureau] It was back in March, a couple weeks before the Iranian New Year. I had submitted a copy of my passport and press credentials to attend a demonstration of military maneuvers that was to take place at the end of three weeks of exercises between Emirati, French and Qatari forces. When I did not hear back, I was not surprised: though I carry an American passport, it clearly states that I was born in Iran.
Not that it should have been an issue. As officials will tell you, the first joint war games between the three countries had nothing to do with the state of tensions with Iran. Not even when the French-led military exercises coincided with President Nicolas Sarkozy's tough stance against Iran's nuclear program. And not even when the exercises were preceded by a visit to Iran by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the U.A.E. and Ruler of Dubai. This was the highest ranking visit by a U.A.E. official to Iran since the revolution 30 years ago.
The day before the exercises were due to take place, I had still not heard back and put in a call. My contact on the other end of the line could not find any of the paperwork I had faxed over more than two weeks earlier. But he clearly remembered my constant pestering and told me to get myself to Bateen Air Base the next morning, where we were supposed to catch a plane to "an island in the Gulf".
The base failed to appear on the expensive new GPS system that I had just purchased, so I called for a taxi instead. The guards at Bateen were surprised and confused by my appearance. After several calls from the gate, I was escorted to a shuttle bus that was to ferry a small group of journalists to the plane. A contingent of suit-and-tied Frenchmen who spoke their names in hushed tones to the guard were escorted off the minibus when a military attache was unable to locate their names on his list.
"That's new to me," said an Arab photojournalist who had arrived from Saudi Arabia. "This is the first time I've been on a bus where the brown guys get to stay on, and the white guys have to get out." We chuckled, as if in admiration for the government of the U.A.E.
We were joined on the plane by Emirati, French and Qatari officers -- and later the same group of quiet Frenchmen. The windows from which we could gauge the course of our 45-minute journey were blocked off but I guessed our island was somewhere near the Saudi border. A bigger bus took us to a ceremony on a covered but windy platform. For all the security, my cell phone still worked.
I started chatting with a man who had an American accent in the row below me. He quickly moved the topic of the conversation to Iran. As he continued to escalate his rhetoric, I broke the news to him. "You should probably know that I was born in Iran," I said. He was visibly shaken. "And they let you in here?" he asked after gaining his composure.
At least he was earnest.
Under a sandstorm warning, with visibility severely limited, it was difficult to understand what was happening in the military exercises: there was lots of dust, lots of machinery and lots of men but the overall objective remained a mystery to me. The simultaneous-translation headphones with which I was provided failed to carry an English translation, apparently not because of technical difficulties either. The interpreter would taper off in the middle of sentences, as if bored or suddenly seized by the realization that the task at hand was beyond his capabilities. Or maybe he couldn't see anything either.
From what I could make out, there were three friendly countries involved in the exercise. The white country -- Qatar -- had just signed a business and economic agreement that a fourth country -- the "red country" -- was angry about, prompting it to invade the whites. The other two countries had come to its aid.
A reporter from Reuters asked during the news conference that followed, "Who is country red?" French General Roger Renard replied, "It's just a 'hypothetical', as in a 'Hollywood scenario'. Red country is red country."
"Why had the three countries decided to join forces this year?" I asked. France has long had a presence in the Persian Gulf and has conducted military exercises with both U.A.E. and Qatar separately for a number of years. "We just did," Gen. Renard said. "It had to happen at some time and it just happened to be this year."
Iran was unhappy about the exercises, said the reporter who had asked about the red country. The French press attache, sitting to my right, signaled for Renard that he must not answer any "political questions." Renard tried to dodge the question. "There is always a great temptation to relate an exercise to political matters," he said. "Our business is to train our people to work together... and to be able to fight together if we have to."
The threat of a possible war on Iran has been looming at least since the U.S.-led war on Iraq in March 2003, shortly after the beginning of the Persian New Year. It's been widely covered in the media, so widely I'm not sure what to make of it. Has it deflected an actual strike, or numbed a great number of people to the very idea, thus making an attack all the more feasible.
I was feeling cold and went to stand next to a U.A.E. guard with his back turned to me holding a machine gun. He had found a rare patch of sun and in the desert chill I desperately needed some extra warmth. When he asked me to return to my seat, I remembered the first words of Arabic I had learned as a child in Iranian school the year after the revolution: "Al Shams," I said, referring to the sun. The guard smiled and made more room for me next to him.