President Barack Obama wrapped up a weeklong trip to Europe and Saudi Arabia on Saturday, bestowing an award to a Saudi Arabian woman who has raised the profile of abuse in the country.
The meeting with Dr. Maha Al Muneef came as human rights groups criticized Obama for failing to raise Saudi Arabia’s human rights record in a two-hour meeting Friday night with Saudi King Abdullah.
Obama, who met with Al Muneef at his hotel shortly before leaving the country, made a veiled reference to the kingdom’s record as he gave her the State Department International Women of Courage award, noting that she’s not only set up services and provided shelter for women and children who have been victims of abuse, but has helped to pass laws providing protection for women and children.
“To see the kind of progress that’s been made, her ability to work with the kingdom to persuade many that this is an issue that’s going to be important to the society over the long term, I think makes this award fully justified,” Obama said, telling Al Muneef he was “grateful for all the work you’re doing here and I’m looking forward to seeing you do even more wonderful things in the future.”
The State Department presents the award annually to women who are doing “extraordinary work around the world advocating on behalf of women, children, and families,” Obama said. Al Muneef was unable to make the ceremony at the State Department earlier this month because of family health issues and Obama joked that he was filling in for first lady Michelle Obama, who normally is the presenter.
“I know that Dr. Al Muneef is disappointed that it’s me instead of Michelle -- appropriately so,” he said.
Sunjeev Bery, Amnesty International's advocacy director for Middle East and North Africa, said the group was deeply disappointed that Obama didn't raise human rights issues with the Saudi leader or speak about it publicly.
"The President’s silence demonstrates once again that when it comes to human rights, the U.S. holds repressive allies to a much lower standard than adversaries," Bery said.
Amnesty noted that 70 members of Congress had urged Obama to bring up the "significant government repression" facing Saudis.
Saudi Arabian women activists planned Saturday to defy the government’s ban on women driving. Amnesty said that although thousands in the U.S. have shown solidarity with the women, "unfortunately, White House officials, including the President, will not be among them."
Senior administration officials said Obama did not raise human rights in his two-hour talk, which centered around Syria and Iran.
Administration officials insisted the U.S. raises a "range of issues, including human rights," in its regular talks with the Saudis.
Catherine M. Russell, the U.S.’s ambassador-at-large for global women's issues, said at the ceremony that the awards recognize women who have “exemplified exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for human rights, women’s equality, and social progress, often at great personal risk.”
Al Muneef is the executive director of the National Family Safety Program, which she founded in 2005 to combat domestic violence and child abuse. A specialist in pediatric infectious diseases, the State Department says she’s “worked relentlessly to spread awareness about domestic violence and victims of child abuse.”
Her center is the first organization in Saudi Arabia to address the issue and has developed advocacy programs, reported on domestic violence and child abuse statistics in Saudi Arabia, and led efforts to provide services for victims of abuse.
From 2009-2013, Al Muneef served as an advisor to Saudi Arabia’s Consultative Council, the Shura Council. In August 2013, after a multi-year effort, the Council of Ministers adopted what the State Department said is “landmark legislation” to protect victims of domestic violence.
Her group played an instrumental role in drafting and advising the “Protection from Abuse” law, which defines and criminalizes domestic violence for the first time in Saudi Arabia.