The breakdown in diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Canada over a set of tweets has raised questions over the kingdom’s foreign policy under its crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. Saudi Arabia has rapidly escalated the dispute by calling back its ambasssador and sending back Canada’s ambassador, and other measures including cancelling all flights by its national carrier to Canada.
What started the dispute
On August 2, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted, expressing concern over the arrest of a women’s rights activist, Samar Badawai, in Saudi Arabia. The tweet also urged the Saudi authorities to release the women activist, and her brother Raif. Raif, a blogger, had been arrested earlier and is presently in prison.
A day later the Canadian Foreign Ministry tweeted seeking the immediate release of all civil society and women’s rights activists:
The tweet did not go down well with the government in Saudi Arabia. On Monday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir criticized Canada’s statements, and accused the country of “blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs, against basic international norms and all international protocols”. The Saudi Arabia government said that Freeland’s tweet was a “major, unacceptable affront to the Kingdom’s laws and judicial process, as well as a violation of the Kingdom’s sovereignty.”
It also said that “any further step from the Canadian side in that direction will be considered as an acknowledgement of our right to interfere in the Canadian domestic affairs”.
Who are the people at the centre of the controversy?
The tweet by the Canadian Foreign Ministry came after the arrest of internationally recognized women’s rights activists Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah in Saudi Arabia. Badawi is one of the most prominent women’s rights activists in the Middle East kingdom, who campaigned for driving rights for women and the lifting of the rule which required women to have male guardians to act on their behalf.
Badawi, besides advocating women’s rights, has been campaigning for the release of her brother and former husband, also in jail for his work on human rights.
Since May, women’s rights activists have been facing a crackdown by the government, which has led to the arrest of more than a dozen activists.
However, Saudi Arabia is also believed to be unhappy about Badawi’s sister-in-law Ensaf Haidar, being granted Canadian citizenship on July 1. Haidar has been leading the protest for the release of her husband Raif, a blogger, who was sentenced to 10-years imprisonment for apostasy and “insulting Islam through electronic channels”.
The other factor that has annoyed Saudi Arabia
Bill Law, the Middle East analyst for Al Jazeera, wrote that the Canadian media has also been scrutinising a $15 bn arms deal between the Canadian unit of US weapons maker General Dynamics Corp and the Saudi government. Under the deal the weapons manufacturer has to supply light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia.
The 2014 deal was touted as the biggest advanced manufacturing export deal in Canadian history. But criticism from media and human rights groups over how the armoured vehicles could be used in Yemen and to quell internal dissent hasn’t gone down well with Saudi Arabia.
What the Saudi government has done so far
Riyadh on Sunday recalled its ambassador from Canada and gave the Canadian ambassador 24 hours to leave.
The government – through its state-controlled press agency – said that it would ban any new trade agreements, cancel all flights of state-owned carrier Saudia to Canada, cancel and divert scholarships of Saudi students in the country and annull existing medical cooperation programs.
A pro-government Twitter account also provoked outrage when it posted a 9/11-like digitally altered image showing a plane flying towards the Toronto skyline. The post was later deleted and the account apologised for it as well.
How Canada has reacted
The Canadian government has refused to apologise for supporting human rights activists in Saudi Arabia. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said, “Canada will always stand up for human rights in Canada and around the world, and women’s rights are human rights.”
She also said that it would be a shame for Saudi students if they were deprived of the opportunity to study in Canada.
On Tuesday, the US State Department urged both countries to resolve the matter through diplomatic dialogue.
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said, “Both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together. We can’t do it for them, they need to resolve it together.” She also said that the state department had raised the issue of arrest of civil rights activists with the Saudi government.
Human rights group Amnesty International said that it is time that the Western countries not get intimidated by the treatment meted out to dissenters in Saudi, and act in solidarity by raising their voices against it.
“Saudi Arabia is shooting itself in the foot. If you want to open up your country to the world, you don’t start expelling ambassadors and freezing trade with countries such as Canada,” Joost Hiltermann, regional program director for the International Crisis Group, told Reuters.