I don’t know what the protocol is for meeting the King of Saudi Arabia. I’m going to guess it depends on your status. I’m quite sure some people bow darn near to the man’s knees, and for them it is correct.
Heads of state do not. Inclining the head, yes. Perhaps a small bending of the body but no farther than the King’s shoulder. Maybe.
Unfortunately for Barack Obama (and gleefully for the “Obama is a secret Muslim” crowd, I’m sure), he bowed all the way to his waist. From one angle, it looked like he actually CURTSIED! Not only that, if you have the right view, it’s possible he actually bowed twice (the big bow, the one seen around the world, followed by what I thought was a small re-inclination of the body).
Of course, there are a few possible reasons for his behavior. One might be a simple fact: Obama did go to a Madrash, am Arabic word that simply means “school”, and yes, it was a Muslim school ((For more on the Indonesian school system, see this Wikipedia article.)). It’s important to remember that at the time, he was living in Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country (More than 86% of the population declares itself as Muslim). He also attended Catholic school there, according to his own book “The Audacity of Hope” ((See Snopes on this one)). I myself went to an Anglican school not because my family is Anglican (we’re not), but because it was the best private school around. In any case, it’s possible some part of his education may still be lingering, and without being a Muslim himself, he may have been taught some form of reverence for one such as King Abdullah.
The other is simultaneously more and less subtle. The fact of the matter is, in terms of the U.S.’s economic, monetary and capitalist power, we are strongly tied, almost tethered, to Saudi Arabia. As of 2002,
The total value of American arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the past half-century approaches $100 billion, with over a quarter of the contracts signed in the 1990s (in dollar terms).(45) These figures include weapons, support equipment, spare parts, support services, and construction. ((See “Middle East Review of International Affairs”, a really good read detailing the U.S-Saudi Arabia relationship since 1932.))
Additionally, also as of 2002:
Saudi Arabia is America’s biggest source of imported crude oil, supplying 10 percent of U.S. energy needs. And since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the kingdom has been host to thousands of U.S. troops stationed near Riyadh. ((See “Inside Saudi Arabia”, a 5 part series that also makes for interesting reading.))
In short, the leaders of this nation have been bowing to the Saudi King, to one degree or another, since 1931, a fact that became evident after the September 11th attacks, where the vast majority of the conspirators turned out to be Saudi nationals, yet we couldn’t get that nation to take a firm stance against terrorrism. Now there’s a subtext no one’s bothering to talk about. Not that I’m saying the President of the United States should actually bow to the King, and certainly not that deeply; bowing implies subservience and is inappropriate from a world leader, even when visiting his peer’s country, even if one is taller than said counterpart. It sends the wrong message and is a monumental gaffe (both politically and socially) that the anti-Obama torchbearers will play up forever. Even the Queen of England doesn’t require such abasement. Moreover, it breaks our own protocol. The only saving grace is such near-groveling at least has the benefit of rejecting our own arrogance.
For what it’s worth, it appears at least some of the Saudis see things differently.
“Obama wished to demonstrate his respect and appreciation of the personality of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz, who has made one of the most important calls in the modern era, namely the call for interfaith and intercultural dialogue to defuse the hatred, conflict and wars”. ((According to an article in the British newspaper The Telegraph.))