Obama looks to stimulate peace process during Mideast trip

U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Riyadh on Wednesday, kicking off a short but key tour of Saudi Arabia and Egypt in which he hopes to outline his plans to achieve peace in the Middle East.

Saudi king and U.S. president trade words of praise before talks

U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Riyadh on Wednesday, kicking off a short but key tour of Saudi Arabia and Egypt in which he hopes to outline his plans to achieve peace in the Middle East.

U.S. President Barack Obama talks with Saudi King Abdullah at the king's horse farm near Riyadh on Wednesday. ((Gerald Herbert/Associated Press))

After descending from Air Force One at the King Khalid International Airport in the Saudi capital, Obama was greeted with a handshake by the country's head of state, King Abdullah. The two then moved to Abdullah's horse farm just outside Riyadh to begin closed door meetings.

Speaking to reporters before heading into the talks, Obama said he was struck by the king's "wisdom and his 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."

King Abdullah, in turn, praised the Obama as a "distinguished man who deserves to be in this position."

Obama is to discuss a number of issues with Abdullah, ranging from Arab-Israeli peace efforts to Iran's nuclear program. The surge in oil prices is also on the agenda.

The president was to stay overnight at the farm before heading to Egypt.

Concessions sought

The CBC's Peter Armstrong, reporting from Cairo, said Obama is expected to seek some concessions from Saudi Arabia to bolster the peace process between Israel and the Arab world.

One possible concession would be for Saudi Arabia to formalize its informal, "off the record" ties with Israel, the details of which haven't been made public, Armstrong said.

"[Obama's] asked for some fairly serious concessions from the Israelis — that they stop building settlements [in the West Bank], that they stop expanding and they embrace the two-state solution," Armstrong said.

"He has to get some kind of embrace from the Arab world to move that forward, and getting Saudi Arabia on board on that is very, very key — and then of course, getting Egypt on board as well."

Israel has so far rejected calls to freeze the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, and it is unclear if Saudi Arabia would be willing to make any conciliatory gestures toward Israel.

Saudi Arabia says it has already made a number of concessions in a plan offering a comprehensive peace between Israel and the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia proposed the peace initiative in 2002, offering pan-Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from Arab lands captured in 1967 — the West Bank, Gaza Strip, east Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The 22-member Arab League endorsed the plan in 2007.

Since taking office in late March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far refused to endorse a two-state solution and has said established settlements must be allowed to expand for natural growth of settler families.

But Netanyahu has vowed to crack down on "outposts," or settlements built without the authorization of the Israeli government.

Engaging with Muslim world

After visiting Saudi Arabia, Obama is expected to head to Cairo, where he will meet with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Members of Saudi special forces watch over King Khalid International Airport, as Obama arrives in Riyadh on Wednesday. ((Hassan Ammar/Associated Press))

He will also give a major speech at Cairo University on Thursday in which he will "discuss in some detail his view of his conflict" between Palestinians and Israelis, White House spokesman Ben LaBolt told reporters at a Riyadh news conference.

Obama will also outline his "personal commitment" to engagement with the Muslim world, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said before the trip.

"He will discuss how the United States and Muslim communities around the world can bridge some of the differences that have divided them."

Some democracy activists and human rights groups have questioned Obama's decision to visit the countries without first demanding some democratic reforms.

In an interview with the BBC prior to the trip, Obama said he doesn't intend to "lecture" Middle Eastern countries over issues such as human rights.

Instead, Obama said, the U.S. would encourage what he called "universal principles" that the nations could "embrace and affirm as part of their national identity."

The tour is Obama's first visit to the Middle East since being sworn in as president.

Bin Laden tape surfaces

His arrival at Riyadh on Wednesday coincided with a release of an audio tape purportedly recorded by Osama Bin Laden.

In the tape, broadcast by Al-Jazeera television, al-Qaeda's leader says Obama has inflamed hatred toward the United States through his actions in Pakistan.

The recording criticized the U.S. leader for pushing Pakistan to crack down on militants in the northwestern Swat Valley and block the imposition of Islamic law.

The authenticity of the tape could not be immediately verified.

On Tuesday, al-Qaeda's second in command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, denounced Obama's visit on an audio recording posted on hardline jihadist websites.

"His bloody messages were received and are still being received by Muslims, and they will not be concealed by public relations campaigns or by farcical visits or elegant words," al-Zawahiri said.

With files from The Associated Press