Wednesday, April 20, 2016

20-Apr-16: Actions, words and honor in the dangerously complicated Middle East

The Getty Images photo from this morning in Riyadh shows the US president
shaking hands with Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Abdelaziz al-Saud,
Governor of Riyadh, as he arrives at King Khalid International Airport
in the Saudi capital
The president of the United States flew into Saudi Arabia today (Wednesday) for a brief visit. Mostly, it's about a one-on-one meeting with Saudi's absolute ruler, King Salman. But there's something else at work here for those sufficiently astute to notice it.

The background, rather well known in this part of the world, is the matter of stresses, strains and surprising changes in the relations that prevail between the US and the Saudis.

The triggers for the tensions are (a) Obama's stunning redesign on how Washington sees Iran, with massively negative reverberations for Israel and (b) the zig-zagging US policy in relation to the country formerly known as Syria -but today who knows?

Here's the description of today's Salman/Obama encounter as reported by an American network, ABC News:
Under crystal chandeliers, the Saudi monarch greeted Obama in a grand foyer at Erga Palace, where the two walked slowly to a reception room as the small of incense wafted. The two offered polite smiles as they sat down side by side for pictures at the start of their two-hour private meeting. "The American people send their greetings and we are very grateful for your hospitality, not just for this meeting but for hosting the GCC-U.S. summit that's taking place tomorrow," Obama said, referring to the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council summit. King Salman offered similarly gracious words for the president, who is paying his fourth trip here for face-to-face meetings and photos with royal rulers since becoming president. "The feeling is mutual between us and the American people," the king said through a translator.
The president was slated to spend little more than 24 hours in the Saudi capital before heading on to visits to London and Hannover, Germany.
Notice anything unusual there? No, neither did we until we saw a memo from Dr Harold Rhode a few hours ago.

We first quoted Dr Rhode in this blog two years ago ["06-Oct-14: Oh Jerusalem"] when he noticed what most others didn't about the backsides of Muslim worshipers praying outdoors on Jerusalem's Temple Mount. We won't quote his observation here but please click to see what he wrote. His insightful comments may add to your day. They did to ours.

Dr Rhode is an astute and uncommonly well-informed observer of life in the Islamic world, Serving as a professor of Islamic history at the University of Delaware in the early eighties, his career evolved into being an expert on the Islamic world for the US government. Between 1994 and 2010, he advised on Islamic Affairs in the Office of Net Assessment, the Pentagon's think-tank.

Dr Rhode evidently saw reports of the Obama visit to the Saudis earlier today, including these unobtrusive lines:
Dressed in a grey suit, Obama emerged at 1:14 pm (10:14 GMT) and descended the steps of Air Force One onto a red carpet at the Saudi capital’s King Khalid International Airport. Prince Faisal bin Abdulaziz, the governor of Riyadh, greeted him. Unusually, Saudi state news channel Al-Ekhbaria did not broadcast Obama’s arrival, as it had done during his last visit – more than a year ago – to pay respects after the death of King Salman’s predecessor King Abdullah... [Agence-France Press, today]
Dr Rhode's observations (unpublished, as far as we know) are:
In the Middle East, actions speak louder than words. Direct verbal confrontation is frowned upon, so we must look to actions to understand what message people wish to convey. It is in this context that we must understand how deeply the Saudis humiliated Obama today by sending a lower-ranking official. Protocol would demand that the King to greet Obama, because Obama is a fellow Head of State. Thus, the Saudis signaled that they are humiliating Obama, both to the Middle East and the Muslim world in general. No words are necessary. Everyone there got the message.
Everyone got the message? Dr Rhode again:
I wonder whether the American officials responsible for Saudi Affairs understood this as a insult.  After all so much seems to go over their heads.
Later today, the Obama/Salman
get-together [Image Source]
AFP's reporting today focuses on the fence-mending character of today's tete-a-tete. They remind readers that the White House is emphasising "the strength of an alliance that has endured more than 70 years... [and] seeking to minimise the frictions."

But there's another side to this as Dr Rhode noted. AFP chooses to explain that via Mustafa Alani, a senior adviser to the Gulf Research Center. whom they quote today saying the Obama presidency has been “100 percent negative” for the region, a legacy of “keeping his distance.”

Obama met with Salman in Saudi Arabia  ["Obama Seeks to Bolster Ties With Saudi Arabia", Voice of America, January 27, 2015] at the state funeral of the previous ruler, the present king's half-brother, 15 months ago. At that distant time, King Salman
led an honor guard of senior Saudi princes and officials to greet the Obamas as they disembarked, including the crown prince and deputy crown prince and the kingdom's veteran oil minister Ali al-Naimi... 
Today's meeting of the two is likely to be the last formal meeting of the two heads of state during the Obama presidency. Given the difficulties the American side seem to be having with reading the map, this might not be so bad.

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