The Middle East was once again at the heart of President Bush’s State of the Union address. His optimism looks strained.

Others are losing hope. ‘So far, the democracy wave that the Bush team has helped to unleash in the Arab-Muslim world since 11 September 2001 has brought to power hardliners in Iraq, Palestine and Iran and has paved the way for a record showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,’ New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in January. ‘If we keep this up, in a few years Muslim clerics will be in power from Morocco to the border of India.’

The sardonic tone reflects opinion polls showing Americans are losing faith in Middle East political reconstruction. The White House’s 2006 electoral preoccupation is withdrawing troops from hotspots while evading Democrat claims of a Vietnam-style debacle.

So this year is likely to be the last in the US’ great Gulf adventure, which began in September 1986 when Sheikh Jaber al-Sabah invited the Soviet Union and the US to reflag Kuwaiti vessels, targets of Iranian attacks. The Soviets said yes and stung the US into making a reflagging offer that Kuwait accepted in March 1987. The results of America’s 20-year Gulf war, which has cost many young American lives and perhaps as much as $1 trillion, are disappointing. The $250,000 million President Bush says the US has spent on the battle against terror is equivalent to giving $10,000 to every Iraqi man, woman and child. A cash handout on this scale rather than bombing, invasion and occupation would probably have made them healthier, wealthier and more grateful to the US than they are today.

Like many Americans, Friedman says that the Middle East is beyond early redemption. ‘You cannot go from Saddam to Jefferson without going through Khomeini,’ he writes. He is partly right. It was ludicrous to try and found Athenian democracies in civilisations that were old before Aristotle’s birth. In my opinion, there are now only two political models compelling to Middle East youth. One is Islamic Iran. The other is the UAE, a secure, stable, prosperous federation that welcomes foreign skills and capital. The UAE was not built overnight. But unless there are more Dubais, there will be more Irans. To help this happen, political leaders in the region and internationally must therefore deal less in rhetoric and concentrate on tackling the poverty, unemployment, bad health and poor education that blight the lives of hundreds of millions. And if they cannot be constructive, they should shut up and get out of the way.

Stem cell research in DubaiAbdulqader al-Khayat, director of Dubai’s Biotechnology & Research Park (Dubiotech), tells MEED that he aims to set up the region’s first advanced stem cell research centre (see Briefing, page 8). What is truly radical is that Dubiotech may permit the use of human embryos. Stem cell research involving embryos has been effectively impossible in the US since 2001 when President Bush brought in restrictions to satisfy conservative supporters. But some Islamic thinkers argue that human life does not begin until 120 days after conception. If that is the case, then there are no obvious moral objections to such research being done in Dubiotech.

Etihad’s sporting choiceAt the ceremony to mark the arrival of Etihad Airway’s first Boeing 777-300ER, I was authoritatively told that Abu Dhabi’s airline will take no decision about major sports sponsorships for at least a year. So speculation that followed a visit to Abu Dhabi in December by Manchester United owner Malcolm Glazer was entirely misplaced.

Etihad is also not looking exclusively at football. Other sports are targets, including Formula 1 racing. But soccer is close to the top of the agenda and Etihad is still open to proposals. It was pointed out to Robert Strodel, Etihad’s visionary chief executive officer, that the gold letters in the airline’s logo would look great on the lily-white shirts