Obama Honors Saudi Woman With 'Courage Award'

Despite meeting with campaigner Maha Al Muneef, president criticized for not raising issue of human rights during visit to Saudi Arabia.

Obama and Maha Al Muneef
U.S. President Barack Obama presents Dr. Maha Al-Muneef with the U.S. Secretary of State's International Woman of Courage Award in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, March 29, 2014. AP

U.S. President Barack Obama met with a campaigner for women's rights on Saturday, wrapping up a trip that was meant to allay Riyadh's fears of a waning U.S. interest in the region.
The president personally awarded the State Department Woman of Courage Award to Dr. Maha Al Muneef, executive director of the National Family Safety Program. "Dr. Al Muneef has worked relentlessly to spread awareness about domestic violence and victims of child abuse," the State Department said.

However, despite pressure to raise the issue of human rights in the kingdom on his visit, a senior U.S. official told AFP the subject did not come up during talks.  

Dozens of U.S. lawmakers had called on Obama to address the issue of Saudi Arabia’s “systematic human rights violations.”  

Amnesty International - who had reminded the president that under Saudi rule "women need the permission of a male guardian to get married, travel, undergo certain types of surgery, accept paid employment or enroll in higher education” – expressed disappointment on Saturday.

The president's "failure to publicly voice his concerns over the dire state of human rights in Saudi Arabia is disappointing and a real missed opportunity," Sevag Kechichian, Amnesty International's Saudi researcher, told AFP.

According to reports, a small number of women took to the wheel and defied the driving ban on Saturday, while the U.S. premier was visiting.

'The king listened to Obama'

On his first visit to the kingdom since 2009, Obama met King Abdullah and other senior princes of the ruling al-Saud family in the monarch's desert farm at Rawdat Khuraim, northeast of the capital Riyadh.

A U.S. official said on Friday that the two leaders had spoken frankly about a number of issues and "what might be or might have been tactical differences or differences in approaching some of these issues, but President Obama made very clear he believes our strategic interests remain very much aligned."

The official added that Obama had assured the king that "we won't accept a bad deal" on Iran and that the king "listened very carefully" to what Obama said.

After two hours of talks with the monarch on Friday, the White House released a statement saying that Obama reiterated the significance the United States places on its "strong relationship" with Saudi Arabia.

The statement added that Washington and Riyadh were working together to address critical bilateral and regional issues, including "the crisis in Syria, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, counterterrorism efforts to combat extremism, and supporting negotiations to achieve Middle East peace."