By Barry Rubin
According to the press pool reporter for the meeting between King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia and President Barack H. Obama of the United States, who wrote it just after stepping out of the meeting room, the king:
"Began his remarks saying he wanted to tell Obama what was spoken of him around the world: 'That you are an honorable and good man.'"
Is it just me or is there a gigantic unspoken, "But..." at the end of that sentence? It is true that Obama clearly relished this compliment. After all, popularity is everything to him. Presumably, it is the kind of thing his supporters think proves he has been successful.
Yet imagine two Middle East leaders or other rulers meeting: "Hey, ___, you're a really honorable and good man!" Does that indicate the compliment-giver respects or fears or will do what the subject of that phrase wants him to do? No, quite the opposite.
Syrian dictator Bashar al-Asad said that it was better to be feared than loved. Usama bin Ladin said people prefer the strong horse in a race. He didn't say anything about the honorable and good horse. I can't think of anyone in Arab politics in the last 80 years who could be described as "honorable and good." Maybe, King Hussein of Jordan, but he had to appear nice since he ruled the weakest country in the region. And even he had an iron fist, as he demonstrated in crushing the PLO in September 1970.
And so, knowing something of how King Abdallah thinks, I can't help but hear some possible implied endings in his statement to the president:
You are an honorable and good man, but so weak that even the camels laugh at you.
You are an honorable and good man, and you know what they say, "Honorable and good men finish last."
You are an honorable and good man. Unfortunately, your enemies aren't!
You are an honorable and good man. But I want someone who is tough, mean, and cleverly devious to protect me.
You are an honorable and good man. So give me all your money now. You see, my father was the president of the Bank of Nigeria who just died after stealing all the bank's money. So if I have all your savings I can sneak his money out of the country and give you a 1000 percent profit! Here's the PO Box where you should send the money....
You are an honorable and good man, so give me Israel bound hand and foot to prove it. [Which reminds me of what a very smart and experienced Middle East hand told me he heard from a Saudi official not long ago. The Saudi said: From our standpoint, America and Israel are like members of the same family. So if you treat them like you're doing how can we expect you to treat us?]
Anyway, "Complete King Abdallah's Sentence" would make a good parlor game with many possible responses. (Send me yours and if it fits I'll add it in here.)
The king's remark also reminds of Mark Antony's speech in William Shakespeare's play, "Julius Caesar," which I'll bet the king hasn't read. While repeatedly calling Brutus an "honorable man" to his face, Antony systematically destroys him by letting the watching crowd hear the sneer in his voice. By the time Antony's speech is finished, the mob is chasing Brutus out of town and burning down his house. So how credible is the king whose government claims that none of its citizens were involved in the September 11 attacks?
Abdullah also said that the citizens of America are considered friends of the Muslim and Arab worlds alike, as well as friends to humanity. Idle curiosity: Did the king say this to George W. Bush also?
Funny, you wouldn't know that as the way people thought from the Saudi state-controlled media, mosque sermons, and just about everything else said within the kingdom or in most other Arab and Muslim-majority countries. Public opinion polls also show that this is the exact opposite to be true. Neither Obama nor the United States is held in high regard.
Only in the United States (or should I say, certain parts of the United States) are people still unaware of this reality.
Indeed, after reading this article, an Arabic-speaking friend wrote: "It's one of the most serious articles you've written. It basically means he's been disrespected to his face by one of his closest allies, and they regard him as a liability. While at the same time Iran is acquiring nukes. The implications of this situation couldn't be more serious."
I responded: "Do you realize that almost nobody in the United States will understand this? They will just think their president has received a nice compliment."
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