President Obama presented Maha Al Muneef, a domestic violence advocate in Saudi Arabia, with the State Department’s 2014 International Women of Courage Award, at a small event Saturday in Riyadh.
The award, presented at the final event of the president’s week-long tour of Europe and the Middle East, honors women who have demonstrated exceptional courage and peace in the fight for gender equality and human rights. Obama hailed Al Muneef for raising awareness about domestic violence and child abuse, prompting the Saudi government to adopt landmark legislation to criminalized domestic abuse for the first time in the country.
Al Muneef had been slated to receive the award earlier during a ceremony in Washington, but was unable to attend because of family health reasons.
The award ceremony came the day after the president met with Saudi King Abdullah for two hours, but did not raise human rights issues.
“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. They didn’t get to some of the other regional issues that are part of our bilateral relationship as well,” said a senior administration official.
“We’ll continue to raise these issues associated with human rights, with reforms here in the Kingdom, on a regular basis in all of our interactions with the Saudis.”
Still, the White House said it continued to have significant concerns about the treatment of women, religious minorities, and the right to free speech in Saudi Arabia, one of the closest U.S. allies in the Middle East.
“We’re going to continue this dialogue,” the official said. “But the fact of the matter is given the range of security interests that we have in the region, Saudi Arabia has been a longstanding partner, and so we have to be able to both continue working with them on that agenda, even as we’re going to differ on issues related to human rights.”
Shortly following the ceremony, the president left for the airport. He’ll fly Air Force One to a military base in Germany to refuel, before heading back to Washington later Saturday.