American President Barack Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday on his first stop of his regional Middle East mission, where he would seek Arab backing for his bid to revive peace moves while the U.S. adopted a firmer tone with its ally Israel.
President Obama hailed King Abdullah’s “wisdom” and added that he came to Saudi Arabia to seek the king’s advice prior to his speech to the Muslim World from Cairo on Thursday
On a trip highlighted by his long-awaited address to the Muslim world, Obama will also attempt to prod moribund regional peace diplomacy back to life.
He left the White House late Tuesday enroute to Saudi Arabia for talks with King Abdullah, who has been trying to re-launch a 2002 Arab-backed peace initiative.
Obama will head Thursday to Egypt, where he will meet with President Hosni Mubarak, who canceled a recent visit to Washington because of the death of his grandson.Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was to arrive in Cairo Wednesday.
Prime Arab players in regional diplomacy
The trip will reflect Egypt's place alongside Saudi Arabia as a prime Arab player in regional diplomacy, analysts said.
Obama has repeatedly backed a two-state solution to the conflict, despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's reluctance to embrace such a position.
The U.S. President, who met Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas last week, is expected to lobby Saudi Arabia and Egypt for gestures which would widen Netanyahu's room for political maneuver.
Obama said he will touch on the Middle East peace process in his Cairo University speech -- a more general attempt to build bridges between Washington and Islam -- but will not unveil a detailed plan.
The White House vowed to unleash all its technological and communications clout to ensure that as many people as possible see and hear the historic address.
"There will be a great effort on our part to distribute this through different means, (such as) social networking sites, in order to get this in front of as many eyes throughout the world as we can," spokesman Robert Gibbs said.
April 2002 Saudi initiative
Obama is seen as uniquely positioned among U.S. leaders to make inroads in the Islamic world.
The son of an African Muslim father, he spent part of his childhood in majority-Muslim Indonesia. The president's middle name, Hussein, which sometimes was seen as a liability on the campaign trail, doubtless will be viewed more charitably in many venues during his Middle East travels.
The U.S. leader meanwhile said he is confident of reviving meaningful Israeli-Palestinian talks, but the White House has been coy on his strategy, following a flurry of meetings with regional leaders in recent weeks.
"I think the administration is interested in the April 2002 Saudi plan," said Steven Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations.
The initiative calls for full normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel, a full withdrawal by Israel from Arab land, the creation of a Palestinian state and an "equitable" solution for Palestinian refugees.
The Hamas Islamist group, which rules the Gaza Strip, has been told by the Middle East Quartet -- the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and United States -- that it must recognize Israel, renounce violence, and abide by prior agreements made by the Palestinians, in return for a place at the table.
Some analysts see the 2002 Saudi-inspired plan as a way to broaden Middle East diplomacy and bypass stalemated Israeli-Palestinian talks.
King Abdullah II of Jordan has been pushing a "57-state" solution, which would grant Israel sweeping diplomatic recognition in return for making peace with the Palestinians.
So far though, it seems unlikely Arab states will grant early concessions to Israel without some moderation of Netanyahu's position on settlements, having refused to halt expansion as required in the Quartet's "road map" and urged by Obama's administration.
Plans to engage Iran
Obama will face questioning from Saudi King Abdullah on his plans to engage arch U.S.-foe Iran, which some Saudis fear could result in a grand bargain which harms the kingdom's interests.
Some observers see an opportunity to exploit Arab disquiet about Iran's nuclear program to forge an Arab-Israeli compact, although such hopes have proven fruitless in the past.
Saudi rulers believe the collapse of Middle East peacemaking has given Iran opportunities to expand its regional influence through Sunni Islamist groups such as the Palestinian Hamas, as well as its traditional Shiite Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.
Suadi Arabia, which sees itself as the bastion of majority Sunni Islam, fears an eventual U.S. deal with Iran would make the Shiite power part of a new political and security order.
The United States itself might appreciate a Saudi role in countering Taliban militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Saudis hosted talks in September between pro-government Afghan representatives and former Taliban officials on how to end a conflict that also involves the Taliban's al-Qaeda allies.
Following on Obama's heels, U.S. special envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell will travel to the region next week, the State Department said Tuesday.
Egyptians suspicious of Obama
Egyptians, however, mistrust U.S. policy goals in the Middle East and see Obama as being closely aligned with it, but there are signs that the anti-U.S. attitude is thawing, according to a poll out late Tuesday.
Sixty-seven percent of the Egyptians surveyed by the Maryland-based WorldPublicOpinion.org said the United States plays a negative role in the world.
Seventy-six percent of Egyptians polled believe the United States is out to weaken and divide the Islamic world.
Eighty percent believe that the United States wants to control Middle East oil, and that the United States wants to impose American culture on Muslim countries -- figures virtually unchanged from a similar World Public Opinion poll in 2008.
"Egyptians appear to be saying to Obama, 'Show me you are really different,'" said Steven Kull, director of WorldPublicOpinion.org, a project managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.
Al-Qaeda number two slams Obama Mideast visit
Meanwhile, al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri lashed out at Obama's visit to the Middle East, urging Egyptians to shun him.
Zawahiri, who is himself an Egyptian, portrayed Obama's June 4 visit to Cairo as being at the invitation of the "torturers of Egypt" and the "slaves of America."
"His bloody messages were received and are still being received by Muslims, and they will not be concealed by public relations campaigns or by farcical visits or elegant words," Zawahiri said.
The audio recording of Zawahiri's speech was embedded in a comparatively brief 11 minute, 40 second video produced by As Sahab Media, al-Qaeda's propaganda arm, according to the SITE Intelligence Group. It was posted on jihadist web forums.
In it, he urged Egyptians to shun Obama -- "that criminal who came seeking, with deception, to obtain what he failed to achieve on the ground after the mujahideen ruined the project of the Crusader America in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia."