President Barack Obama launched a landmark Middle East trip today to reach out to the world's Muslims, arriving in Riyadh to a red-carpet welcome and a kiss on both cheeks from Saudi King Abdullah, a key regional power broker who also serves as protector of the two holiest sites in Islam. On Thursday, the US president will travel to Egypt, another pillar of the Arab world, to deliver a personal appeal for reconciliation to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, and hold his first talks with the Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
King Abdullah has been seeking to relaunch a 2002 Arab-backed Middle East peace initiative, which has been praised by Mr Obama's administration. But it was unclear whether the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's tough stand on settlements would scupper US hopes of convincing the Arab world to make concessions towards Israel to inject momentum into the process. Mr Obama signalled in an interview with National Public Radio before leaving Washington that he would keep pressing Israel on the issue, despite an emerging rift between the two close allies.
"I've said very clearly to the Israelis both privately and publicly that a freeze on settlements including natural growth is part of those obligations." The Saudi initiative calls for full normalisation of relations between Arab states and Israel, a full withdrawal by Israel from Arab land, the creation of a Palestinian state and an "equitable" solution for Palestinian refugees. Mr Obama was also expected to use the talks with King Abdullah, whose country is OPEC's top exporter, to push for stability in oil prices and production.
The US president's trip comes amid a building confrontation between his administration and the Israeli government over West Bank settlements and Netanyahu's refusal to publicly endorse a two-state solution.
Mr Obama and King Abdullah are to hold talks at the monarch's sprawling farm outside Riyadh, which represent Mr Obama's first foray into tricky personal diplomacy in the region, after a flurry of talks with Middle East leaders in Washington.