By Andrew Quinn
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Tuesday praised "brave" Saudi women demanding the right to drive, but she tried to avoid an open breach with a close U.S. ally by saying the Saudis themselves should determine the way forward.
The Saudi driving ban has been publicly challenged in recent weeks by women who have risked arrest to get behind the wheel. Clinton, one of the world's best-known advocates for women's rights, has come under mounting pressure to take a stand.
"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," Clinton said in her first public comments on the issue.
Clinton's carefully phrased remarks appeared to be an attempt to balance her deep-held beliefs with the need to keep smooth relations with Riyadh in an era of huge political changes sweeping the Middle East and concern about oil supplies.
The United States and Saudi Arabia have seen their traditionally close ties strained in recent months as popular protests erupted in a number of Arab countries including Bahrain, where Saudi security forces were called in to restore order.
Prior to her remarks, the State Department had said that Clinton was engaged in "quiet diplomacy" on the driving ban -- drawing a fresh appeal from one Saudi women's group for a more forceful U.S. stance.
"Secretary Clinton: quiet diplomacy is not what we need right now. What we need is for you, personally, to make a strong, simple and public statement supporting our right to drive," the group, Saudi Women for Driving, said in a statement e-mailed to reporters.
Clinton did just that on Tuesday, although she repeatedly added the caveat that the issue was an internal matter for Saudi Arabia to sort out.
"This is not about the United States, it is not about what any of us on the outside say. It is about the women themselves and their right to raise their concerns with their own government," she said.
Clinton raised the issue in a telephone call with Saudi Arabia's foreign minister on Friday and said the United States would continue to support full universal rights for women around the world.
Clinton said mobility was important for women to both find jobs and help care for their families.
"We will continue in private and in public to urge all governments to address issues of discrimination and to ensure that women have the equal opportunity to fulfill their own God-given potential," she said.
Saudi Arabia -- a key U.S. security ally and important oil supplier -- is an absolute monarchy which applies an austere version of Sunni Islam. Religious police patrol the streets to ensure public segregation between men and women.
Besides a ban on driving, women in Saudi Arabia must have written approval from a male guardian to leave the country, work or even undergo certain medical operations.
Riyadh is also an important factor in both Yemen and Syria, where protests have challenged autocratic leaders and left Washington trying to balance its support for democratic reform with concerns over stability and security in the region.
(Reporting by Andrew Quinn; Editing by Warren Strobel)