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Obama Meets Saudi King; Bin Laden Issues Message

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah (right) speaks with U.S. President Barack Obama in Riyadh.
RIYADH (Reuters) -- President Barack Obama praised the United States' long strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia and said his visit was to seek King Abdullah's advice before making his much-heralded speech to the Islamic world in Cairo.

"I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek his majesty's counsel and discuss with him many of the issues that we confront here in the Middle East," Obama told reporters as he met with the king at a farm near Riyadh.

Obama's meeting and scheduled speech in Cairo on June 4 drew condemnation from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who said in a taped message aired by Al-Jazeera television that the U.S. leader had planted seeds for "revenge and hatred" towards the United States in the Muslim world.

The message, which aired shortly after Obama's arrival in the kingdom, came a day after bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, called Obama a criminal and warned Muslims not to fall for his polished words, part of a propaganda effort to preempt Obama's Cairo speech.

After sipping Arabic coffee at an airport welcome ceremony, Obama travelled to the king's farm for talks expected to cover the Arab-Israeli conflict, U.S. overtures to Iran, and oil.

Obama praised the king's "wisdom and graciousness," noting that the two countries have a long history of friendship and a strategic relationship. Abdullah thanked Obama and noted that close ties between the two countries go back to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and King Abdul Aziz.

"I am confident that, working together, the United States and Saudi Arabia can make progress on a whole host of issues of mutual interest," Obama said.

The meetings between Abdullah and Obama, which were expected to cover the Arab-Israeli conflict, U.S. overtures to Iran, and oil prices, came on the eve of the U.S. leader's speech in Cairo.

Obama, whose father was Muslim and who lived in Indonesia as a boy, hopes to mend a U.S. image damaged by Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the treatment of U.S. military detainees.

"I am confident that we're in a moment where in Islamic countries, I think there's a recognition that the path of extremism is not actually going to deliver a better life for people," Obama told NBC News before he left Washington.

Saudi Worries About Iran

King Abdullah was expected to express his worries that Obama's diplomatic outreach to Iran may rejig regional relationships at Riyadh's expense, diplomats and analysts say.

Saudi Arabia wants Obama to get tough with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who has balked at Palestinian statehood and rebuffed U.S. calls to halt settlement building.

Obama has hinted he would like Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, to offer some confidence-building measures to Israel.

"I think we have not seen a set of potential gestures from other Arab states, or from the Palestinians, that might deal with some of the Israeli concerns," he told the BBC.

King Abdullah sponsored a 2002 peace plan offering Israel collective Arab recognition in return for an Israeli withdrawal from land occupied in the 1967 war, a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and a just solution for refugees.

The Saudi adviser said it was "completely unrealistic" to expect any concession from Riyadh, at least until Israel stopped all settlement expansion and accepted the Arab peace plan.

Washington hopes Saudi Arabia will play a moderating role in the Organization of Petroleum Exporters (OPEC) after oil prices hit a seventh-month high, threatening Obama's efforts to lift the United States out of recession and hasten global recovery.

Obama has said he would discuss oil with King Abdullah and would argue that price spikes are not in Saudi interests.

On June 1, the Saudi cabinet reiterated it saw "the fair price" at $75-$80 a barrel -- 17 percent above current levels.

Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest crude exporter, has a nearly 60-year-old bond with the United States based on assured oil supplies in return for U.S. protection for the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia, which has more than a fifth of global crude reserves, wants to hear how serious Obama is about plans to lower U.S. dependence on Middle East oil and diversify energy resources away from fossil fuels, analysts say.