Friday, April 10, 2009 at 3:15 pm
Why Obama's Saudi Bow was Not a Kow-Tow
Posted by Scott MacLeod
This bowing down to Islamist monarch
President Obama definitely bowed down when he shook the hand of Saudi Arabian King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud at the G-20 in London last week. Despite the continuing outrage of conservatives and Arab-bashers, what Obama did was entirely appropriate, too. Here's my guide to Arabian royal protocol and American common sense.
In the videotape zapping around the Internet, Obama looks slightly awkward, as if he wasn't quite sure whether to bow, shake hands or do both. It turned out to be a deep bow- cum-handshake, it was certainly more than the nod-handshake he gave Queen Elizabeth II, but it was not quite a formal diplomatic bow from the waist. Maybe that's why the White House is, unofficially, denying the Obama bow.
A simple handshake would have sufficed. Obama certainly did not need to bow at all, as far as Saudi royal protocol is concerned. I have attended Abdullah's majlis in Riyadh a few times and witnessed his own personal distaste for obsequious shows of respect. In the context of a tribal society, Abdullah is a sheikh, indeed the sheikh of sheikhs, and as such his subjects would typically greet him at his Saudi-style town meetings with a kiss on the shoulder and a kiss on the hand.
On those occasions, however, I watched as Abdullah repeatedly whipped back his hand as some tried to kiss it, a custom that other monarchs in the Arab world have encouraged. I wasn't surprised when two months after ascending the throne in 2005, Abdullah decreed an official end to the kissing of shoulders and hands. The protocol henceforth, according to the Saudi royal court, would be a handshake. That goes for foreigners, including heads of state like Obama.
Yet, any American president should display a form of respect to any other head of state that he (or in the future, perhaps she) agrees to meet. Rather than kowtowing to Saudi custom, or showing fealty to a Muslim king, Obama's gesture in London seemed to be simply his gracious, spontaneous way of greeting Abdullah. That's fitting for a variety of reasons, beyond any rules of diplomatic protocol.
The Saudi leads a society that is steeped in custom, even if he himself is trying to loosen tradition a bit. As a much younger man, even if he is president of the world's most powerful country, Obama is entirely proper in showing pointed respect for an elder counterpart. Moreover, Abdullah holds a variety of positions that deserve and require recognition-king; custodian of the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina; elder statesman of the Arab world; son of the founder of his country.
Then there's the context of Obama's gesture, too, namely the long--and mutually beneficial-- Saudi-American alliance. The London encounter is the latest in an unbroken string of meetings between U.S. and Saudi heads of state dating back to the meeting between President Roosevelt and Ibn Saud, Abdullah's father, aboard the USS Quincy.
In 1945, FDR gave his Saudi counterpart more than a handshake. He presented Ibn Saud with a C-47 Dakota airplane--and one of his wheelchairs. The two aging leaders had gotten into a friendly discussion about their respective infirmities. Later, Ibn Saud would say, “This chair is my most precious possession. It is the gift of my great and good friend, President Roosevelt, on whom Allah has had mercy."
It's not really the bow that upsets many of Obama's critics. It's the US-Saudi political and economic partnership that reaches back decades. Some think the Saudis should be more subservient to the U.S., ought to make peace with Israel, have abetted Islamic extremism, are responsible for high oil prices, or all of the above. They didn't like it when even a president they supported, George Bush, held hands, Saudi-style, with Abdullah during a greeting in Crawford, Texas. But if U.S. presidents of both parties have deemed it to be in American interests to have friendly relations with Saudi Arabia, it's common sense to accord the Kingdom's elderly monarch a simple gesture of respect. For Obama, who unapologetically seeks to build bridges between Islam and the West, perhaps it's second nature, too.
--By Scott MacLeod/Cairo