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Obama, Saudi King Meet About Speech, Mideast Tensions

June 3, 2009 at 6:00 PM EST
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President Obama met with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah Wednesday ahead of his speech in Egypt aimed at improving relations with the Muslim world. Ray Suarez reports.
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JIM LEHRER: President Obama arrived in Saudi Arabia today, on a trip aimed at improving relations with the Muslim world. He planned to address a broad range of issues.

Ray Suarez has our lead story report.

RAY SUAREZ: The president received a royal welcome on the sun-scorched tarmac at Riyadh’s main airport, first stop on his tour through the Middle East and Europe.

King Abdullah greeted Mr. Obama, who added the 16-hour stop last week in the country that’s home to Islam’s two holiest sites. From there, he heads for Egypt and a major speech on relations with the Muslim world.

BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States: The United States and Saudi Arabia have a long history of friendship. We have a strategic relationship. And as I take this trip and will be visiting Cairo tomorrow, I thought it was very important to come to the place where Islam began, and to seek his majesty’s counsel, and to discuss with him many of the issues that we confront here in the Middle East.

Palestinian-Israeli conflict

Steven Cook
Council on Foreign Relations
Given the realities on the ground ... as well as the split in the Palestinian political arena, it's hard to see how the United States can forge a process that quickly bring an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

RAY SUAREZ: Among those many issues: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; Iran's regional and nuclear ambitions; and constant tensions over the price of oil, controlled in no small measure by the Saudis, the world's largest oil producer.

The Palestinian problem is of particular interest to King Abdullah, who laid out his own peace plan seven years ago. President Obama has put the issue high on his agenda, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian leaders over the last two weeks in hopes of restarting the peace process.

But Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington says events in Israel and the West Bank may outpace any initiatives.

STEVEN COOK, Council on Foreign Relations: We're getting to a point in the West Bank where it becomes harder and harder to think about the two-state solution in practical terms. The administration has been quite right in emphasizing that a two-state solution is in America's interest.

Given the realities on the ground, with the settlements and the infrastructure and settlement in place, as well as the split in the Palestinian political arena, it's hard to see how the United States can forge a process that quickly bring an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Saudi-Iran relationship

Rochdi Younsi
Eurasia Group
The Saudi leadership is still unclear about what it is that they want with respect to Iran.

RAY SUAREZ: The new Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been cool to a two-state solution, focusing instead on Iran and its nuclear intentions.

The Saudis, too, are peering toward Persia, says Rochdi Younsi of the Eurasia Group, but for different reasons.

ROCHDI YOUNSI, Eurasia Group: The Saudi leadership is still unclear about what it is that they want with respect to Iran. On the one hand, they do want the U.S. to maintain a strict policy of containment, making sure that Iran does not move forward with its nuclear ambitions. At the same time, they want to make sure that the U.S. avoids the kind of escalation that could produce yet another conflict in the region.

RAY SUAREZ: What does rich, secure, militarily potent Saudi Arabia have to fear from Iran?

ROCHDI YOUNSI: Well, it's all about regional influence. And, frankly, they are quite terrified about the kind of consequences that a U.S. or Israeli attack would have on Iran, not so much because of Iran's reaction, per se, but because they expect a pan-Islamic reaction across the region to such an attack.

JEAN-FRANCOIS SEZNEC, Georgetown University: I don't think the Saudis are half as worried as we think they are.

Bin Laden's new message

Jean-Francois Seznec
Georgetown University
I think President Obama today is likely to hear that, yes, we can put a lot of pressure on Iran ... but you also have to help on opening the books in Israel, and basically have a climb-down on all sides of the nuclear issues.

RAY SUAREZ: In contrast, Jean-Francois Seznec of Georgetown University says the Saudi focus on Iran is really a way to focus on Israel's undeclared nuclear arsenal.

JEAN-FRANCOIS SEZNEC: As long as you have Israel with nuclear hardware, you will have Iran or other countries which will come up, like Iran today, and what they're pushing lately very hard is to have a denuclearization of the region.

In other words, I think President Obama today is likely to hear that, yes, we can put a lot of pressure on Iran, we can really help on these issues, but you also have to help on opening the books in Israel, and basically have a climb-down on all sides of the nuclear issues.

RAY SUAREZ: The Saudis' most notorious exile, Osama bin Laden, was also heard from, in a new message broadcast on the satellite channel Al Jazeera.

The al-Qaida leader said, "Obama and his administration have planted seeds for hatred and revenge against America. Let the American people prepare to continue to reap what has been planted by the heads of the White House in the coming years and decades."

It was the second message from al-Qaida in two days. A video yesterday from the group's Egyptian second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, made specific, threatening reference to Mr. Obama's Cairo trip.

JEAN-FRANCOIS SEZNEC: I think the leadership must be very worried in al-Qaida.

RAY SUAREZ: In effect, the group fears Mr. Obama's potential appeal in the Arab and Muslim world, says Jean-Francois Seznec.

Does Barack Obama give al-Qaida something to worry about?

JEAN-FRANCOIS SEZNEC: Yes, very much so, because I think President Obama has the ear of the people and I think, because of his middle name, because of the color of his skin and whatnot, he is very much ready to be loved by the people, much more so than Osama bin Laden. Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaida groups appeal to a small minority of people.

RAY SUAREZ: White House officials agreed, saying al-Qaida hopes to steal the world's attention away from the president's trip.