MANILA, December 16, 2003  (STAR) BY THE WAY By Max V. Soliven - The President can’t pretend her flying visit to oil-rich Bahrain via Hong Kong wasn’t political. Aside from meeting with the small Filipino community of 25,000 in Manama, which is the capital of this immensely wealthy but small nation of 650,000 inhabitants, she’s bringing home today a $1-million "grant" from the King of Bahrain, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, for the Muslims of the Philippines.

The government propaganda machine announced the other day that "many" of the 900,000 Filipinos working in next-door Saudi Arabia might come pouring in, as well, to greet the President. For those working in nearby Saudi ARAMCO, just across the King Fahd Causeway, this might be feasible, but most of the Pinoys and Pinays in Saudi work in the Riyadh and Jeddah areas, which are many hours away across the burning desert, or by air. Since she brought along her close friend Nick Alcantara, whom she anointed Chairman of Petron (half-owned by Saudi ARAMCO) immediately after she assumed the Presidency, we can suppose Nick bussed in a hefty delegation from among the thousands of Filipinos – including doctors, nurses, engineers and rig workers – employed in Dhahran, which is in the Eastern Provinces of the vast Saudi expanse, right across from Bahrain.

Perhaps, through Nick and Saudi ARAMCO management, substantial "campaign" . . . er contribution, might have been handed to President GMA on the occasion of her triumphant two-day Bahrain state visit. (She returns here at 8 a.m. today – so it was a flying visit, indeed.)

Saudi ARAMCO, after all, produces virtually all of Saudi Arabia’s petroleum output, more than any other oil company in the world (up to 10 million barrels a day), and in the Kingdom’s biggest employer outside of the government.

It’s possible, aside from the "goodies" President GMA is getting from Bahrain’s Sheik Hamad (also oozing with petro-dollars and petro-euros, since oil was discovered there in 1932), the Saudi ARAMCO "fund" will help swell La Gloria’s "assistance" (or campaign?) kitty.

What makes zipping between Bahrain and Dhahran very easy is the above-mentioned King Fahd Causeway linking the two kingdoms by road. This remarkable causeway is terrific piece of engineering, 25 kilometers long and composed of more than 500 huge concrete columns, holding up five separate bridges and seven embankments. Named after the King of Saudi Arabia, the causeway was conceived in the late 1970s, took four years to construct, and was completed in 1986 at a cost of US$718 million (about Saudi Riyals 3000 million in the currency value of that time). An artificial island was created halfway across the strait separating the two countries, for Customs and Immigration formalities, but this was never a barrier.

Why was the Causeway built at so hefty an expense? To permit the Saudis to escape from time to time (especially at weekends) from the strict religious prohibitions of their holy Kingdom (after all, they are the Keepers of the two holiest shrines of Islam – Makkah and Medina – and are expected at all times to be meticulous teetotalers and sexual puritans). Across the Causeway, in still Muslim but more . . . uh "normal" Bahrain, with its bars, pubs, and other pleasure places, the Saudis can make whoopee all they wish without incurring the ire of their ever-watchful Muttawa or hidebound religious "police", the K.J.’s of the Kingdom.

When we were staying last year in the Sheraton there (I believe the finest in the Gulf, with a terrific Chinese and a Persian restaurant, to boot), one of my bosom buddies, a good Muslim executive of Saudi ARAMCO, would drive over every night for dinner with us, and induce me to go pub-crawling with him. I would anxiously warn him to go easy on the Scotch because he would have to take the hour-and-a-half drive home across the Causeway, and might one early dawn find himself and his vehicle wrapped around one of those 500 columns of the Causeway. This is exactly what happened on the last night before I emplaned for Riyadh.

My friend woke up in the hospital with a massive headache, the mother of all hangovers (to borrow a phrase from the captured Saddam) and a few cracked ribs. His car was beyond repair. But he thanks Allah for forgiving him his inebriation – and sparing his life!

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Don’t look now, but the GMA Campaign Juggernaut is ready to roll.

Why, they even have a "Youth Leaders" Speakers Bureau headed by Presidential Daughter Luli (who works with Triple R) and Senator Kiko Pangilinan, husband of the super-super-star Sharon Cuneta. Gee, Kiko, how young does a Youth Leader have to be?

Presidential Chief Legal Counsel Avelino "Nonong" Cruz (of the old Carpio, Villaraza, Cruz "The Firm") has resigned to be replaced by Joe Nathan Tenefrancia, former Asst. Sec. for Legal Affairs of the Presidential Management Staff (PMS), probably a fellow Sigma Rho-an from U.P. Cruz will be involved in the campaign, but don’t worry. He’ll be "re-appointed" if and when GMA wins re-election.

The famous Mai (not Mai-Mai) Jimenez, GMA’s M.J., will be the Chief of Media Operations – operating out of her hush-hush office in the Ramon Magsaysay building on Roxas boulevard (near the reputed CIA transmission facility?). She will now be known, I hear, as "Oh My" Jimenez.

Rocky Nazareno, the Pissing Bandit on the Presidential plane, is the Deputy Political Adviser in the effort.

The invisible Hernani Braganza is also playing an important role as Presidential Advisor on Political Affairs, in acronym OPAPA as in Office of the Presidential Adviser on Political Affairs. (What about OMAMA?)

Secretary Gabby Claudio is PLLO or Presidential Legislative Liaison Officer.

Joey Rufino is PLOPA, or Presidential Liaison Officer on Political Affairs.

More names will be surfacing in the next couple of days. Is this a campaign team or an Alphabet coup?

No politics this Christmas? What we see is nothing but politics.

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BY THE WAY, FPJ came to attend our STARGATE Christmas Party in Makati last night. No, not a political party, but a Christmas Party. What did Panday say? "Merry Christmas."

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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