On any other day Aucklanders might not have noticed. But on Monday, Auckland Anniversary Day, many were coming into the city for concerts, food fairs and other festivities when they saw the flags on the harbour bridge at half-mast. What could have happened to cast a sombre note on such a sunny day? Those who gave it more than a passing thought would have searched their memory banks for news that ought to put us in mourning. Few, if any, could have guessed it was the death of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi kingdom has little to do with New Zealand and what little most New Zealanders know of it does not incline them to know much more. It is an oil-rich desert state ruled by a dynasty of elderly half-brothers who succeed in order of seniority. The 90-year-old late King's successor is 79. They adhere to a rigid Islamic code that forbids women to drive or do much else in public. Since when did New Zealand lower its flags at the death of so foreign a head of state?
Since 1986 it seems. That is the date of an official notice requiring the flag to be flown at half-mast on the death of a head of state. That cannot mean every head of state. It is not hard to nominate a number of disreputable exceptions. But for nearly 30 years flags on departmental offices have probably been at half-mast so often that the reason does not matter to people in the vicinity. The Auckland Harbour Bridge is a more recent and prominent flag bearer. It should not be used for this purpose lightly.
The Prime Minister was overseas when diplomatic advice told him the notice should be invoked for state buildings, which include the harbour bridge administered by the NZ Transport Agency. Did he realise it would happen as Auckland was celebrating its 175th anniversary? The tribute to the King that he issued at the same time suggests his advisers were not giving much thought to the gestures. On New Zealand's behalf he extended "our sincere condolences to the people of Saudi Arabia at this difficult time".
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That overstates our feelings somewhat and probably the grief of Arabia too.
Mr Key also praised King Abdullah's "contribution to his country and to global affairs". It has suited the Saudis, as leaders of the richest Sunni state, to side with the West against Shiite Iran and its allies. Wisely, too, they have been a moderating force among the region's oil producers, increasing production whenever the cartel pushed prices so high that more expensive sources of oil would become economic.
But the last period of high prices has allowed fracking techniques to bring so much North American oil within reach that the West depends much less on the Middle East.
Two generations of the Saud family have ruled the peninsula and power will soon pass to a third. If they have brought some stability to the country, it is hard to see that with all its wealth it is making much economic, political or social progress. Its latest ruler's death last weekend was one that surely could have passed with a diplomatic silence.