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President Obama leaves tonight for his third major international trip, stopping first in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, a recently announced addition. From Riyadh, he will travel to Cairo, where he'll give a major speech on U.S.-Middle East relations, a talk he promised to stage from a Middle East capital sometime in his first hundred days in office (he's a little late). After just twelve hours in Egypt, Obama is headed to Germany, where he'll visit wounded vets and Buchenwald concentration camp. Then it's off to France to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.
Obama's decision to stop in Riyadh came just last week, and signals his desire to improve perceptions of the U.S. in the Muslim world. According to Sabria Jawhar, a Huffington Post contributor and journalist in Saudi Arabia, Obama is on the right track, but needs to back up the photo-ops with substance:
This potential glad-handing makes Arabs nervous and annoyed. It's fine to engage in this protocol and unite the Ummah with an emotional speech. Saudis also appreciate that Obama has chosen Saudi Arabia, the land of the two holy mosques and the heart of Islam, to discuss the Arab agenda before speaking in Cairo. It's a positive step towards reconciling with Muslims.
But Arabs expect substance right out of the gate. The primary issues of Middle East peace, as far as the U.S. is concerned, seem to be shifting away from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and moving towards dealing with Iran's nuclear ambitions, routing the Taliban and stabilizing Iraq.
Although the president won't be making any public appearances in Riyadh, journalists have already been caught in a debate over what they can and cannot report on while in the country. Time's Micheal Scherer reported that the Obama Administration struck a deal with the Saudi government to curtail the movements of the White House press corps; the Saudi government denied the report.
Cairo is the most anxiously awaited stop on the trip. Obama met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas last week, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the week before, to discuss Israeli-Palestinian peace plans. The speech on Wednesday is not expected to include major policy decisions, according to White House press secretary Robert Gibbs, and is instead intended to indicate to Muslim populations "his personal commitment to engagement, based upon mutual interests and mutual respect". HuffPost contributor Ayman Nour, who ran against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential elections and was then imprisoned, worries that expectations for the speech are too high in the region, writing:
The war against extremism, hatred and exclusion is everyone's war. Obama should engage Muslims everywhere to side with peace, freedom and tolerance. During his campaign, Obama enjoyed tremendous support in this part of the world. People placed very high hopes on Obama to deliver the change he promised and fix what they see as decades-long problems. Upon his historic victory, most Muslims cheered and celebrated. The biggest challenge facing Obama is this image of a Superhero-Obama who can fix all problems and solve all complex issues.
Obama has already faced criticism for choosing Cairo for the speech, as Egypt has been condemned for its human rights record. However, Cairo University, the site of the speech as well as a historical setting for pro-democracy protests - including those in favor of the outlawed but extremely popular Muslim Brotherhood party - is seen as symbolic of a confluence of East and West.
From Cairo, Obama is destined for Germany on Friday for a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel. Afterwards, Obama will visit wounded vets at the Landstuhl medical facility, a stop he failed to make last year during a campaign trip, drawing harsh attacks from rival John McCain. He will also visit Buchenwald concentration camp, which his great uncle helped to liberate (not Auschwitz, as Obama once said on the campaign trail.)
Finally, on Saturday Obama will stop in France to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Normandy invasion. While he will make a speech at the American cemetery in Coleville, preparations have been overshadowed by French President Sarkozy's royal faux pas. Sarkozy, a fan of the U.S., invited Obama, but not the Queen of England, despite the fact that British troops also participated in the attack. Although Sarkozy attempted to rectify the snub, it's been announced that Prince Charles will be coming instead.
Four days, four countries, four foreign leaders to woo. For a visual breakdown, watch a slideshow of the week abroad: