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Obama: Saudi king wise and gracious

RIYDAH, Saudi Arabia - President Barack Obama began hislatest bid to open a dialogue with the Muslim world on Wednesday byseeking the counsel of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, home toIslam's two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina.

"The United States and Saudi Arabia have a long history offriendship. We have a strategic relationship," Obama said as hevisited the monarch's desert horse farm. The U.S. president calledAbdullah wise and gracious, adding: "I am confident that workingtogether that the United States and Saudi Arabia can make progresson a whole host of issues of mutual interest."

Photos: Barack Obama in the Middle East

In turn, Abdullah expressed his "best wishes to the friendlyAmerican people who are represented by a distinguished man whodeserves to be in this position."

Earlier, the king greeted Obama at Riyadh's main airport with aceremony when the new U.S. president arrived after an overnightflight from Washington. A band played each country's nationalanthem, the Saudi national guard was on hand and there was a 21-gunsalute.

Obama and Abdullah then sat together in gilded chairs, sippedcardamom-flavored Arabic coffee from small cups and chatted brieflyin public before retreating to hold private talks on a range ofissues.

Saudi Arabia is a stopover en route to Cairo, where Obama is setto deliver a speech that he's been promising since last year'selection campaign -- aiming to set a new tone in America'soften-strained dealings with the world's 1.5 billion Muslims.

With Abdullah alongside him, Obama told reporters: "I thoughtit was very important to come to the place where Islam began and toseek his majesty's counsel and to discuss with him many of theissues that we confront here in the Middle East."

In a pre-trip interview with the BBC, Obama set the tone for hisswing through the Middle East, saying: "What we want to do is opena dialogue."

"You know, there are misapprehensions about the West, on thepart of the Muslim world. And, obviously, there are some bigmisapprehensions about the Muslim world when it comes to those ofus in the West," Obama said.

Many of those Muslims still smolder over Iraq, Guantanamo andunflinching U.S. support of Israel, but they are hoping the son ofa Kenyan Muslim who lived part of his childhood in Indonesia, theworld's most populous Muslim country, can help chart a new course.

"You know, there are misapprehensions about the West, on thepart of the Muslim world," Obama told BBC. "And, obviously, thereare some big misapprehensions about the Muslim world when it comesto those of us in the West."

Aides cautioned that Obama was not out to break new policyground in his Cairo speech, which follows visits to Turkey and Iraqin April and a series of outreach efforts including a Persian NewYear video and a student town hall in Istanbul. And they said thepresident is not expecting quick results, even though the speechwill be distributed as widely as possible.

"We don't expect that everything will change after onespeech," White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday. "Ithink it will take a sustained effort and that's what the presidentis in for."

Officials said Obama also wouldn't flinch from difficult topics,whether it's the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, the goal of aPalestinian state or democracy and human rights. Obama has beencriticized for setting the address in Egypt, where President HosniMubarak has jailed dissidents and clung to power for nearly threedecades.

In Riyadh, the president was talking to Abdullah about a host ofthorny problems, from Arab-Israeli peace efforts to Iran's nuclearprogram. The Saudis have voiced growing concern in private that anIranian bomb could unleash a nuclear arms race in the region.

The surge in oil prices also was on the agenda. Crude topped $68a barrel this week, sparking fears that a fresh jump in energycosts could snuff out early sparks of a recovery from a deep globalslump.

Obama likely will be looking for help from Saudi Arabia on whatto do with some 100 Yemeni detainees locked up in the GuantanamoBay prison. Discussions over where to send the Yemeni detaineeshave complicated Obama's plan to close the prison. The U.S. hasbeen hesitant to send them home because of Yemen's history ofeither releasing extremists or allowing them to escape from prison.

Instead, the Obama administration has been negotiating withSaudi Arabia and Yemen for months to send them to Saudi terroristrehabilitation centers.

The president was to stay overnight at the king's farm outsideRiyadh. Abdullah, who hosted then-President George W. Bush at theranch in January of last year, keeps some 260 Arabian horses on itssprawling grounds in air-conditioned comfort.

In any effort to court Muslims, the Saudis will be key -- notjust for their oil wealth, but by virtue of the authority theywield at the center of Arab history and culture.

Obama's meeting with the 84-year-old Abdullah was his second inthree months. The two saw each other at the G-20 summit in London,a meeting both sides called friendly and productive. Perhaps a bittoo friendly: Critics accused Obama of bowing to the Saudi monarchduring a photo-op. The White House maintained he was merely bendingto shake hands with a shorter man.


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