Among almost 200 independent nations across the world, there are probably few more different in their national characters than Canada and Saudi Arabia.
The current diplomatic dispute erupted when Canada’s foreign minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted concerns after several social activists were arrested in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi, sister of imprisoned dissident Raif Badawi, whose wife is a Canadian citizen. The language used in the tweet was consistent with past media releases by successive Canadian governments criticizing the Saudi human rights record.
The monarchy counter-tweeted, vexed that it had been shamed by the public platform used by Canada to call for the release of the prisoners. It expelled Canada’s ambassador, ended two-way trade, liquidated its investments in Canada, ordered about 15,000 Saudi students out of Canadian universities, and threatened other retaliation.
The gulf kingdom seeks praise for reforms by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, although he’s lately becoming increasingly autocratic. “So it’s not only anger, it’s a lack of recognition” observes Aurel Braun, professor of political science and international relations at the University of Toronto.
In 2015, Sweden was punished after its government criticized the Saudi human rights record. Foreign minister Margot Wallström was denounced for insulting Sharia law and Islam.
Riyadh is now trying to make an example of Canada by sending the message internationally that it will extract a high cost for those it deems interfering in its domestic affairs.
My direct exposure to the ways of the Saud absolute monarchy was in Sanaa in 2000 during the 10th anniversary celebration of the reunification of North and South Yemen. The Saudi delegation of about 150 princes arrived in two 747s, reportedly bringing their own furniture and meals. The long military parade was clearly designed primarily to impress the Saudi observers with the strength of Yemeni troops and military equipment.
Riyadh’s recent overreaction to Canada reflects a pattern of aggressive behavior that has seen it engineer a standoff with Gulf neighbor Qatar, which it is blockading, and savagely pursue the war it is waging in Yemen, which has created one of the worst humanitarian crises on earth. It includes the recent deaths of forty school children on a bus bombed by a Saudi-led coalition warplane.
The Crown prince might also be stoking Saudi nationalism to reduce the risk of a backlash to his reforms from rigid clerics and their supporters in the royal family.
“His aim may also be to dissuade governments next month from continuing the U.N. investigation of Saudi-led war crimes in Yemen,” suggests Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.
Another factor is the dominant Wahhabi religious community in Saudi Arabia. It has long encouraged intolerance for other faith communities, while remaining close to the Saud dynasty since the mid-18th century and offering it Islamic legitimacy in exchange for vast funding and control of thousands of mosques around the world.
Riyadh has even launched a bizarre social media offensive mostly in Arabic, including accusing Canada of being one of the worst oppressors of women, and claiming that it is a state supporter of international terrorism
None of Canada’s allies has spoken publicly in our defense, understandably concerned about being excluded from doing business in the Saudi economy. Sweden weathered a similar experience.
Unsurprisingly, oil sales won’t be affected. Approximately ten per cent of Canada’s oil imports come from Saudi Arabia. Bilateral trade overall between the two nations is about $3 billion a year.
If Canada cancels its military contract to supply Saudis Canadian armored assault vehicles, all the better for the people against whom they are now being deployed. The current dispute offers Canada the opportunity to adopt a new foreign policy based on advancing human dignity in the Middle East.
Kenneth Macartney, Canadian ambassador to Sweden earlier, notes that its government ultimately executed a “no-apology rapprochement” to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. He concludes that both prime minister Trudeau and foreign minister Freeland have made it clear that Canada won’t apologize for standing up for women’s rights. They have indicated as well that Canada will not excuse itself for defending basic human rights.
Paul Heinbecker, former Canadian ambassador to the U.N., pragmatically and correctly suggests that Canada’s reaction to the Saudi outburst should be to “build the Energy East pipeline [to move western Canadian oil to eastern Canada], think twice about sending arms into a conflict zone and make more spots available for Canadians in Canadian medical schools and hospitals.”