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Obama Begins Mideast Tour With Saudi Visit

A worker prepares the inside of Cairo's 14th-century Sultan Hassan Mosque, which U.S. President Barack Obama will visit on the Egyptian leg of his trip on June 4.
(RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Barack Obama has arrived in Saudi Arabia for the first leg of his maiden tour of the Middle East, a visit aimed at improving relations between the United States and the Islamic world.

After arriving in Riyadh, Obama travelled to King Abdullah's farm where the two were to hold talks expected to cover the Arab-Israeli conflict, U.S. overtures to Iran, and oil. Obama will continue his visit with a keynote speech in Cairo, Egypt.

"What I want to do," Obama told Britain's ITV shortly before leaving Washington, "is create a better dialogue so that the Muslim world understands more effectively how the United States, but also the West, thinks about many of these difficult issues like terrorism, like democracy, to discuss the framework for what's happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and our outreach to Iran and also how we view the prospects for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians."

Officials in the U.S. administration say Obama plans to seek King Abdullah's support on issues like the nuclear standoff with Iran, reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and global oil prices.

Obama also is expected to seek Saudi Arabia's help to counter the spread of Taliban militants on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Riyadh's Influence

Many experts say Saudi Arabia -- a Sunni Arab powerhouse -- could be crucial in mediating some form of reconciliation with the Islamic extremists who have caused havoc in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They say Saudi Arabia also could help cut off large sums of money that flow to militants from wealthy Saudi donors and Islamic charities.

The Saudis insist they are doing all they can to reduce terrorist financing. Experts say Saudi Arabia could do more, but they say the Saudis are wary of angering religious conservatives in the country who are key government supporters.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly asked Saudi Arabia to mediate between his government and the Taliban.

But Ali Awadh Asseri, a former Saudi ambassador to Pakistan, says the kingdom is reluctant to take an overt role as a mediator unless both sides are clearly ready to make peace.

King Abdullah held a secret meeting with Afghan officials and former Taliban government members in Mecca in September to explore the possibility of mediating reconciliation talks.

Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban deputy higher education minister who attended those talks, claims that Saudi Arabia has contact with Taliban leaders -- including Mullah Mohammad Omar. Rahmani says that if Saudi Arabia cannot convince the Taliban to negotiate, nobody can.

Ambitious Agenda

Washington also hopes Saudi Arabia will play a moderating role in OPEC and counter attempts by countries like Iran to raise oil prices. There are fears that oil price hikes could threaten prospects of an imminent global economic recovery.

Saudi Arabia and the United States have an over 70-year-old relationship based on guaranteeing oil supplies in return for U.S. protection for the Saudi monarchy.

For its part, Saudi Arabia wants Obama to get tough with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has balked at Palestinian statehood and rebuffed U.S. calls to halt the construction and expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land.

Steven Cook, of the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations, says he thinks Obama's administration is interested in a peace plan proposed in April 2002 by Saudi Arabia.

That initiative calls for full normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel, a complete withdrawal of Israel forces from occupied Arab land, the creation of a Palestinian state and an "equitable" solution for Palestinian refugees.
The Islamic World
There is no exact figure for the number of Muslims worldwide, but most estimates put it at about 1.5 billion.

Indonesia has the world's biggest Muslim population with around 195 million people. Other countries with large Muslim populations include Pakistan (160 million), India (140 million), Bangladesh (125 million), Turkey (72 million), Iran (69 million), Egypt (68 million), Nigeria (70 million) and China (20 million).

The worldwide Muslim community is known as the ummah. The Organization of the Islamic Conference, which represents 57 states, says it is the collective voice of the Muslim world.

Although Islam is often associated with the Arab world and the Middle East, by some estimates, fewer than 15 percent of Muslims are Arab.

Muslims predominate in 30 to 40 countries, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and along a belt that stretches across North Africa into Central Asia and south to the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent.

Countries with almost entirely Muslim populations (99.5 percent or more) include Bahrain, Comoros, Kuwait, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.


In fact, some analysts see the 2002 plan as a way to broaden Middle East diplomacy and bypass the stalemated Israeli-Palestinian track.

King Abdullah II of Jordan has been pushing a so-called "57-state" solution that would grant Israel sweeping diplomatic recognition across the Islamic world in return for making peace with the Palestinians.

But so far, it seems unlikely that many Arab states will grant early concessions to Israel without some moderation of Netanyahu's refusal to halt Jewish settlement activity on occupied Palestinian land.

Trouble Spots

The Saudis also would like to see greater pressure on Iran over its nuclear enrichment program. The West fears that nuclear program is aimed at building atomic weapons. But Tehran says the program is only for generating nuclear energy.

Saudi rulers think the virtual collapse of the Middle East peace process in recent years has given Iran opportunities to expand its regional influence through Sunni Islamist groups like the Palestinian Hamas, as well as its traditional Shi'ite Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.

Mohammad al-Qahtani, a political analyst in Riyadh, says Obama is in a position to help foster democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia as well as to get the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track.

"I guess leaders in this part of the world listen to the American president, and I guess he could instigate them, push them toward more reform, loosen up their clench on authority and power," al-Qahtani says. "And he could just enfranchise the people. And also, he could help in resolving the Arab-Israel conflict which is draining the economies of the region."

On the eve of Obama's trip, a high-ranking Al-Qaeda leader -- Ayman al-Zawahiri -- released an audio recording in which he called upon Egyptians to shun Obama.

Independent analysts say the message suggests Al-Qaeda is deeply concerned about Obama's unique position among U.S. leaders to improve relations with the Islamic world. As the son of an African Muslim father, Obama spent part of his childhood in majority-Muslim Indonesia.

with additional Reuters and wire reporting