Saudi Arabia is locked in an escalating diplomatic feud with Canada which began at the start of August when Ottawa tweeted concerns over Riyadh’s treatment of its civil rights activists.
In what Saudi Arabia described as “interference” in its domestic affairs, the kingdom retaliated with a series of measures including canceling flights to and from Toronto and suspending scholarships of around 12,000 Saudi students studying in Canada. On August 7, Saudi Arabia began selling its assets in Canada, including equities, bonds and cash holdings.
The Trump administration issued its first statement on August 6, stating that it “asked the government of Saudi Arabia for additional information on the detention of several activists.” The U.S. also referred to both Riyadh and Ottawa as “close allies” of America, when in fact, only Canada is a treaty ally of the U.S.
According to Joost Hiltermann, the MENA program director at the Crisis Group, an NGO, the strong relationship between the Saudis and the Trump administration, in part, may have emboldened the kingdom’s boycott of Canada.
“Maybe because the Crown Prince [Mohammed bin Salman] has reason to believe that the U.S. will not castigate him for his action against Canada. In that case, he has been vindicated. For now,” Hiltermann told WikiTribune.
Crisis began with a series of tweets
Last week, Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, tweeted her concerns about a recent wave of arrests of human rights activists. Among those arrested included Samar Badawi, the sister of blogger and dissident Raif Badawi, who has been imprisoned since 2012.
Raif Badawi’s wife has been living with their three children in Quebec, Canada. Last year, they all became Canadian citizens.
The day after Freeland’s tweet, Canada’s foreign minister called on Saudi Arabia to “immediately release” Samar Badawi and all other “peaceful #humanrights activists.”
The tweets seem to have provoked the Saudis to take a number of unanticipated measures. In a statement on Twitter, the Saudi foreign minister said Canada’s attitude was “negative and surprising” and that its position was “an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of #SaudiArabia.”
In the same Twitter thread, Saudi Arabia also announced it was expelling Canadian ambassador Dennis Horak and the simultaneous suspension “all new trade and investment transactions.”
On Sunday night, Marie-Pier Baril, a spokesperson for Freeland responded in an email to the Canadian press. “Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, very much including women’s rights, and freedom of expression around the world,” wrote Baril.
On Monday, events escalated after a Twitter account linked to the Saudi Government evoked images from the events of September 11, 2011, when it shared an image of an airplane flying towards the Toronto skyline. The tweet has since been deleted but a screenshot can be found here.
Another Twitter account, also associated with the Saudi government, tweeted an apology, stating: “The aircraft was intended to symbolize the return of the Ambassador.”
“This is a new, bold Saudi Arabia”
Experts say the fact that Saudi Arabia reacted as swiftly as it did is down to its de facto leader, crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, also known as MBS.
Last year, bin Salman allegedly kept the Lebanese prime minister hostage and ordered the arrest of top Saudi figures until they paid back parts of their fortunes as part of a so-called corruption crackdown. Outside of the country, bin Salman has spearheaded the war in Yemen as well as the blockade of neighboring Qatar.
Bessma Momani, a Middle East Expert at the University of Waterloo in Canada, interpreted this latest diplomatic row as more about the Saudis than about Canada.
“This is a new, bold Saudi Arabia trying to make its mark on global and regional affairs,” wrote Momani.
“The Saudi Crown Prince wants to signal to the world that interference in Saudi domestic affairs and criticism of the country will come with economic consequences.”
Saudi Arabia’s retaliation seems especially emboldened given that it could negatively impact its $15 billions arms deal with Canada. According to Hiltermann, such a loss will impact Canada more. “If the Saudis stick to their guns, as it were, there won’t be many Canadian arms sales to the kingdom for a while,” he said.
“The Saudis will have to buy elsewhere, which won’t be very difficult, and Canada will have to find new buyers, which may be a bit harder.” If Canada leaves as a defense partner, the UK, France and US will likely fill up that void.
MBS asserts power
MBS is under a lot of pressure to divert the kingdom’s income away from its reliance on oil. A national strategy called Vision 2030 includes reforming the country socially, encouraging local businesses and investment and societal freedoms such as allowing women the right to drive.
However, any progress Riyadh has made with women’s rights is tainted with the detention of female activists. Hiltermann told WikiTribune that not everyone sees it the same way.
“There is no such thing as Saudi Arabia’s ‘international image,'” he said. “For example, I could imagine that while Saudi Arabia’s reputation may have suffered quite a bit in Canada and some European countries, in Trump’s America it is doing just fine, and perhaps in Russia and other autocracies as well,” said Hiltermann.
“Moreover, I don’t think that the Saudi Crown Prince cares much about what Canada or x European country thinks; he has hitched his wagon to Trump’s.”