A high-profile diplomatic spat has arisen between Saudi Arabia and Canada as a result of Canada expressing “grave concern” over the crackdown by Saudi authorities of human rights activists.
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, de facto ruler in Riyadh, has recently been implementing a delicate reform process. While paving the way for social and economic reforms such as the removal of the ban on women driving vehicles and abolishing the male guardianship system, no plans are afoot to permit political activities in the kingdom.
The recent arrests of dissidents indicate, that his priority is to manage the politics around the reform process rather than public relations. Salman has warned Saudi women to refrain from abusing their newly granted freedom.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland recently tweeted in Foreign Policy Canada twitter page; “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to release them and all other peaceful human rights activists immediately.”
The Saudi Education Ministry announced that it will be arranging the relocation of over 15,000 Saudi graduate students currently studying in Canadain universities outside of Canada. Saudi patients receiving treatment in Canadian hospitals are to be moved to hospitals in other countries
The tweet referred to the arrest of several women’s rights activists, including most recently of Samar Badawi, a Canadian citizen whose brother, Raif Badawi, had already been jailed in the country.These sentiments were retweeted by the Canadian Embassy in Riyadh.
The Saudi response was swift.The Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed those arrested were “lawfully detained,” and accused Canada of “blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs.” It called the Canadian move an “unacceptable affront” and a “violation” of the Kingdom’s sovereignty and ordered the Canadian Ambassador out of Saudi Arabia within 24 hours.It also recalled its own Ambassador in Canada.
Several other measures were implemented to send a clear and unmistakable message to Canada and other nations who have been critical of Saudi Arabia. It froze trade relations with Canada and suspended all new trade and investments.The Saudi Education Ministry announced that it will be arranging the relocation of over 15,000 Saudi graduate students currently studying in Canadain universities outside of Canada. Saudi patients receiving treatment in Canadian hospitals are to be moved to hospitals in other countries. Saudi Arabian national carrier Saudia has announced the suspension of its flights to and from Toronto. The suspension of Saudia flights came as a shock for hundreds of Canadian Muslims booked to travel to Saudi Arabia to celebrate Eid-Al-Adha.
A Saudi Foreign Ministry tweet stated; “The kingdom of Saudi Arabia ... will not accept interference in its internal affairs or imposed diktats from any country. The Canadian position is an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and is in contravention of the most basic international norms and all the charters governing relations between states.”
Canada’s response to Saudi measures, communicated by Foreign Minister Freeland, stated: “Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, very much including women’s rights, and freedom of expression around the world.” She further said. “Our government will never hesitate to promote these values and believes that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy.”
Despite Canada’s defense of human rights, it faces criticism over the USD 12 billion light armoured military vehicles deal signed by the previous Conservative government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, once in office claimed his government was bound by the deal. Canada and other western crusaders rarely permit human rights issues to interfere with lucrative trade deals.
As the dispute deepens, Trudeau when asked if offering an apology to Saudi Arabia something he would consider responded, “Canadians have always expected our government to speak strongly, firmly, clearly and, politely about the need to respect human rights at home and around the world. We will continue to do that.”
At the other end, Saudi Foreign Minister Abdel al-Jubeir insisted, the issue was not one for mediation. He stated, “There is nothing to mediate. Canada made a mistake and must fix it.”
The suspension of Saudia flights came as a shock for hundreds of Canadian Muslims booked to travel to Saudi Arabia to celebrate Eid-Al-Adha
Bi-lateral merchandise trade between the two countries in 2017 amounted to USD 4 billion with a USD 1.2 billion positive balance in Saudi Arabia’s favour. Both Canada and Saudi Arabia are not in the top trading partners category of each other, and its disruption would not cause severe damage to either of the economies.
However, Saudi Arabia’s choice in selecting Canada, a mid-level trading partner to send a clear warning to members of the international community is significant.
Saudi Arabia may have appreciated a more subdued approach by Canada in the form of expressing its concerns through a ministerial visit. However, Canada opting for the use of Twitter, a type of megaphone diplomacy, was apparently not acceptable to the Saudis.
The strong response to the Canadian tweet is believed to have the support of most Saudis and will go a long way to placate feelings of those perturbed over Salman’s lack of criticism of Israel’s aggression against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip during the recent months.
It is reliably understood, that Canada has approached several close allies for assistance to cool down Saudi Arabia’s outrage.
Even though the US government initially called on both countries to settle their dispute amicably, in a subsequent press briefing, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert stated it is up to Canada and Saudi Arabia to resolve their differences. “We can’t do it for them.”
The current status of US-Canada relations may have even encouraged Saudi Arabia to take its current course of action.
It is noteworthy, that not a single western European ally of Canada has spoken on its behalf and come to its defence. The deafening silence, especially from the likes of the British (also known to bring about Resolutions at the UNHRC against some countries for human rights violations), French and Germans is the clearest of signs, the Saudi warning has been taken seriously and none of these countries will act in a manner detrimental to their lucrative trade deals with Saudi Arabia.
On the other hand, UAE, Bahrain,Comoros, Djibouti,Egypt, Mauritania and Palestinian Authority have all expressed solidarity with Saudi Arabia and endorsed the Saudi position.
Not a single western European ally of Canada has spoken on its behalf and come to its defence. The deafening silence, especially from the likes of the British (also known to bring about Resolutions at the UNHRC against some countries for human rights violations), French and Germans is the clearest of signs, the Saudi warning has been taken seriously
It may be recalled, that former Canadian High Commissioner in Colombo Shelly Whiting, in 2014 boycotted the annual Victory Day Parade held in Matara on May 18. Rather than declining the invitation which was her right, she went public issuing an unwarranted statement. After advising Sri Lanka to “retire its annual Victory Day Parade,” she ventured to lecture the government on how to handle reconciliation before concluding, “I will not be in Matara.”
The then government, in its infinite wisdom, ignored the whole episode. It failed to adopt any of the measures available in the conduct of diplomacy to indicate displeasure, without being confrontational.
Saudi Arabia is not Sri Lanka.
In Saudi Arabia, Canada may have met its match!