Obama honors female activist on Saudi Arabia visit

Obama met with Maha al-Muneef, a prominent campaigner against domestic violence in Saudi Arabia

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During his diplomatic trip to Saudi Arabia, U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday met with Saudi women’s rights activists, among them Maha al-Muneef, a prominent campaigner against domestic violence

Muneef is one of the women honored by the U.S. State Department this year. Obama handed her award during the meeting.

The activist had started the National Family Safety Program in 2005 to combat domestic violence in Saudi Arabia where activists have been campaign for an end to the “absolute authority” of male guardians.

The president’s meeting came the same day women’s rights activists called for a renewed defiance of the kingdom’s ban on women driving.

Activist Madiha al-Ajroush told Agence France-Presse the protest was not planned to coincide with the U.S. leader’s visit: “We have fixed a day every month to pursue our campaign,” she said.

The protest is part of a larger campaign that was launched on Oct. 26, when 16 women activists were stopped by police for defying the ban.

Despite urges from Amnesty International and scores of U.S. lawmakers, Obama stayed mum on the topic of human rights during his trip.

A senior U.S. official said while the administration had concerns over Saudi’s human rights record, Friday’s meeting was primarily to discuss the significant geopolitical issues affecting the region, particularly Syria and Iran.

“We do have a lot of significant concerns about the human rights situation that have been ongoing with respect to women’s rights, with respect to religious freedom, with respect to free and open dialogue,” the official said.

But “given the extent of time that they spent on Iran and Syria, they didn’t get to a number of issues and it wasn’t just human rights.”

Obama’s visit to its longtime ally was meant to reassure King Abdullah on issues over Syria and Iran as Saudi’s reservations grow over Washington’s ability to intervene in the Syria conflict and ensure a nuclear-free Iran.

Saudi has long viewed Iran’s nuclear ambition part of a larger effort to gain political hegemony over the region and fears the U.S. is turning a blind eye to troubling behavior by the Islamic Republic for the sake of a nuclear agreement.

A supporter of the Syrian rebels, Riyadh was also upset by Obama’s decision to refrain from using military action in Syria last year.

Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said the talks focused instead on ways to “empower” Syria’s moderate opposition.

(With AFP)

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