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June 23, 2017

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Obama meets Saudi woman activist, reassures king on ties

RIYADH--U.S. President Barack 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 U.S. lawmakers, Obama did not raise the issue of human rights, a senior U.S. 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 honored by the U.S. 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.

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.

Iran, Syria dominate talks

The U.S. official said the administration shared many of the rights concerns but Friday's meeting was dominated by the three-year-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."

The Sunni Muslim oil kingpin, long wary of Shiite Iran's regional ambitions, views a November deal between the powers and Iran aimed at buying time to negotiate a comprehensive accord as a risky venture that could embolden Tehran.

A supporters of the Syrian rebels, Riyadh was also deeply disappointed by Obama's 11th-hour decision last year not to take military action against Tehran ally Damascus over chemical weapons attacks.

Obama sought to reassure Abdullah on both issues in Friday's meeting, telling the king that the strategic interests of the United States and its longtime ally remained "very much aligned," the U.S. official said.

U.S. officials shot down as untrue reports that Washington was planning to give Riyadh a green light to arm mainstream Syrian rebels with shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles, known as MANPADs, as a deterrent against regime air strikes.

"We have not changed our position on providing MANPADS to the opposition," an administration official said, saying it posed "a proliferation risk" as the weapons could fall into the hands of jihadists.

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