Obama recognizes human rights advocate before leaving Saudi Arabia

President Obama presents Dr. Maha Al Muneef, a human rights advocate, with the Secretary of State's International Women of Courage Award in Riyadh.
President Obama presents Dr. Maha Al Muneef, a human rights advocate, with the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award in Riyadh.
(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- President Obama honored a domestic-violence and child-abuse advocate here Saturday, giving attention to human rights struggles in Saudi Arabia before bringing to a close an overseas trip to Europe and the desert kingdom that was largely dominated by the crisis in Ukraine.

Obama met with Dr. Maha Al Muneef, the executive director of what U.S. officials say is the first organization in Saudi Arabia dedicated to the issues of domestic violence and child abuse.

Earlier this month, Muneef was among 10 women awarded the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Award. The State Department says the award honors women who advocate “for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk.”


Muneef, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases, founded the National Family Safety Program in 2005. The organization has led efforts to collect statistics on domestic abuse involving women and children, according to the State Department. Muneef also was closely involved in drafting legislation to protect victims of such abuse. The Protection from Abuse Law, passed by the Council of Ministers last year, for the first time defined and criminalized domestic violence in Saudi Arabia.

“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 is going to be important to the society over the long term, I think makes the award fully justified,” Obama said as he formally presented the award to Muneef at his hotel in Riyadh. “We’re very, very proud of you and grateful for all the work you’re doing here. I’m looking forward to seeing you do even more wonderful things in the future.”

The meeting capped Obama’s overnight visit to the kingdom. The president arrived Friday for a meeting with King Abdullah. The visit was intended to underscore the U.S. commitment to the long-standing ally in the Middle East and smooth over tensions in the relationship. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have differed about how to approach the Syrian civil war and Iran’s nuclear program, among other issues.

Human rights abuses, along with other items on the formal agenda, did not get discussed in Obama’s two-hour meeting with the frail, elderly king. Officials said talks concerning Syria and Iran consumed the time allotted for the meeting at the king’s desert retreat northeast of Riyadh.

Shortly after the meeting, Obama received a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss a diplomatic resolution to the dispute over Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The two leaders agreed that their top diplomats would meet to discuss a U.S. proposal.

Obama did not answer a question from a reporter about whether he was hopeful after the phone call.


The president is due back in Washington on Saturday evening after making a stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany to refuel Air Force One.

Twitter: @khennessey