RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- In his latest push for an open dialogue with the Muslim world, President Barack Obama on Wednesday sought the counsel of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and put the finishing touches on a highly anticipated speech about United States' relationship with followers of Islam.
The president travels to Egypt on Thursday to deliver the address that aides say will encourage a stronger partnership between Americans and Muslims while touching on a broad range of hot-button issues, including violent extremism, the threat of a nuclear Iran, and efforts to root out suspected terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Aides say Obama also will acknowledge that the Isreali-Palestinan conflict has been an important source of tension and passion while voicing his views on what all sides need to do to end the standoff.
In a briefing for reporters, Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes offered a preview of the address:
The President really sees this as an opportunity to continue a dialogue he's had since his inauguration -- you saw that in his Al Arabiya interview, in his Nowruz message, in his speech in Turkey, among other things -- to really start a new chapter of engagement between the United States and Muslim world.
Now, the foundation of that engagement as he sees it is the ability to engage each other on the basis of mutual respect and mutual interests. And in that light, he feels it's important to speak very openly and candidly about the very full range of issues that have caused some tensions between the United States and the Muslim world, and then also present a great deal of opportunity for partnership in the future.
To begin with, I think he'll take on directly some of the misperceptions that may have emerged as well as some of the differences that have emerged. I think he'll acknowledge the need for us to get to know each other better. As he has said, he'll, for instance, discuss the relationship between Islam and America within America, particularly in light of the contributions of American Muslims.
But then what he will do is really go through in a very thorough way a broad range of issues that have been at the forefront of the agenda: violent extremism and the threat that it poses, and what America has done in response; the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan and what we're doing there, and what we hope to do in the future in partnership with Afghans and Pakistanis. He'll discuss Iraq, both what we have done there and what we are doing in the future, again, to transition to Iraqi responsibility for Iraq. He'll discuss of course the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the broader Arab-Israeli issue, and acknowledging the fact that this has been a very important source of tension and passion for people of all faiths within this region and around the world, and he will discuss in some detail his view of the conflict and what needs to be done to resolve it. He will discuss both what that means in terms of Israelis and Palestinians and the United States and the Arab states, as well.
Then there's a broader set of issues that have also been -- or presented both causes for tension in the past but partnership in the future that have to do with areas such as democracy, human rights, and related issues to that. And so I think you'll see a forthright discussion in those areas.
And finally, though, the President is very committed to the positive partnerships that can be developed not just on the issues that I just discussed, where he thinks there's actually a very broader convergence of interests than has often been acknowledged or is often reflected in the debate, but also on issues that really matter in people's lives, in terms of economic development, in terms of education, in terms of health, in terms of science and technology; and the fact that as he said in Turkey, this can't just be what we're against; it has to be what we're for and what we can do together. And I think you'll see some concrete steps towards developing partnerships in these areas so that we can deepen engagement between the United States and Muslim communities, and point towards opportunity for all of our people.
Before heading to Cairo, Obama opened his Mideast trip with a visit to Abdullah, the monarch of a country that's home to Islam's two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.
"The United States and Saudi Arabia have a long history of friendship," Obama said as he visited the monarch's desert horse farm. The U.S. president called Abdullah wise and gracious, adding: "I am confident that working together that the United States and Saudi Arabia can make progress on a whole host of issues of mutual interest."
In turn, Abdullah expressed his "best wishes to the friendly American people who are represented by a distinguished man who deserves to be in this position."
Earlier, the king greeted Obama at Riyadh's main airport with a ceremony when the new U.S. president arrived after an overnight flight from Washington. Each country's national anthem was played, the Saudi national guard was on hand and there was a 21-gun salute. Obama and Abdullah then sat together in gilded chairs, sipped cardamom-flavored Arabic coffee and chatted briefly in public before retreating to hold private talks.
Around the same time Air Force One touched down in the country, pan-Arab Al-Jazeera Television broadcast a new audio tape from Osama bin Laden in which he threatened Americans and said Obama inflamed hatred toward the U.S. by ordering Pakistan to crack down on militants in Swat Valley and block Islamic law there.
White House press secretary Robert Gibbs dismissed the recording, saying: "I don't think it's surprising that al Qaida would want to shift attention away from the president's historic efforts and continued efforts to reach out and have an open dialogue with the Muslim world."
With Abdullah alongside him, Obama told reporters: "I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek his majesty's counsel and to discuss with him many of the issues that we confront here in the Middle East."
In Riyadh, the president was talking to Abdullah about a host of thorny problems, from Arab-Israeli peace efforts to Iran's nuclear program. The surge in oil prices also was on the agenda. And, Obama also was looking for help from Saudi Arabia on what to do with some 100 Yemeni detainees locked up in the Guantanamo Bay prison. The Obama administration has been negotiating with Saudi Arabia and Yemen for months to send them to Saudi terrorist rehabilitation centers.
During a pre-trip interview with the BBC, Obama set the tone for his swing through the Middle East, saying: "What we want to do is open a dialogue."
In Cairo, Obama is set to deliver the speech that he's been promising since last year's election campaign _ aiming to set a new tone in America's often-strained dealings with the world's 1.5 billion Muslims.
Many of those Muslims still smolder over Iraq, Guantanamo and unflinching U.S. support of Israel, but they are hoping the son of a Kenyan Muslim who lived part of his childhood in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, can help chart a new course.
Aides cautioned that Obama was not out to break new policy ground in his Cairo speech, which follows visits to Turkey and Iraq in April and a series of outreach efforts including a Persian New Year video and a student town hall in Istanbul. And they said the president is not expecting quick results, even though the speech will be distributed as widely as possible.
Officials said Obama also wouldn't flinch from difficult topics, whether it's the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the goal of a Palestinian state or democracy and human rights. Obama has been criticized for setting the address in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak has jailed dissidents and clung to power for nearly three decades.
The White House is going to extraordinary lengths to make sure the speech is heard throughout the Muslim world.
Gibbs said the speech will be posted on the White House Web site, along with links to fully translated transcripts in 13 languages. He said it also will be posted on social networking Web sites like Facebook, My Space and Twitter.
In addition, Gibbs said the State Department is registering callers from around the world who want to receive text messages about speech while it's being delivered and provide feedback, which will be posted on the department's Web site.