“It's a message to countries across Europe and across the rest of the world that criticism of Saudi Arabia has consequences.” Germany similarly has found itself targeted by the kingdom in recent months over comments by its officials on the Saudi-led ...and more »
Saudi Arabia has expelled the Canadian ambassador and suspended new trade and investment with Ottawa after Canada’s foreign ministry urged Riyadh to release arrested civil rights activists.
The Saudi foreign ministry has given Dennis Horak 24 hours to leave the country and recalled its own ambassador to Canada, saying that it retained “its rights to take further action”.
“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia ... will not accept interference in its internal affairs or imposed diktats from any country,” the ministry tweeted. “The Canadian position is an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of #SaudiArabia and is in contravention of the most basic international norms and all the charters governing relations between states.”
Saudi state television later reported that the education ministry was coming up with an “urgent plan” to move thousands of Saudi scholarship students out of Canadian schools to take classes in other countries. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates publicly backed Saudi Arabia in the dispute.
The dispute is believed to have been initiated by Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old crown prince, whose recent foreign policy exploits include the war in Yemen and alleged orchestration of the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri’s resignation during a visit to the kingdom. Hariri later rescinded the surprise resignation and returned to Beirut.
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch said Saudi Arabia had arrested the women’s rights activists Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah. The arrests were the latest in a government crackdown on activists, clerics and journalists. More than a dozen women’s rights activists have been targeted since May.
Most of those arrested campaigned for the right to drive and an end to the country’s male guardianship system, which requires women to obtain the consent of a male relative for major decisions.
On Friday, Canada said it was gravely concerned about the arrests, including Badawi’s. Her brother Raif Badawi, a dissident blogger, has been imprisoned since 2012. His wife, Ensaf Haidar, lives in Canada and recently became a Canadian citizen.
Analysts described the dispute as part of a wider pushback against external criticism, noting the ultraconservative kingdom’s newly aggressive foreign policy.
“This message is obviously not just being sent to Ottawa,” said Giorgio Cafiero, the chief executive of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington-based risk consultancy. “It’s a message to countries across Europe and across the rest of the world that criticism of Saudi Arabia has consequences.”
Germany similarly has found itself targeted by the kingdom in recent months over comments by its officials on the Saudi-led war in Yemen, while in 2015, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Sweden and stopped issuing work visas for Swedes after the country’s foreign affairs minister criticised a court decision concerning Raif Badawi.
Ali Shihabi, the founder of the Washington-based Arabia Foundation, pointed to domestic concerns in both Canada and Saudi Arabia to explain the row. Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau – under fire for signing off on the sale of more than 900 armoured vehicles to Riyadh – is looking to “defend himself from criticism by grandstanding and issuing tough statements,” Shihabi said in an email.
The crown prince, on the other hand, “sees himself as managing an unprecedented and delicate reform process and doesn’t want outside denunciations making it more difficult, let alone from allies who are beneficiaries of Saudi monies”.
Shihabi said Riyadh’s actions suggest authorities are more concerned about managing the politics surrounding the reform process than public relations.
In a statement, the Saudi foreign ministry said it confirmed the kingdom’s commitment to refrain from intervening in the internal matters of other countries, including Canada, and in return rejected any intervention in its domestic affairs and internal relations with its citizens.
“Any further step from the Canadian side in that direction will be considered as acknowledgment of our right to interfere in the Canadian domestic affairs,” it said.
Soon after, a surge of Saudi Twitter accounts began expressing concerns over Canada’s treatment of indigenous peoples and support for Quebec’s sovereignty movement, as first reported by Buzzfeed. Others noted the striking similarity in the language being used in the tweets.
Normally, any dispute between Saudi Arabia and Canada would see the United States side with its northern neighbour. But as Bessma Momani, a political science professor at Canada’s University of Waterloo, noted, the kingdom has enjoyed closer relations with Donald Trump, while the American president has taken aim at Trudeau.
“But is Trump relishing in this attempt to slight Trudeau? Did Saudis clear this with DC first?,” she wrote on Twitter. “Odd questions to ask, but we live in odd times.”
On Monday, a spokeswoman for the Canadian foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said Canada was “seriously concerned” by Saudi Arabia’s actions.
“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 said. “Our government will never hesitate to promote these values and believes that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy.”
Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report
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