"What I want to do," Obama told Britain's ITV shortly before leaving Washington, "is create a better dialogue so that the Muslim world understands more effectively how the United States, but also the West, thinks about many of these difficult issues like terrorism, like democracy, to discuss the framework for what's happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and our outreach to Iran and also how we view the prospects for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians."
Officials in the U.S. administration say Obama plans to seek King Abdullah's support on issues like the nuclear standoff with Iran, reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and global oil prices.
Obama also is expected to seek Saudi Arabia's help to counter the spread of Taliban militants on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Many experts say Saudi Arabia -- a Sunni Arab powerhouse -- could be crucial in mediating some form of reconciliation with the Islamic extremists who have caused havoc in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They say Saudi Arabia also could help cut off large sums of money that flow to militants from wealthy Saudi donors and Islamic charities.
The Saudis insist they are doing all they can to reduce terrorist financing. Experts say Saudi Arabia could do more, but they say the Saudis are wary of angering religious conservatives in the country who are key government supporters.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly asked Saudi Arabia to mediate between his government and the Taliban.
But Ali Awadh Asseri, a former Saudi ambassador to Pakistan, says the kingdom is reluctant to take an overt role as a mediator unless both sides are clearly ready to make peace.
King Abdullah held a secret meeting with Afghan officials and former Taliban government members in Mecca in September to explore the possibility of mediating reconciliation talks.
Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban deputy higher education minister who attended those talks, claims that Saudi Arabia has contact with Taliban leaders -- including Mullah Mohammad Omar. Rahmani says that if Saudi Arabia cannot convince the Taliban to negotiate, nobody can.
Washington also hopes Saudi Arabia will play a moderating role in OPEC and counter attempts by countries like Iran to raise oil prices. There are fears that oil price hikes could threaten prospects of an imminent global economic recovery.
Saudi Arabia and the United States have an over 70-year-old relationship based on guaranteeing oil supplies in return for U.S. protection for the Saudi monarchy.
For its part, Saudi Arabia wants Obama to get tough with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has balked at Palestinian statehood and rebuffed U.S. calls to halt the construction and expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land.
Steven Cook, of the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Relations, says he thinks Obama's administration is interested in a peace plan proposed in April 2002 by Saudi Arabia.
That initiative calls for full normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel, a complete withdrawal of Israel forces from occupied Arab land, the creation of a Palestinian state and an "equitable" solution for Palestinian refugees.
|The Islamic World|
|There is no exact figure for the number
of Muslims worldwide, but most estimates put it at about 1.5 billion.
Indonesia has the world's biggest Muslim population with around 195 million people. Other countries with large Muslim populations include Pakistan (160 million), India (140 million), Bangladesh (125 million), Turkey (72 million), Iran (69 million), Egypt (68 million), Nigeria (70 million) and China (20 million).
The worldwide Muslim community is known as the ummah. The Organization of the Islamic Conference, which represents 57 states, says it is the collective voice of the Muslim world.
Although Islam is often associated with the Arab world and the Middle East, by some estimates, fewer than 15 percent of Muslims are Arab.
Muslims predominate in 30 to 40 countries, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and along a belt that stretches across North Africa into Central Asia and south to the northern regions of the Indian subcontinent.
Countries with almost entirely Muslim populations (99.5 percent or more) include Bahrain, Comoros, Kuwait, Maldives, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.
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