President Barack Obama was received in the Middle East with the usual grovelling Saudi plea for help in taming the Israelis and an incendiary threat from Osama bin Laden that America will pay the price for his role in displacing a million Muslim refugees in Pakistan. It wasn't difficult to see why Obama warned the world not to expect too much from his attempt to "create a better dialogue" with Muslims.
Bin Laden was probably 1,300 miles to the north of Obama when the US President landed in Riyadh yesterday for his meeting with King Abdullah but, as usual, Bin Laden's words were a good deal more direct than those of the fawning Saudis. By his support for the Pakistani army's assault on the Taliban in Waziristan, Obama had "sown new seeds of hatred against America" and was "laying the foundation for long wars ahead". With his normal flourish, Bin Laden added that he "warned the American people... that they will suffer the consequences of his actions".
Could it be, perhaps, that Bin Laden is beginning to miss old George Bush and his "war on terror", that the ever smiling Barack Obama is beginning to stick in Bin Laden's craw, that the fractional improvement in US-Arab relations is beginning to be a little irksome – or that, by some awful mischance – Obama actually might tame the colonial ambitions of Israel? Ironically it was Madeleine Albright – writing with the usual pomposity but with almost bin Laden-like directness in the New York Times – who also spotted that no Obama speech, "however eloquent, can disentangle US-Muslim relations from the treacherous terrain of current events such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan..."
The Saudis, of course, wanted to talk about the Iranian – i.e. Shiite – threat to the Sunni world as well as the refusal of Bibi Netanyahu to bow to Obama's demand for an end to the Israeli colonisation of Arab land. Indeed, there are times when the Saudis speak of Iran with almost the same hatred as Bibi. They really should meet some time, although success for the 2002 Saudi peace plan – total Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 border in return for full Arab recognition of Israel – would probably guarantee that just such a meeting took place.
Obama's speech writers will have tightened up the US President's Egyptian address for today once they discover whether King Abdullah is still as keen on the Saudis' own 2002 plan. It will no doubt be neatly slotted into the "better understanding" speech which we are going to have to listen to in Cairo today when Obama addresses that famous entity, the "Muslim world". The trouble is that the Shiite-Sunni void – to be played out again this weekend in the theatricals of the Lebanese elections – is almost as important for the Arabs as resolving the tragedy of the Palestinians.
And, of course, everyone wants to be seen hugging the new American President. Grinning over his cardamom tea with the king in Riyadh yesterday, poor Obama is going to have to endure the embrace of Hosni Mubarak in Cairo today where the government press – almost as fawning as the Saudis – have been proclaiming that Obama's reference to the Egyptian president as a "stalwart ally" of peace proves that Egypt has yet again won its place at the centre of the Arab world.
Yes, Obama did actually call the old dictator a "stalwart ally", much to the disgust of the opposition in Egypt, but that is what you have to do in this part of the world if you want to get invited back. Waiting for the President's speech is almost exquisitely painful because, like the Arabs, Washington's policies still appear hopelessly divided. While infuriating the Israelis – much to the Arabs' delight – Obama continues to send his men into the graveyard of empires to beat the Taliban, shrugging off any responsibility for those one million Pakistani Muslim refugees whom Bin Laden so shrewdly spotted on the horizon. The only real question, perhaps, is whether Obama has asked himself the most important question: does the "Muslim world" actually exist?
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