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Thursday, 1 November, 2001, 11:29 GMT
Blair's Middle East challenge
British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives in Saudi Arabia
Blair is tackling cracks in the coalition against terrorism
By BBC Middle East correspondent Frank Gardner in Riyadh

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has travelled many thousands of kilometres since the 11 September attacks - round after round of intensive shuttle-diplomacy in the effort to convince wavering governments that the war against terrorism is a good thing.

Israeli soldiers in the West Bank
More clashes in the West Bank as Blair arrives in Israel
He is now in the Middle East - Syria was first, next Saudi Arabia and Jordan - and then Israel, where he was expected to repeat his call for a return to dialogue between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The British prime minister received a royal welcome from his Saudi hosts. A military band struck up as Mr Blair stepped onto Saudi soil, and he reviewed a guard of honour.

The Saudi ruling family invited him here, despite the antipathy many ordinary Saudis feel towards the West. But if there are any doubts about Saudi Arabia's commitment to the coalition against terror, Mr Blair sought to dispel them.

"I thank Saudi Arabia for their forthright and immediate condemnation of the terrorist attacks on the 11 September in the United States," he said.

"I thank them for the fact that they have responded positively to all the requests that have been made to them for assistance - they are very much a part of the international coalition against terrorism," Mr Blair added.

Saudi cynicism

The main message being carried by the British prime minister is that the West is at war with terror, not with Islam or the Muslim world.

But on the streets of Riyadh and other Saudi cities most ordinary Arabs are dismissive of Mr Blair's campaign to win Arab support against terrorism. Many see his renewed interest in the Middle East peace process as a cynical bid to impress Arabs when he needs them.

Tony Blair with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
Blair had a difficult meeting with Syrian President Assad
Earlier in the day, he ran into difficulties in Damascus where Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad, criticised the war in Afghanistan.

The Syrian leader also defended his support for violent and extremist Palestinian groups. He said they were freedom fighters, not terrorists.

Finding a third way

Mr Blair put the best gloss he could on the two men's differences, saying: "I think we have to understand that there are different perspectives that people will bring to this situation. But you know, you can either stay out of the dialogue, or get into it and try and build a bridge of understanding for the future.

Tony Blair and Jordan's King Abdullah
Blair also visited Jordan which has been supportive of the war
"In respect of the Middle East peace process, this is only going to work if people negotiate and discuss, rather than use violence to get their way," he added.

But it is now 10 almost fruitless years since the Madrid peace conference, and most Arabs blame the West for not doing more to secure a homeland for the Palestinians.

Against this backdrop of weary cynicism, Mr Blair will have a hard job convincing most Arabs that he is on their side.

The BBC's Orla Guerin
"The Prime Minister wants to talk peace"
Palestinian affairs analyst, Ghassan Khatib
says many Palestinians have high expectations of Mr Blair's visit
See also:

05 Nov 01 | Middle East
Blair seeks Mid-East support
31 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Syria trip 'opens bridge for dialogue'
31 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Arab world gives Blair tough message
30 Oct 01 | Middle East
Israel considers further withdrawal
26 Oct 01 | Middle East
Analysis: US unease over Israeli action
15 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Blair urges Mid-East progress
15 Oct 01 | Middle East
Q&A: A Palestinian state?
31 Oct 01 | South Asia
Taleban say 1,500 killed in raids
31 Oct 01 | Middle East
Blair's road to Damascus
01 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Rebel MPs push for war vote
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