Culture of holding hands did little for culture of oil
Its a been a strange week for whats been reported as news. Freakish lies about being abducted to the Georgia backwoods to avoid a marriage. Reports of fingers found in fast food chili, followed quickly by copy-cat reports of fingers found in more imaginative places like frozen custard in North Carolina.And then there was the visit by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to the Texas ranch of President Bush, proof positive that the news was not strange last week, but what was reported as news was strange. The president and the crown prince had much to discuss during a full day at the ranch. There was oil and oil production. With the U.S. at the mercy of foreign oil imports, and faced with $60-plus a barrel oil, the president wanted our largest source of imported oil to increase production.There was the war on terror. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi, and besides the U.S. and Israel, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has suffered the most at the hands of terrorist attacks.Democracy in the Middle East, creeping into Iraq, cannot take root until the crown princes family, with 5,000 (!) known princes, gives up its hold on power in Saudi Arabia, or at least moves to a figurehead role, a la the U.K.What news came out of the visit? On the news and every talk show in the evening, we were regaled with film of the president and the crown prince walking hand in hand up the walk, with background music ranging from the Beach Boys Wouldnt It Be Nice to Andrew Golds Thank You For Being A Friend.To the news boys and political commentators, this somehow visually emasculating bit of film was more significant and amusing than what substance actually came out of the meetings between the two men.To anyone whos spent any time in the Middle East, of course, the sight of two men walking hand in hand is common place. Thats not to say it doesnt take some getting used to. The first time a Syrian took hold of my hand as we stood in the parking lot of the U.S. Embassy in Damascus was disconcerting at best.There we stood, the 20-something American diplomat and the 60-something burly construction engineer, talking about the best way to install screens to intercept rocket propelled grenades that might be launched at the embassy compound.During my time in the region, I got used to it; two men holding hands is both social and a sign of respect and friendship in the Middle East, not a show of two men coming out as a same-sex couple.On the nightly news, the film of the two leaders hand in hand ran as a joke, with no context.If there was any news value in the film, it was in the frames that came before, where you can clearly see the president reaching for the hand of the 81-year-old crown prince, much to Abdullahs surprise and obvious pleasure. The president, despite the facade of Texas boorishness, has more cultural sensitivity than hes given credit for.And there was actual news that day, little of it good, but all of it significant.The crown prince did agree to increase oil production, via a 10-year program of building new pipelines and terminal facilities, none of which will help hold down the price of gas over Memorial Day.Significantly, the new terminal facilities for the delivery and storage of oil will be built by the Saudis in China, Saudi Arabias fastest growing trading partner, and a country where the demand for oil is growing even more rapidly than in the U.S.The two men did discuss terrorism and one man in particular. Not Osama bin laden, but the member of the crown princes family who turned up on a U.S. terrorist watch list upon arrival, where he was denied entry by U.S. immigration officials. The crown prince was insulted, and the president pissed off, as immigration officials scrambled to prove that there was good reason for refusing entry, and that the princeling was not another Cat Stevens-type error in the watch list system.As to democracy, many fine things were said by both sides, but in the official news releases and during the press conference afterward, the words freedom and democracy were not used.Instead, the public emphasis was on stability and security, code words for maintaining the status quo, and working to get terrorists first, and not talk right now about bothersome issues like free elections in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.After the presidential meetings, the crown prince and the two 747s full of princes fanned out across Texas to convince oil men to spend their own money to increase production and terminal capacity in the U.S. to hold down the price of a barrel of oil.Now theres a newsworthy story. With more than $4 billion (yes, billion) in profit (not revenue, profit) in the most recent quarter, why hasnt ExxonMobil, or any other U.S. oil company, spent a dime building new oil facilities in the U.S.? Thats news.Marc Carlisle, a formerU.S. State Department official, writes a Thursday column. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
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