Diplomatic rift with Canada and Saudi Arabia deepens

  • Posted on: 9 August 2018

Based on reports from Amnesty International, on the 1st of August, the Saudi government had arrested several female human rights activists, amongst them is acclaimed human rights activist Samar Badawi. The arrests prompted international condemnation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, mainly stemming from human rights groups. It is believed that these arrests may be aimed at appeasing conservative elements opposed to reforms in the country. Especially after the lifting of a decades-old ban on women driving which sparked criticism of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and his efforts to reform the Kingdom.

This incident triggered an unprecedented diplomatic feud between the two countries. As such, on Sunday, August 5th, Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry slammed Canada’s statement as “an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of #SaudiArabia.” This dispute began on Twitter and then escalated into a full-scale diplomatic crisis when Saudi Arabia retaliated by expelling the Canadian ambassador from Riyadh and recalling its ambassador from Canada. It can be said that Saudi Arabia’s harsh response to Canada maybe targeting other countries that might voice their criticism of the country.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia froze all new trade and investment transactions with Canada. Saudi Arabia is one of Canada’s largest export markets in the region, and some 10 percent of Canadian crude oil imports come from Saudi Arabia. However, the Saudi minister of energy, Khalid al-Falih reassured customers that a row over human rights will not have any effect on Saudi oil supplies to Canada. Citing a “firm and long-standing policy” that petroleum supplies are not influenced by political considerations.

Saudi also suspended all direct flights from Saudi Arabia to Toronto that were run by the country’s state airline. Saudi Arabia also announced a plan to withdraw an estimated 16000 Saudi citizens who are attending Canadian universities on a scholarship, including schools, and other educational institutions. Additionally, reports indicated that Saudi Arabia stopped all medical treatment programs in Canada and is working on the repatriating all Saudi patients from Canadian hospitals.

In this sense, Saudi Arabia has found support for its position on this issue among its allies, including Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia. Accordingly, Russia defended Saudi Arabia in a statement by the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova where she said that they advocate compliance with universal human rights “with due regard for the specific national customs and traditions that developed in a given country over a long period of time”, she added “We have always said that politicization of human rights matters is unacceptable.”

The US government, however, has declined to respond on the issue and back Canada in the growing diplomatic crisis that erupted due to its criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights’ record. Speaking at a media briefing in Washington, U.S State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert would not publicly condemn Riyadh’s arrest of civil-rights activists in the Saudi Kingdom. Nevertheless, Nauert said it is up to Canada and Saudi Arabia to resolve their differences, “We can’t do it for them,” she said.

Since rising to power in 2015, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has convinced Western allies to support his reform plans to modernize and open up the kingdom, and promising to fight radicalism in the kingdom. The 32-year-old has launched a campaign of social and economic change but has not eased the monarchy's ban on political activism. According to RBC Capital Market, the latest feud with Canada is a sign that the Crown Prince is willing to risk riling international investors in order to remain in control of the process of change.