RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Opening a mission to write a new chapter on Islam and the West, President Barack Obama consulted Wednesday with the Saudi king "in the place where Islam began," prelude to a high-stakes speech in Egypt meant to ease long-held Muslim grievances against the United States.
The son of a Kenyan Muslim who lived part of his childhood in Muslim-majority Indonesia, Obama planned what aides called a "truth-telling" address today, aimed directly at the world's 1.5 billion Muslims. Many harbor animosity toward the U.S. over its staunch support for Israel, its terrorist-fighting policies and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many Americans, likewise, formed negative perceptions of the Muslim world after the 9/11 attacks.
In advance, Saudi King Abdullah staged a lavish welcome after Obama's all-night flight to Riyadh.
"I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek his majesty's counsel," Obama said.
Birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia is still considered guardian of the faith as home to the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. The Sunni Arab powerhouse also sits on the world's largest oil reserves, buys billions of dollars worth of U.S. military equipment and has cooperated extensively with the U.S. on anti-terrorist operations.
Obama's goals of opening what speechwriter Ben Rhodes called "a new chapter between the United States and the Muslim world" could hardly proceed without Saudi support. Obama also came asking for specific requests of help from Abdullah on a range of related issues, such as peace between the long-feuding Israelis and Palestinians, Iran's suspected efforts to build a nuclear bomb, rising Taliban extremism in Pakistan and a destination for some 100 Yemeni detainees now at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison camp.
Abdullah showered Obama with compliments in the welcoming ceremonies and presented him with the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit, a large medallion with a thick gold chain that is the kingdom's highest honor. "Those are only given to the very few friends of the king, and you are certainly one of those," Abdullah said.
"Goodness gracious," Obama said as an aide approached with the striking necklace. "That's something there." He said: "I consider the king's friendship a great blessing, and I am very appreciative that he would bestow this honor on me during this visit."
Aides spared no effort to ensure Obama's speech reaches a vast Muslim audience.
A special State Department Web site, www.america.gov/sms.html, lets people everywhere register to receive and reply to speech highlights; Obama's remarks were to be played live on the White House Web site and translated into 13 languages; and excerpts were being distributed not only on the White House's dedicated YouTube page but also on special-event links on social networking sites such as MySpace, Twitter and Facebook, complete with live chatting opportunities.