First Lady Absent in Riyadh, But Will Enjoy a Royal Welcome in London

By Patrick Goodenough | April 21, 2016 | 4:29am EDT
First Lady Michelle Obama, her head uncovered, joined President Obama at the Erqa royal palace in Riyadh on January 27, 2015, when they met with the kingdom’s new ruler, King Salman. (Photo: State Department)

( – President Obama stayed overnight in Riyadh Wednesday but without First Lady Michelle Obama, who made waves on a previous visit to the Wahhabist-ruled kingdom when she did not cover her hair – and was ignored by some of the host dignitaries in a receiving line.

Mrs. Obama will be mingling with royals in another capital this week, however. On Friday she will join her husband for a private lunch hosted by Queen Elizabeth – who turns 90 on Thursday – and the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, at Windsor Castle west of London.

Later the same day, the Obamas are scheduled to attend a private dinner at Kensington Palace in London, hosted by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – Prince William and Kate Middleton – and Prince Harry.

“On Friday, the president and I are going to have lunch with the queen of England,” Mrs. Obama told children gathered at the White House Wednesday for a “Take Our Daughters and Sons To Work Day” event, when asked about the favorite part of her job.

“Oh, I know! That’s really going to be pretty cool,” she continued. “We’re going to go to Windsor Castle and we’re going to have lunch with the Queen. Pretty cool.”

The Obamas and three generations of Windsors have rubbed shoulders on a number of occasions – literally in one famous instance, when during a 2009 visit to London Mrs. Obama ignored centuries-old protocol and put her arm around the queen’s shoulders.

The first lady violated protocol of a different type in January 2015 when she chose not to wear a headscarf during a visit to Saudi Arabia.

That previously-unscheduled stop came after a presidential trip to India was cut short in order to pay respects following the death of King Abdullah and to meet his successor, King Salman.

Mrs. Obama’s uncovered head in a country where women are required to cover up much more than their hair sparked a social media storm, with much of the response in Arabic critical, according to news reports at the time.

Video footage showed many of the Saudi royals and other dignitaries walked right past the first lady after greeting the president. Some nodded at her, and she did shake hands with the new king.

The critical response came despite the fact Mrs. Obama was not the first high-level American woman not to have covered her head when meeting with Saudi leaders. Among others were her immediate predecessors Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton, and former Secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice and Madeline Albright.

Apart from the requirement that they wear Islamic garb, women in Saudi Arabia are not permitted to drive or to travel without permission of a male guardian.

They are prohibited from studying certain subjects at schools and school sports, and it was not until late last year the women for the first time were permitted to vote – in gender-segregated polling stations – during municipal elections.

In Saudi courts a woman’s testimony holds half the weight of a man’s.

While Mrs. Obama has visited Saudi Arabia only on that one occasion, the current visit to the kingdom – for talks with King Salman and a Gulf Cooperation Council summit – is President Obama’s fourth.

His previous trips to Saudi Arabia were in June 2009 – to seek Abdullah’s counsel ahead of his Cairo speech “to the Muslim world”; in March 2014, for what the White House called “regular consultations” with the king – although not about human rights; and the January 2015 trip after Abdullah’s death.

Obama also met with Abdullah and Salman on the sidelines of G20 summits, and hosted both kings in Washington.

‘An important part of public diplomacy’

The visit to Britain starting on Thursday night will be Obama’s fifth. His four previous trips were for a G20 summit in March-April 2009, a May 2011 state visit, a June 2013 visit for a G8 summit, and a September 2014 visit for a NATO summit in Wales.

After the announcement that Mrs. Obama would join the president in London for Friday’s royal engagements, White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked at a press briefing Tuesday about the justification for the meeting with William and Kate.

First Lady Michelle Obama and Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace, London on April 1, 2009. (AP Photo, File)

“Is that something American taxpayers should be paying for?” a reporter asked. “Is this just a celebrity get-together?”

After highlighting other aspects of Obama’s visit to a key ally, including discussions with Prime Minister David Cameron on wide-ranging issues, Earnest said it was important too that the president “also spend some time meeting with other leaders in the United Kingdom.”

“And the president is looking forward to the opportunity that he’ll have to have lunch with the queen, but also to have a nice dinner with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge,” he added.

“It certainly is an important part of public diplomacy, but I think it will be one of the more pleasant aspects of the trip that the president is certainly looking forward to.”

Apart from their first meeting with Queen Elizabeth in 2009, the Obamas’ other encounters with British royalty included one with the queen, William and Kate during the 2011 state visit; a meeting between the first lady and William and Kate when Mrs. Obama traveled to London for the Olympic Games in 2012; a meeting between Obama and Prince Charles – Queen Elizabeth’s son, William and Harry’s father – during the 2014 NATO summit; a meeting between Obama and the queen during D-Day anniversary celebrations in Normandy in 2014; and meetings between the president and William, Harry and Charles during three separate Oval Office visits in 2014 and 2015.

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