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US President Barack Obama presents Dr Maha Al-Muneef with the US Secretary of State’s International Woman of Courage Award in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia, March 29, (Agencies): From the heart of Europe to the expanse of Saudi Arabia’s desert, President Barack Obama’s weeklong overseas trip amounted to a reassurance tour for stalwart, but sometimes skeptical, American allies. At a time when Obama is grappling with crises and conflict in both Europe and the Middle East, the four-country swing also served as a reminder that even those longtime partners still need some personal attention from the president. Europe is a crucial linchpin in Obama’s efforts to rally the international community in opposition to Russia’s incursion in Ukraine, but the continent’s leaders have concerns about the impact tougher Western sanctions on Moscow could have on their own economy. Saudi Arabia has a hand in nearly every Middle East crisis consuming White House attention, including the Syrian civil war, nuclear negotiations with Iran and peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, but has grown anxious about Obama’s positioning in the region. Obama departed for Washington Saturday with much left unresolved on each of those matters. Still, officials said the president had made progress during his pilgrimage to Saudi King Abdullah’s desert oasis, as well as in his hours of conversations with European leaders.

The president’s advisers were particularly bullish about his meeting in the Netherlands with allies from the Group of Seven leading industrial nations, which agreed to indefinitely suspend Russia from the larger Group of Eight. “There’s been a lot of movement in the last several days that suggest that Europe has been stirred to action by the events in Ukraine, and I think the president felt a degree of unity in that G7 meeting, in the EU session at NATO, and then with the individual leaders that he met with,” said Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser. Obama’s stops in the Netherlands and Belgium were scheduled long before Russia’s provocations in Ukraine but ended up being a well-timed opportunity for the president to discuss the crisis personally with Europe’s leaders. As Obama sought pledges that Europe would cooperate if tougher economic sanctions on Russia become necessary, he also recommitted American support for NATO, the trans-Atlantic military alliance. Those personal assurances from the president were welcomed by a continent that has developed something of an inferiority complex while watching Obama curry favor with Asia and get consumed by Mideast crises. Though Obama remains popular with the European public, he has also irked some leaders with what they’ve seen as slights to the European Union, the often unwieldy 28- nation bloc.

A particular sticking point for Europe was the fact that Obama had never visited Brussels, the headquarters city of both the EU and NATO. Obama finally checked that box on this latest trip, using his stop in the Belgian city to deliver a speech urging Europe to take a leadership role in protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty against Russian provocations. “The policies of your government, the principles of your European Union, will make a critical difference in whether or not the international order that so many generations before you have strived to create continues to move forward, or whether it retreats,” he said, standing before a crowd of young people at the Palais des Beaux-Arts museum. After stopping in Rome for a highly anticipated meeting with Pope Francis, Obama headed to Saudi Arabia for a visit with the kingdom’s aging monarch. Despite the decades-long alliance between the US and the oil-rich Gulf nation, Saudi’s royal family has grown skeptical of the president’s positioning in the region during a period of rapid and unpredictable change in the Arab world. Tensions with Saudi Arabia hit a high point last fall, when Obama pulled back plans to launch a military strike on Syria. That decision compounded Saudi frustration with what it sees as the White House’s tepid response to the more than three-year civil war that has ravaged Syria. Obama’s personal visit to the king’s desert compound was seen as a show of respect for the monarch’s concerns over Syria, as well as US nuclear talks with Iran. Senior US officials said the president and king had a frank discussion about their differences and emphasized the importance of Obama being able to make his case in person.

Obama met a Saudi women’s rights activist on Saturday, the same day women have pledged to defy a driving ban, as he wrapped up a reassurance visit to the longtime ally. In talks with King Abdullah late on Friday, Obama told his host their two countries remained in lockstep on their strategic interests despite policy differences over Iran and Syria. But despite appeals from US lawmakers, Obama did not raise the issue of human rights, a senior US official said, instead scheduling Saturday morning’s meeting with Maha Al-Muneef, a prominent campaigner against domestic violence in the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom. Muneef was one of 10 women honoured by the US State Department this year for bravery, and Obama took the opportunity to hand her the accolade in person after she was unable to attend an awards ceremony in Washington earlier this month. Muneef founded the National Family Safety Programme in 2005 to campaign against domestic violence in Saudi Arabia, where activists have long demanded an end to the “absolute authority” over women of their male guardians. Obama posed with Muneef for photographers, as he praised her efforts “to persuade many that this is an issue that is going to be important to the society over the long term.” Their meeting, shortly before Obama flew home to Washington, came as Saudi activists called for a new day of defiance of the kingdom’s unique ban on women driving. Activist Madiha al-Ajroush told AFP the protest had not been deliberately timed to coincide with Obama’s visit. “We have fixed a day every month to pursue our campaign,” she said.

The action is part of a campaign launched on October 26, when 16 women activists were stopped by police for defying the ban and required to sign pledges before being released not to do so again. Amnesty International had urged Obama to take a strong stance on the issue during his visit by appointing a woman chauffeur and meeting activists. “Under its restrictive guardianship system, women need the permission of a male guardian to get married, travel, undergo certain types of surgery, accept paid employment or enrol in higher education,” the London-based watchdog said. Dozens of US lawmakers had also called on Obama to publicly address Saudi Arabia’s “systematic human rights violations”, including its ban on women drivers. The US official said the administration shared many of the concerns but Friday’s meeting was dominated by the threeyear- old conflict in Syria and Saudi concerns about 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.”

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