It looked like a classic case of discrimination against women, the perfect cause to elicit comment, and perhaps criticism, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But Friday, as some Saudi women, prevented by custom and religious edict from driving, turned the key in protest and hit the roads, Secretary Clinton said nothing publicly.
“Where are you when we need you most?” asked Saudi Women for Driving, the coalition of Saudi women’s rights activists, bloggers and academics campaigning for the right to drive, in a letter sent to Clinton and to her European Union counterpart Catherine Ashton.
The letter, which the State Department told reporters Monday it had just received, continues: “In the context of the Arab Spring and U.S. commitments to support women’s rights, is this not something the United States’ top diplomat would want to publicly support?”
Could it be the Secretary is more concerned about not alienating Saudi Arabia when it needs the Kingdom’s help on Yemen and Bahrain than about defending women’s rights, asked one reporter? State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland defended Clinton, saying the Secretary “has been engaged in quiet diplomacy.”
For example, Nuland said, Clinton discussed the issue with Prince Saud in a telephone conversation that touched on other Mideast issues “and the subject of driving did come up.”
“I don’t think anybody can question the Secretary’s commitment to universal human rights for women” she added. “I think she is making a judgment on how best to support universal human rights for women,” Nuland said. “There are times when it makes sense to do so publicly, and there are times for quiet diplomacy.”
So, will Clinton speak out? The women’s coalition says that could be “game changing moment.”
A senior administration official, speaking on background because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue, says: “Let’s wait and see where this goes. She’s made her point at her level and let’s see what conclusions are drawn in Saudi Arabia.”
“The number one issue in Saudi Arabia,” the official adds, “is that women are taking this issue into their own hands.”