When asked repeatedly in recent days about Barack Obama's much publicized bow to King Abdallah, I have been explaining that this gesture was new in my experience, and that I had never seen it done during my time in the Kingdom. However, I have now been cordially reminded that my personal experience in these matters of protocol, dating back a mere forty years, has been decidedly behind the times (with emphasis on the word behind, as you will see below.
Yesterday, Prince Turki al Faisal, youngest son of King Faisal and a grandson of King Abdal Aziz (Ibn Sa'ud), displaying his trademark sense of humor, forwarded to me the following anecdote, recorded for posterity by a mutual friend, David Long, a former State Department official who is an outstanding expert on the ups and downs of U.S. diplomatic relations with the Kingdom.
Subject: Re: How Americans Take Leave of a Saudi King
Another true story on protocol relates to the departure of J. Rives Childs
from King Abd al-Aziz's presence in 1946 after presenting his credentials to the
king --- raising the US Legation to a full Embassy and his own title from
Minister to Ambassador.
When the ceremony was over, Childs bowed and departed, followed by his
(only) two junior Foreign Service Officers, Hermann Eilts and Don Bergus.
According to Eilts, who was the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia when I
served there in the 1960s, and who told me the story, he and Bergus bowed to
the King and turned around to follow their boss, following US protocol
which required one taking leave of royalty to bow, turn around, and walk to
the door, turn around and bow again, and then depart.
To their surprise, however, they saw Childs walking out backwards, which
was European protocol. So they turned back around and did likewise.
Unfortunately, the floor of the King's old mud brick Murabba'a Palace was
uneven, and Childs, whose thaub was too long for him, tripped and fell flat
on his...er... posterior! (Note that it was also protocol back then for
all diplomats, resident in Jiddah, to wear a thaub in the presence of the
King, who was resident in Riyadh,)
But neither Eilts nor Bergus saw Childs fall on his posterior, so they
tripped over him and landed on theirs also. Thus in less than a minute
after Childs had become the full blown US Ambassador, he and his entire
Embassy staff was flat on their collective as ... you might say, their
The King, who could not see very well, responded to the hubbub by asking,
"Shu hadha? Shu hadha?" (What's going on?)
I might add that for those horrified at President Obama's lack of a
correct sense of protocol in the presence of a Saudi king, it might be
instructive to consider that the lowering of the bar of US protocol was
performed by the very first US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and his entire
staff within a minute of its accreditation!
** N.B. Ambassador Childs replaced William A. Eddy as the U.S. Chief of Mission in Saudi Arabia. The senior American representative in the Kingdom held the diplomatic rank of Minister until the U.S. Legation was raised to the status of an Embassy, at which time the Chief of Mission assumed the title of Ambassador --- as on the memorable occasion described above.