RIYADH, Saudi Arabia - Opening a mission to write a new chapter on Islam and the West, President Obama consulted yesterday with the Saudi king, in "the place where Islam began," in a prelude to a high-stakes speech in Egypt today that is intended to ease Muslim grievances against the United States.
The son of a Kenyan Muslim father, Obama planned what aides yesterday called a "truth-telling" address, aimed directly at the world's 1.5 billion Muslims. He was scheduled to begin speaking at Cairo University in the afternoon - 6:10 a.m. Philadelphia time.
Many in the Muslim world harbor animosity toward the United States over its staunch support for Israel, its aggressive policies against Islamist extremists, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many Americans, likewise, formed negative perceptions of the Muslim world after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The birthplace of Islam, Saudi Arabia is 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 in U.S. military equipment, and has cooperated extensively with the United States on antiterrorist operations.
So Obama's goal of opening what speechwriter Ben Rhodes called "a new chapter between the United States and the Muslim world" could hardly proceed without Saudi support.
King Abdullah staged a lavish welcome after Obama's all-night flight to Riyadh. The Saudi king and the president talked in the splendor of Abdullah's sprawling retreat, a lush patch in the searing desert.
"I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began and to seek his majesty's counsel," said Obama, who lived part of his childhood in Muslim-majority Indonesia. The Saudi king called Obama "a distinguished man who deserves to be in this position."
The president also came with 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 100 Yemeni detainees now in U.S. custody at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison camp.
Denis McDonough, a deputy national security adviser to Obama, could not immediately say whether the president's requests were successful after meetings between the two leaders and their delegations that stretched over nearly four hours.
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.
Obama had pledged during his presidential campaign to deliver a major address from an Islamic capital within 100 days of becoming president.
He did so with a speech to the parliament in Turkey, an overwhelmingly Muslim though secular nation. The White House said the speech in Cairo, a world center of Islamic thought and culture, is the one he had in mind in making that promise.
Al-Qaeda tried yesterday to counter Obama's outreach. Osama bin Laden released an audiotape accusing Obama of inflaming hatred toward the United States by ordering Pakistan to crack down on extremists in the Swat Valley and to block Islamic law there.
His deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, said "farcical visits or elegant words" in Cairo could not disguise "bloody messages" the United States sends to Muslims with its prosecution of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
The message from bin Laden, the terrorist mastermind-in-hiding who was born in Saudi Arabia and directed the 2001 attacks that involved 15 hijackers from the desert monarchy, was broadcast by Al-Jazeera television almost exactly as Obama's plane touched down in Riyadh.
"This is much more an effort to try to upstage," White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in response.
Aides have spared no effort to ensure that Obama's speech reaches a vast Muslim audience.
A special State Department Web site - http://www.america.gov/sms.html - lets people everywhere register to receive and reply to speech highlights; Obama's remarks are to be played live on the White House Web site - http://www.whitehouse.gov/ - and translated into 13 languages, and excerpts are 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.
Obama does not intend to make new policy but to frame current policy differently, allowing for constructive engagement even while disagreements persist, aides said. They also tried to temper expectations for the speech.
The breach between America and the Muslim world "has been years in the making" and is "not going to be reversed with one speech," senior adviser David Axelrod said.
The centerpiece of the speech is the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, a driving force behind Muslim anger worldwide. Obama was prepared to discuss in some detail what needs to be done to resolve it, though by urging all sides to meet obligations already agreed upon, Rhodes said.
That includes calling for a full halt to all growth in Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, the subject of a striking rift between the United States and Israel in recent days. It also includes telling Palestinians that anti-Israel rhetoric, and the violence it spawns, does not benefit their daily lives.
Obama was to call on his hosts, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as other Arab nations, to put money behind their rhetorical support for the struggling Palestinian government of Mahmoud Abbas. Obama also wants to persuade Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, to make conciliatory diplomatic moves toward Israel.