As Saudi Women Take the Wheel, US Takes a Backseat

Jun 23, 2011 4:29am

FROM KIRIT RADIA AT THE STATE DEPARTMENT: Women in Saudi Arabia continuing the fight to drive, hitting the streets of Riyadh this week, and asking family-friendly Subaru to boycott the Saudi market until the ban is lifted. But in the months since this wave of the movement started, one of the world’s leading advocates for women’s rights, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, had been notably silent. Clinton, who famously declared that women’s rights are human rights back in 1995, has made promoting women and children the hallmark of her tenure as America’s top diplomat. And that is why her silence was all the more noticeable. When asked Tuesday by a reporter why she had not spoken out, Clinton finally explained that it was important for the U.S. not to be seen as the promoters of the movement. “This is not about the United States. It is about the women of Saudi Arabia. And what these women are doing is brave and what they are seeking is right. But the effort belongs to them. I am moved by it and I support them, but I want to underscore the fact that this is not coming from outside of their country. This is the women themselves seeking to be recognized,” she said. Clinton’s spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, told reporters earlier this week that Clinton had been following the issue closely but preferred to engage in “quiet diplomacy.” Last Friday she phoned her Saudi counterpart Prince Saud Al-Faisal to discuss the matter, as well as regional issues, with him. Yet Clinton didn’t avoid the question entirely when pressed about her views on the matter. She expressed her support for the movement, praising the “brave” women who dared take the wheel. So what changed? A group of Saudi women activists wrote Secretary Clinton a letter this week, urging her to defend their cause in public. A senior State Department official says that Clinton read the letter and it encouraged her to say something in their defense when asked. “There was a direct request in the letter for the Secretary to speak out,” Nuland confirmed later on Tuesday. “She felt that it was timely and appropriate to speak out publicly even as we speak privately.” Of course, Saudi Arabia remains a key U.S. ally in a strategic and volatile region, though analysts say US-Saudi relations have been strained by the Arab Spring. Successive American administrations have turned a blind eye to human rights abuses there in exchange for Saudi cooperation. Saudi intelligence has been critical in foiling plots from neighboring Yemen targeting the United States. And of course Saudi Arabia is home to the world’s largest petroleum reserves. All of that makes criticism of the Saudi government all the more difficult for Clinton, even when it continues to defy her signature effort to support women around the world.  

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