President Barack Obama launched a landmark Middle East trip on Wednesday to reach out to the world’s Muslims, but earned a swift rebuke from Osama bin Laden in a stinging new audiotape.
Obama arrived in Riyadh to a red-carpet welcome and a kiss on both cheeks from Saudi King Abdullah, a key regional power broker who also serves as protector of the two holiest sites in Islam.
But minutes after Air Force One touched down, al-Jazeera television aired a new tape from the al-Qaeda chief, hot on the heels of a statement from his right-hand man Ayman al-Zawahiri, who lashed out at Obama’s ”bloody messages”.
Joining a battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab world, Bin Laden accused Obama of perpetuating former president George Bush’s policies of ”antagonising Muslims”.
Obama and King Abdullah are to hold talks at the monarch’s sprawling farm outside Riyadh, which represent Obama’s first foray into tricky personal diplomacy in the region, after a flurry of talks with Middle East leaders in Washington.
On Thursday Obama will travel 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 relaunch 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 Shi’ite 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 newpaper 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 fulfills a campaign promise to address 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.”
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 with a 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. — Sapa-AFP