I returned last week from my first-ever trip to the Arabian Gulf, visiting Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. I was preparing to tell my friends in the Bush-Cheney administration about the great opportunity I found there to help build a more peaceful, free, prosperous and democratic region when I heard President Bush announce his proposal for the establishment of a Middle East regional free-trade area with the United States. Bravo, Mr. Bush; that's the kind of bold and audacious proposal so critically important to improving our ties to the Arab and Muslim world post-Saddam Hussein.
While I was in Abu Dhabi, I met with Sheik Mohammad bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, chief of staff of the UAE Armed Forces, and Ahmed Ali Al Sayegh, chairman of Off Set, to discuss a 21st century Marshall Plan for the whole region. Sheik Mohammad told me that there has never been a more appropriate time for a U.S.-led initiative to open up trade, communications, commerce and investment between the Arab world and the West. I was reminded of his comments a few days later, when I read the remarks of Egyptian-American Professor Saad Eddin Ibrahim in The Washington Post. He said, "Democracy and development are two important requisites for a dynamic, peaceful regional equilibrium."
Sheik Mohammad informed me that the Dolphin gas pipeline from Qatar to Abu Dhabi and then on to Oman will be the first large-scale cooperative economic development undertaking of the region. What a perfect time to use that pipeline as a connecting thread to begin weaving together the fabric of a totally integrated economic region of trade, commerce and liberalization.
In reading the president's speech, it dawned on me how well he understands the necessity not only of laying out a road map to peace between Israel and the Palestinians but also of paving that road to peace with sound economic policies for the entire region so as, in his words, "to bring the Middle East into an expanding circle of opportunity, to provide hope for the people who live in that region." In proposing the Middle East free-trade zone, the president made the profound observation that "free markets and trade have helped defeat poverty and taught men and women the habits of liberty."
What the president was saying is often hard for Americans to understand since the "habits of liberty" are sown into the very fabric of our society. Those habits don't exist currently in many parts of the world, and they cannot be taught in the abstract. The habits of liberty, like any other habit, result from constant repetition, and there is no better opportunity for practicing freedom and the responsibility that undergirds it than engaging in business, commerce and open trade.