Opening a mission to write a new chapter on Islam and the West, President Barack Obama consulted Wednesday with the Saudi king "in the place where Islam began," prelude to a high-stakes speech in Egypt meant to ease long-held Muslim grievances against the United States.
The son of a Kenyan Muslim who lived part of his childhood in Muslim-majority Indonesia, Obama planned what aides called a "truth-telling" address on Thursday, aimed directly at the world's 1.5 billion Muslims. Many harbor animosity toward the U.S. over its staunch support for Israel, its terrorist-fighting policies and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many Americans, likewise, formed negative perceptions of the Muslim world after the 9/11 attacks.
In advance, Saudi King Abdullah staged a lavish welcome after Obama's all-night flight to Riyadh.
"I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek his majesty's counsel," Obama said. The president and the king talked in the splendor of Abdullah's sprawling retreat, a lush patch of searing desert.
The king, who was hosting Obama for an overnight stay, called his guest "a distinguished man who deserves to be in this position."
Birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia is still considered guardian of the faith as home to the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. The Sunni Arab powerhouse also sits on the world's largest oil reserves, buys billions in U.S. military equipment and has cooperated extensively with the U.S. on anti-terrorist operations.
'New chapter' in relations
As such, Obama's goals of opening what speechwriter Ben Rhodes called "a new chapter between the United States and the Muslim world" could hardly proceed without Saudi support. Obama also came asking for specific requests of help from Abdullah on a range of related issues, such as peace between the long-feuding Israelis and Palestinians, Iran's suspected efforts to build a nuclear bomb, rising Taliban extremism in Pakistan and a destination for some 100 Yemeni detainees now in the U.S. at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison camp.
Denis McDonough, a deputy national security adviser to Obama, could not immediately say whether the president's requests were successful after meetings between the two leaders and their delegations that stretched over nearly four hours.
Abdullah showered Obama with compliments in the welcoming ceremonies and presented him with the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit, a large medallion with a thick gold chain that is the kingdom's highest honor. "Those are only given to the very few friends of the king, and you are certainly one of those," Abdullah said.
"Goodness gracious," Obama said as an aide approached with the striking necklace. "That's something there." He said: "I consider the king's friendship a great blessing, and I am very appreciative that he would bestow this honor on me during this visit."
Obama had pledged during his presidential campaign to deliver a major address from an Islamic capital within 100 days of becoming president. He did so with a speech to the parliament in Turkey, a secular but overwhelmingly Muslim nation. The White House says his speech in Cairo, a center of Islamic thought and culture, is the one he had in mind in making that promise, and set high expectations for it.
Al-Qaida countered Obama's outreach. Osama bin Laden released an audio tape accusing Obama of inflaming hatred toward the U.S. by ordering Pakistan to crack down on militants in Swat Valley and block Islamic law there. His deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, said "farcical visits or elegant words" in Cairo can't disguise "bloody messages" the U.S. sends to Muslims with its prosecution of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Bin Laden's message
The message from bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind-in-hiding who was born in Saudi Arabia and directed the 2001 attacks that involved 15 hijackers from the desert monarchy, was broadcast by Al-Jazeera Television almost exactly as Obama's plane touched down in Riyadh.
"Americans have seen these types of threats before," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in response. "This is much more an effort to try to upstage."
Aides spared no effort to ensure Obama's speech Thursday reaches a vast Muslim audience.
A special State Department Web site lets people everywhere register to receive and reply to speech highlights; Obama's remarks were to be played live on the White House Web site and translated into 13 languages; and excerpts were being distributed not only on the White House's dedicated YouTube page but also on special-event links on social networking sites such as MySpace, Twitter and Facebook, complete with live chatting opportunities.
In his speech, Obama does not intend to make new policy — but to frame it differently. By stressing both U.S. respect for Muslims and the need for all sides, including Washington, to make changes, the president hopes to start setting relations between the U.S. and the Muslim world down a more constructive path even while some disagreements persist.
"There's been a breach, an undeniable breach, between America and the Islamic world," senior adviser David Axelrod said.
"That breach has been years in the making. It's not going to be reversed with one speech — it's not going to be reversed, perhaps, in one administration. But the president is a strong believer in open, honest dialogue."
Speech centerpiece: Israeli-Palestinian dispute
The centerpiece of the speech is the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, a driving force behind Muslim anger worldwide. Obama was prepared to discuss in some detail what needs to be done to resolve it," though by urging all sides to meet obligations already agreed upon, Rhodes said.
That includes calling for a full halt to all growth in Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, the subject of a striking rift between the U.S. and Israel in recent days. It also includes telling Palestinians that anti-Israel rhetoric, and the violence it spawns, does not benefit their daily lives. Obama also was to call on his hosts, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as other Arab nations, to put actual money behind their rhetorical support for the struggling Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas. Obama also wants to persuade Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, to make conciliatory diplomatic moves toward Israel.
The president also was to explain the U.S. goals in Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran.
And he wasn't going to shy away from a hot topic — the fact that he was to speak from Egypt, which has been under the iron rule of President Hosni Mubarak for nearly 30 years.
Obama planned to salute Egypt's historically positive role in Mideast peacemaking, while also talking about the need for a better democratic and human rights model. In one gesture, organizers made sure that members of Egypt's main opposition movement, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, would be in the audience at Cairo University.
The president also planned to talk "with a sense of candor" about U.S. policy that has largely shunned armed militias that have won elections in the Arab world, such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon, Rhodes said.