Bin Laden gatecrashes Obama's pilgrimage to Riyadh

President's Middle East tour takes him to Saudi Arabia for meeting with King Abdullah as al-Qa'ida leader accuses America of 'planting seeds for hatred' in Pakistan
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Starting his second visit to the Middle East, President Barack Obama yesterday sought Saudi Arabia's help in attaining two key goals, of rebuilding America's image in the Muslim world, and breathing new life into the Israeli/Palestinian peace process.

It was "very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek his majesty's counsel and discuss... the issues that we confront here in the Middle East," Mr Obama said before talks with King Abdullah at his horse farm near Riyadh.

His visit to Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter and a vital US ally in the region, came on the eve of his much-heralded speech in Cairo, the centrepiece of his trip, at which he will attempt, in the words of White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, to "re-set' America's relations with the Islamic world.

The magnitude of his task – but also the opportunity that beckons this young and hugely popular US President – was underscored by a poll taken in Arab and Muslim countries and released in Washington, showing that 78 per cent of those questioned had an unfavourable view of the US.

Even though US officials stress Mr Obama will not be unveiling specific new policy initiatives in his address in the domed hall of Cairo University, the event has assumed colossal symbolic significance – so much so that the leadership of al-Q'aida, America's fiercest enemy in the Islamic world, has felt moved to condemn it, even before it happened.

Arabs should not be deceived, Osama bin Laden declared in an audio message aired by Al Jazeera television yesterday. The US President, he said, had "planted the seeds for hatred and revenge" by "paying" Pakistan to move against Islamic militants in Swat Valley, and forcing "a million" Muslims to flee as refugees.

President Asif Ali Zardari had "betrayed" his country "to implement an American, Jewish and Indian conspiracy" against Pakistan, bin Laden said in the message, whose authenticity could not be confirmed, but which experts said was consistent with previous messages from the al-Q'aida leader.

A day earlier, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's deputy, delivered a similar warning, calling Mr Obama a criminal and advising Muslims not to fall for his smooth words. But for many Middle East specialists, this double-barrelled blast is a backhanded compliment – a sign of al-Q'aida's fears that this President, whose father was a Muslim and who spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, could transform attitudes, erasing memories of the reviled George W Bush.

White House officials, however, were playing down the occasion's potential impact, saying that a speech alone could not solve at a single stroke the entrenched problems of the region – on many of which Saudi Arabia, the cultural and religious heart of Sunni Islam, might have a vital bearing.

"I am confident that, working together, the United States and Saudi Arabia can make progress on a whole host of issues of mutual interest," Mr Obama said, referring to problems ranging from the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the containment of Iran to the struggle against the Taliban and al-Q'aida in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the price of oil.

On the first, especially, Mr Obama faces an uphill task, as he tries to coax a resistant Israel and sceptical Arab countries to make the concessions that could get the peace process moving once more.

Last month, he conspicuously failed to persuade Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, to commit to a two-state solution to the conflict, or halt the growth of settlements.

Failing movement on either front, Arab governments signalled this week they cannot be expected to move much beyond their existing offer, dating to 2002, offering Israel normalised relations with the Arab world in exchange for a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders and the return of at least some Palestinian refugees.

A related issue is Iran. The White House believes it can harness the widespread concern among Teheran's Arab neighbours at the former's growing influence in the region, and its presumed pursuit of nuclear weapons, to speed progress on the Israeli/Palestinian front. But Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf States have their own worries about Mr Obama's overtures to Iram and where they may lead.

The US may also try to persuade the Saudis to use their religious and financial influence to bring about a truce between the Taliban and Hamid Karzai's government in Kabul.