, RIYADH, June 3 – President Barack Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday on a Middle East mission featuring a historic address to the Muslim world and a new US drive to invigorate regional peacemaking.
Obama flew in aboard Air Force One to a red carpet welcome ahead of talks with King Abdullah as he seeks backing for an emerging US strategy of binding Arab states into a wider search for Israeli-Palestinian peace and to defuse regional tensions.
He will then travel on Thursday to Egypt, another pillar of the Arab world, to deliver a personal appeal for reconciliation to the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, and hold his first talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
King Abdullah has been seeking to re-launch a 2002 Arab-backed Middle East peace initiative, which has been praised by the Obama administration.
But it was unclear whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tough stand on settlements would scupper US hopes of convincing the Arab world to make concessions towards Israel to inject momentum into the process.
Obama signalled in an interview with National Public Radio before leaving Washington that he would keep pressing Israel on the issue, despite an emerging rift between the two close allies.
"I’ve said very clearly to the Israelis both privately and publicly that a freeze on settlements including natural growth is part of those obligations."
The Saudi initiative calls for full normalisation 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.
Obama was also expected to use the talks with King Abdullah, whose country is OPEC’s top exporter, to push for stability in oil prices and production.
The US president’s trip comes amid a building confrontation between his administration and the Israeli government over West Bank settlements and Netanyahu’s refusal to publicly endorse a two-state solution.
It also coincides with rising concern in the largely Sunni-ruled region over Shiite Iran’s nuclear drive.
Anticipation mounted ahead of Obama’s arrival for his first major foray into the Middle East, following a surprise visit of a few hours to Baghdad in April.
"King-Obama summit, key to global stability," Saudi newspaper Okaz proclaimed.
Egypt’s state-owned Al-Rose al-Youssef warned Obama not to lecture.
"Don’t be biased towards Israel, don’t interfere in countries’ internal affairs and don’t give lessons in democracy," it said.
Obama’s speech on Thursday at Cairo University fulfils a campaign promise to address the of giving an address to the Muslim world after relations soured over the deeply unpopular Iraq war, the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal and the Bush-era stalemate in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.
In Israel, there was concern the president’s outreach to Muslims could come at the expense of the US-Israeli alliance.
"The American president has the right to try to reconcile with the Muslim world and compete with Al-Qaeda or Iran for its heart," said Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, a close Netanyahu ally.
"We have to make sure that this will not harm our common interests."
Al-Qaeda number two Ayman al-Zawahiri told Egyptians to shun Obama, saying his visit was 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 in an audiotape, according to the SITE Intelligence Group.
The son of an Kenyan father with Muslim heritage, Obama spent part of his childhood in majority-Muslim Indonesia. His 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.
But some democracy campaigners in Egypt raised concerns at Obama’s choice of venue for his major address, saying it rewarded an authoritarian regime wit ha poor human rights record.
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, even through social networking sites.