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Obama arrives in Saudi Arabia, visits king

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

UPDATED:

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA -- As President Obama arrived here Wednesday for meetings with the Saudi royal family, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden surfaced to offer a reminder of the high-stakes agenda Mr. Obama is pursuing on his trip abroad -- a battle to improve the U.S. relations with the Muslim world and counter violent anti-U.S. attitudes among Islamic extremists.

Shortly after the new president was greeted by Saudi King Abdullah upon his landing, the Sept. 11 mastermind issued a audiotape accusing Mr. Obama of "planting the seeds of hatred and vengeance" in the Muslim world toward the United States. Bin Laden accused the U.S. government of ordering the recent Pakistani offensive against Taliban and Islamic extremists in the Swat Valley and warning of unspecified "consequences."

The tape aired on the Arabic-language Al Jazeera network, frequently used by the global terror network to spread its message. Ayman al-Zawahri, bin Laden's top deputy, issued his own statement Tuesday slamming Mr. Obama's highly-anticipated speech Thursday in Cairo on U.S. relations with the Islamic world.

Mr. Obama did not address the bin Laden tape during a brief statement to reporters, but White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told reporters in Riyadh its contents were consistent with the "threatening" messages issued by al Qaeda in the past and said the terrorist is attempting to "upstage" and "try to be a part of" Mr. Obama's day.

"I dont think its surprising that al Qaeda would want to shift attention away from the president's historic and continued efforts to reach out and have an open dialogue with the Muslim world," Mr. Gibbs said, adding the White House has not had a chance to analyze the full message.

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In the tape, bin Laden focused Mr. Obama's actions in Pakistan as the source of his anger.

"This simply means that Obama and his administration have planted new seeds of hatred and vengeance towards America," bin Laden said, according to CBS after it translated the message.

"In this manner, Obama appears to have followed the same path taken by [former President George W. Bush] in creating more enmity towards Muslims and adding on to the fighting enemies, thus paving the way for new long wars," the tape said. "Let the American people prepare to continue harvesting what their White House leaders grow, in the years and decades to come."

Before the new bin Laden tape was reported, it had been an amicable start to the president's six-day trip, which includes the speech in Cairo and visits to Germany and France.

As Mr. Obama descended the stairs of Air Force One at 2:33 p.m. local time after a nearly 13-hour flight, King Abdullah began the receiving line. The Saudi Honor Guard and about 150 other military members lined up to officially welcome the president. The traditional 21-gun salute given to heads of state was fired from a distance.

Mr. Obama, who was criticized for appearing to bow slightly before the king in April during the G-20 Summit in London, greeted King Abdullah this time with a light embrace and cheek-to-cheek touch on both sides.

The "Star-Spangled Banner" played and Mr. Obama, wearing a dark suit and striped tie, held his hand over his heart. Also played was the "Royal Salute," the national anthem of Saudi Arabia.

Local broadcasts covering every moment of the short visit offered shots of the U.S. and Saudi flags waving in the breeze as Air Force One taxied at the airport. Flags also lined the main highway leading from the airport.

After the arrival ceremony on the tarmac, Mr. Obama and King Abdullah sat together in the Royal Reception Room, where the president sipped coffee, the traditional Saudi hospitality beverage. Smiling, he spoke to the king through a translator.

Mr. Obama had a full day planned of meetings with the king's royal leadership at King's Farm, a retreat similar to Camp David in the United States.

During their meeting at the ranch, the king presented Mr. Obama with a gold medallion that he placed around the president's neck. Mr. Obama wore it for several photos but then removed it for what he said was "safekeeping."

Mr. Obama closed his remarks with "shukran," the Arabic word for "thank you."

The visit was just a preview of the signature event of the trip -- a speech at Cairo University aimed at improving U.S. relations with the Muslim world.

Mr. Obama told the BBC Tuesday he wants to open a dialogue with the Islamic world.

"There are misapprehensions about the West on the part of the Muslim world and obviously there are some big misapprehensions about the Muslim world when it comes to those of us in the West," he said. "It is my firm belief that no one speech is going to solve every problem, there are no silver bullets. There are very real policy issues that have to be worked through that are difficult, and ultimately it's going to be action and not words that determine the path of progress from here on out."

But the president also raised eyebrows with comments in a separate interview with French television reporters noting that the United States itself could be considered one of the "largest Muslim countries in the world," given the size of the U.S. Muslim minority.

While there are widespread misunderstandings about the United States in Muslim countries, "the flip side is, I think, that the United States and the West generally, we have to educate ourselves more effectively on Islam," Mr. Obama said.

"And one of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we'd be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world. And so there's got to be a better dialogue and a better understanding between the two peoples," he added.

Middle East peace was expected to be a major part of Mr. Obama's agenda in Riyadh and during the Cairo speech, following a series of White House meetings with leaders from both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Obama told BBC the trip is an "opportunity for us to get both sides to listen to each other a little bit more and hopefully learn something about different cultures."

A new CNN poll of 1,010 Americans found 21 percent have a favorable view of Muslim countries while 46 percent have an unfavorable view and 33 percent were undecided or offered no opinion.

In addition, 78 percent of respondents told pollsters they think Muslim countries have an unfavorable or very unfavorable view of the United States.

After Thursday's speech and meetings with Egyptian leaders, Mr. Obama will travel to eastern Germany where on Friday he will see the Buchenwald Concentration Camp that his great uncle helped to liberate during World War II. He also will visit wounded soldiers at the Landstuhl medical facility near the Ramstein Air Base.

On Saturday, Mr. Obama will participate in the international celebration marking the 65th anniversary of D-Day from the beaches at Normandy in France.

He returns to the United States on Sunday.