- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 29, 2007

DAMASCUS, Syria.

If your job requires you to spend nearly half your time on the road, as Ban Ki-moon’s has lately, you could do worse than to travel secretary-general style.

U.N. officials have frequently relied on the hospitality of wealthy nations, whose leaders are not unknown to send a jet and sometimes even complimentary hotel rooms for the delegation.

The emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, kindly sent a private 26-seat plane to ferry Mr. Ban and his entourage from Geneva to Doha, where Mr. Ban spent two days last week meeting with officials and addressing a conference on democracy, development and free trade.

That conference was so inclusive that the emir’s guests spilled out of the Four Seasons hotel and into the InterContinental Doha — a perfectly nice place. But the democracy bench was not particularly deep, and the official speakers were heavy on “formers,” including ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, retired Lebanese President Salim Hoss and South Africa’s apartheid-ending president, F.W. de Klerk.

It probably would be rude to point out that Qatar, despite its constitution and right of assembly, is not a beacon of democracy. The tiny peninsula is dependent on a guest work force that comprises about 75 percent of the population, and none of these British business executives, Philippine hotel workers or Indian everything-elses have what would commonly be recognized as human rights under the emirate’s legal system.

Anyway, Mr. Ban delivered workmanlike remarks in Doha. But it was clear to reporters traveling inside the baby-blue bubble that Mr. Ban and his team of Middle East specialists were far more concerned about their next stop: Syria.

As it turns out, much of the heavy lifting was accomplished before the U.N. delegation arrived in Damascus: Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem hitched a ride back to his capital on Mr. Ban’s plane and spent the three-hour trip working with the secretary-general and his aides.

Somehow, Mr. Ban was scheduled for only seven hours in Damascus — barely time for pleasantries when one is planning to meet with the elusive President Bashar Assad, Vice President Farouq al-Shara, the commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights and the staff of the U.N. Development Program (UNDP).

There was no time for more than a breeze-through of the Syrian side of the Golan Heights and a howdy-do with joyful staffs at UNDP and the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force mission. At one point, the convoy sped down Damascus’ highways at almost 90 mph — nearly twice the posted speed limit.

Mr. Ban was happy to chat with accompanying reporters representing publications from Germany, Switzerland, Italy and the United States, as well as English and Arabic television. He answered questions over the roar of the jet, and even invited the entire entourage to lunch in Qatar when an unexpected hole opened in his schedule.

It was a genial meal, probably because it was strictly off the record. But one could report that Mr. Ban chose the shellfish medley and barely touched the wine he ordered for the table. He didn’t get to enjoy the mosaic fruit platter or cappuccino because Sudanese President Omar Bashir telephoned, and that was probably more important.

Protocol is a large part of any trip like this, and its demands provided some unintended humor: Countries normally send their foreign minister to greet the secretary-general when his plane arrives, but Mr. Muallem was on the plane.

After some head-scratching, the Syrian minister trundled down the red carpet and then turned to greet Mr. Ban in the customary style. When you look at the photos of the two men shaking hands — and Syrian television and newspapers carried a lot of them — you will notice they are not smiling but laughing.

Earlier in Doha, Mr. Ban arrived to discover that no one was waiting for him except for a couple of heat-wearied baggage handlers. After some frantic on-plane discussion, the senior U.N. official — a visiting public information officer from Bahrain — greeted Mr. Ban for the benefit of the traveling press.

• Betsy Pisik may be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

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