Charlie Bolden and NASA Middle East Outreach: Take II

By Keith Cowing
September 19, 2010
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Charlie Bolden and NASA Middle East Outreach: Take II

[Revised] It looks like Charlie Bolden may be headed back to the Middle East soon – this time, to Saudi Arabia.The purpose? Some would say that he is trying to get the Saudis more involved in ongoing peace negotiations at the behest of the Obama White House. But others note that he has some personal agenda items at work as well – all under the excuse of commemorating a Space Shuttle flight 25 years ago.

The excuse being used for this trip is the 25th anniversary of the flight of Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a nephew of the King of Saudi Arabia, on STS-51G in 1985.

There seems to be a new element emerging in the Obama Administration’s efforts to advance a Middle East peace accord. That element is getting Saudi Arabia’s involvement as a broker that could heavily influence Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Present at the White House during the recent round of diplomatic talks were leaders of Jordan, Egypt, and Israel. Conspicuously missing were leaders from Saudi Arabia, a fact noted by the President and State Secretary Clinton.

According to one of several sources knowledgeable on the subject “expect to see a wave of mid-level Administration appointees embarking on a round of carrot-and-stick sweetener overtures” to Saudi officials to entice them to join the Obama effort. For their part, the Saudi government wants the U.S. to exert greater pressure on Israel to stop construction of settlements in occupied territories that might someday be a key in a peace accord. In the meantime the Obama administration is trying to give the Saudis every incentive to craft a stronger relationship with the U.S.

One familiar, but uncertain, player in this diplomatic dance is NASA Administrator Charles Bolden who will soon head to Saudi Arabia on a somewhat stealthy technology and trade mission seemingly aimed at fostering greater Saudi involvement in NASA and space programs. Another trip by Bolden to make inroads at Muslim self-esteem?

Curiously, the White House said that Muslim outreach is not part of Bolden’s current job description. While some in the White House support this new trip, others do not. Indeed, there are forces within NASA itself that are going out of their way to thwart this mission.

Bolden is likely to be skewered for this feel-good trade junket. While the White House is looking to engage Saudi Arabia, much of this trip is Bolden’s idea. Given that Bolden’s last foray to the Middle East resulted in a flurry of bad news and embarrassed finger pointing within the Obama Administration, they’d just rather he stay out of the news for a while. That said, Bolden still plans on making the trip.

Stay tuned.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.