Royal welcome in store for Obamas in Britain

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Britain's Queen Elizabeth II will roll out the red carpet for Barack and Michelle Obama's state visit this week, two years after sharing an unusually public display of affection with the US First Lady.

The 85-year-old monarch and the president's wife were seen putting their arms around each other's backs at Buckingham Palace in 2009 when the Obamas made their first visit to London after his election.

British newspapers debated whether Michelle Obama had breached strict royal protocol -- but that extraordinary gesture now bodes well at a time when the Anglo-US "special relationship" remains uncertain.

For this, the first state visit to Britain by a US president since George W. Bush in 2003, no formality or pageantry will be spared by a monarchy that traces its history back more than 1,300 years.

The heir to the throne Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, will personally meet the Obamas at Stansted Airport, north of London, on behalf of the queen on Tuesday.

Charles met Obama in early May during a trip to the United States that the British media said left the US president amazed by how much worldwide attention it received.

The US first couple will then fly by helicopter to Buckingham Palace, where they will stay throughout the trip as guests of the queen.

They will reportedly be housed inside the lavish Belgian suite, named after Belgium's king Leopold I, Queen Victoria's favourite uncle.

The monarch and her husband Prince Philip will greet them with a ceremonial welcome, gun salutes, and Prince Philip will accompany the president as he reviews a guard of honour, followed by a private lunch.

That evening there will be a State Banquet in the ballroom for the Obamas featuring speeches by the queen and the president. The 170 guests will sit at a huge U-shaped dining table.

Prince William and his new bride, the former Kate Middleton, are also expected to meet Obama on Tuesday -- although Clarence House, William's official residence, said it was "too early to say" for sure.

William and Catherine, now known as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, are due to visit California in July.

After the political business of talks with Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday, Obama will receive the rare honour of addressing both houses of parliament in Westminster Hall.

Only Charles De Gaulle, Nelson Mandela and Pope Benedict XVI have received the same rare privilege since World War II.

Yet it could be the royal connection that defines this trip even more than Obama's political relationship with Cameron, which is still far from the close friendship enjoyed by Bush with former premier Tony Blair or that of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

Historically Democrat presidents like Obama have taken longer to warm to the so-called "special relationship", but Obama has shown recent signs of doing so.

And the real closeness so far appears to have been between Queen Elizabeth and Michelle Obama.

In 2009, the queen was overheard asking her to "please keep in touch" and they have reportedly since exchanged letters and spoken by phone, while the queen met the couple's daughters Sasha and Malia during a private visit with Michelle later that year.

Obama's meeting with Prince Charles meanwhile saw him thanking him for Britain's military contributions to the wars in Afghanistan and Libya and "warmly welcomed" his support for environmental concerns, the White House said.

The queen has met all 12 US presidents since her reign started in 1952, except Lyndon B. Johnson.

© 2011 AFP

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