President Bush started his visit to Saudi Arabia by presenting his hosts with a very large and very glittery bauble: a sale of super-sophisticated weapons worth a cool $20bn. Even with the US dollar as weak as it currently is, this is still an enormous amount of money and it buys an impressive quantity of hardware.
The deal may face obstruction by the Democrat-controlled Congress; it might even be turned down. But Mr Bush was sending his own message. So far as the White House is concerned, Saudi Arabia is still Washington's No 1 ally in the region. The US may no longer have troops stationed there – their presence proved too inflammatory – but it still regards the Kingdom as a last bulwark against hostile forces, and favours it accordingly.
In almost every respect, the relationship is absurd. It exemplifies the double standards that persist in US foreign policy. When he came to office, Mr Bush made great play about his mission to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world. These were the supposedly universal values for which he invaded Iraq, once the weapons of mass destruction had been proved not to exist.
Saudi Arabia, though, is the exception that proves the rule. There is scarcely a country outside North Korea that enshrines such values less. Constitutional reforms promised almost a decade ago have ground almost to a halt. Political freedoms are heavily circumscribed. Last month saw the arrest of the country's most popular blogger, whose speciality was to attack the corruption of the royal family. The more things change, it might be observed, as brave Saudi bloggers take to the cybersphere, the more they stay the same on the ground.
But has President Bush, or any of his senior officials, ever seen fit to take the Saudi regime to task on its favourite subject of freedom and democracy? Of course not. The only mild criticism voiced by Mr Bush in Riyadh (before he departed for a night at the royal ranch) was of a conspicuously more material nature. Speaking to journalists before meeting King Abdullah, the US President said he would tell him that "high energy prices can affect economic growth because it's painful for our consumers... and could cause the US economy to slow down".
If this is what he did really tell the King (as opposed to what he wanted US reporters to communicate back home), it sounds like special pleading. Why should the Saudis particularly care about the hard-pressed US consumer? With their own economy to consider – and a youthful population with too little money and too few jobs – it is hardly in their interests to increase oil production. This may help to explain why Mr Bush came bearing such an extravagant gift.
Doubtless for the same reason, Saudi Arabia escaped inclusion in the notorious Bush "axis of evil". That the US flew relatives of Osama bin Laden out of the United States soon after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has never been denied. Nor did it ever highlight how many – 15 out of the 19 named plotters – had their origins in Saudi Arabia. Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran took the rap for protecting individuals liable to launch attacks on the United States, but not Saudi Arabia, the one country that had demonstrably done so.
Cosy relations between the Saudi royal family and the Bush clan preceded Mr Bush's arrival at the White House by many a year. The oil industry was at the heart of those relations. Yet America's growing dependency on Saudi oil has contributed to – if not dictated – its aggressive policies in the region. George Bush had a chance to bring consistency to his sermons about democracy and start a move away from US oil dependency on a near-medieval kingdom. His fawning visit to Riyadh is a measure of how grievously he failed.Reuse content