By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 4, 2009
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, June 3 -- President Obama began his Middle East trip Wednesday here in "the place where Islam began" as the administration took extraordinary steps to make sure his speech in Cairo on Thursday is heard around the world, including offering instant text-messaging of the address in four languages, creating special links on popular social networking sites, and facilitating its live broadcast on national television networks.
As Obama arrived in this desert capital, senior U.S. officials said the president will discuss Muslim and American misperceptions and specific policies on both sides that have undermined relations.
"There has been a breach, an undeniable breach between America and the Islamic world, and that breach has been years in the making," said David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama. "It is not going to be reversed in one speech. It is not going to be reversed perhaps in one administration. But the president is a strong believer in open, honest dialogue."
The attention surrounding Obama's address and his first visit to Saudi Arabia was underscored Wednesday by a pair of messages from Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
Shortly after Obama landed here, the Arab satellite network al-Jazeera aired an audiotape of bin Laden sharply criticizing U.S. policy in Pakistan and accusing Obama of planting seeds for "revenge and hatred" in the Muslim world. The message said Obama is following President George W. Bush's policy of "antagonizing Muslims," and bin Laden warned Americans of "consequences" to come. U.S. officials did not dispute the tape's authenticity even though bin Laden, once a Saudi citizen, has not been seen for years.
A day earlier, Zawahiri urged Egyptians to shun Obama during his visit, saying his trip was at the invitation of the "torturers of Egypt" and the "slaves of America." Zawahiri, a doctor by training, was imprisoned in Egypt for his radical Islamist political beliefs until 1984.
Briefing reporters here, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said, "I don't think it's surprising that al-Qaeda would want to shift attention away from the president's historic efforts and continued efforts to reach out and have an open dialogue with the Muslim world."
"I think Americans have seen these types of threats before," said Gibbs, who called it "an effort to upstage and to try to become a part of a story seeking a different way."
Saudi Arabia's oil wealth and supreme importance to Muslims as the site of Mecca and Medina have long made it a major player in Middle East diplomacy, and Obama arrived as he is seeking early progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and in curbing Iran's nuclear program.
At a tarmac welcoming ceremony, Obama was met by King Abdullah, the 84-year-old Saudi leader. The leaders then headed to Abdullah's farm at Jenadriyah, not far from Riyadh, for meetings. Obama noted that he "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."
In a statement, the White House said the leaders discussed Iran's nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Obama's impending speech. In recent years, Abdullah has asserted Saudi diplomacy aggressively in Lebanon and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was the first to propose broad Arab recognition of Israel in return for its withdrawal from all territory occupied in the 1967 Middle East War, and he has sought in the past to broker unity government agreements between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah. Obama has suggested that Abdullah's peace proposal, adopted by the Arab League in 2002 and now known as the Arab Peace Initiative, might serve as a way to revive talks between Israelis, Palestinians and Arab countries, only two of which now recognize the Jewish state.
For the Thursday speech, Gibbs said the State Department is offering highlights via text message in Urdu, Farsi, Arabic and English, allowing people to receive the speech in real time and comment on it. The White House Web site will carry it live, and transcripts will be available in 13 languages.
The White House will also sponsor links to the speech on social networking sites such as MySpace, Twitter and Facebook, which Gibbs said has 20 million users in Muslim countries alone. Gibbs called the efforts "far broader" than previous ones.
The speech is the latest in a series of overtures Obama has made to the Islamic world since taking office. Those include giving his first presidential interview to an Arabic-language satellite station, sending a Persian New Year's greeting to Iran, and proclaiming in Turkey that the "United States is not, and will never be, at war with Islam."
Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian American author and professor of modern Arab studies at Columbia University, said Obama will now "have to get beyond the generalities and talk about specific polices." He said, for example, that the president should use the word "occupation" to characterize Israel's presence in the Palestinian territories, Golan Heights and Shebaa Farms -- a word he did not use after his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
"He'll have to talk about Iraq. He'll have to talk about Palestine. And he'll have to talk about Afghanistan," said Khalidi, a former colleague of Obama's at the University of Chicago. "These are issues that resonate in the Muslim world. And not doing so will rob the speech of the impact it could have."
Only a small fraction of the world's 1.2 billion Muslims live in the Middle East, Khalidi said, but Obama probably chose the venue because "what happens in the Arab world has an outsize importance in the larger Muslim world."
Correspondent Howard Schneider in Cairo and staff writer Joby Warrick and staff researcher Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.