Page last updated at 15:39 GMT, Wednesday, 3 June 2009 16:39 UK

Barack Obama launches key Mid-East mission


King Abdullah greeted Obama in a ceremony at Riyadh's main airport

US President Barack Obama has arrived in Saudi Arabia at the start of a Middle East tour aimed at increasing US engagement with the Islamic world.

Mr Obama will spend a few hours in Riyadh before heading for Egypt, where he will make a keynote speech in Cairo.

He says he wants to revive Mid-East talks and overcome misapprehensions.

Meanwhile, a message said to be from al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden accused Mr Obama of ordering Pakistan to crack down on militants in the Swat valley.

The recording said Mr Obama and his administration had "sown new seeds to increase hatred and revenge on America".

First visit

Apart from a stop-over in Iraq in April, this is Mr Obama's first time in the region since becoming president.

Barack Obama hopes to set a new tone which is designed to isolate extremists in the region and re-establish the understanding the US gained after 9/11 and lost over Iraq, says the BBC's Paul Reynolds.

3 June: Saudi Arabia - talks with King Abdullah on Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations
4 June: Egypt - talks with President Hosni Mubarak, keynote speech at Cairo university
5 June: Germany - meets Chancellor Angela Merkel, visits to Dresden and to Buchenwald concentration camp
6 June: France - meets President Nicolas Sarkozy, attends D-Day events in Normandy

The visit takes in Washington's two most important Arab allies, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The Saudis are sponsors of the only comprehensive peace plan for relations between the Arab world and Israel, although peace negotiations are at a standstill.

Egypt is intimately involved with the Palestinian problem, acting as an intermediary between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

In Riyadh, Mr Obama's motorcade took him to the ranch of King Abdullah, proceeding up a long drive lined with Saudi horse guards before arriving at a palatial meeting room.

The king and president sat side-by-side chatting and smiling ahead of private talks.

King Abdullah presented Mr Obama with a large gold medallion which he placed around the president's neck.

Mr Obama said that in previous conversations with the king he had been struck by his "wisdom and graciousness".

"I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek his majesty's counsel and to discuss with him many of the issues that we confront here in the Middle East," he said.

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


On the ground as Obama arrives in Riyadh

Mr Obama is not expected to make any major statements in Riyadh, but on Thursday, he is to deliver a speech at Cairo University which our correspondent says could be one of the most important of the Obama presidency.

Mr Obama's tour has come amid a flurry of messages purportedly from al-Qaeda militant leaders, including a rare recording from the group's figurehead, Osama Bin Laden.

According to a tape transmitted by Arabic TV station al-Jazeera as Air Force One arrived in Riyadh, Bin Laden accuses the US president and his predecessor, George W Bush, of planting seeds to increase hatred of America.

"The number of these seeds is equal to the number of displaced people from Swat valley," it said.

US pressure on Pakistan had led to a campaign of "killing, fighting, bombing and destruction" that prompted the exodus of a million Muslims from the Swat valley, the recording added.

Earlier, a deputy leader of al-Qaeda Ayman al-Zawahiri urged Muslims to ignore the new tone from Washington, because Mr Obama's "bloody messages" - in Iraq and Afghanistan - would not be concealed by "polished words".

Al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia issued an internet statement vowing to target President Obama's convoy in Riyadh.


The tour itinerary does not include Israel, but shortly before departing for Saudi Arabia, Mr Obama had a meeting with Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barak, in Washington.

Let's get real. This is a bunch of propaganda
Dean Smith, Toronto

The president is reported to have used the meeting to reiterate that the US intends to be tough with Israel on the question of settlement building in the West Bank.

Israel is resisting calls to freeze building activity in all settlements, but Palestinian leaders have said there can be no progress towards peace without a halt to such construction.

After Cairo, Mr Obama will travel on to Europe for D-Day commemorations.

The BBC News website will carry a fully-annotated transcript of President Obama's Cairo speech, with analysis of key passages by BBC world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds.

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