Last summer, a standoff between Saudi Arabia and Canada gave us a window into how Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman deals with critics — but most of the world looked away.
It started with two tweets. On Aug. 2, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freelandwrote on Twitter that she was alarmed by the detention of Samar Badawi, a Saudi human rights activist whose brother, Raif Badawi, was arrested in 2012. Raif Badawi’s family lives in Canada. The next day, Global Affairs Canada weighed in, urging Saudi authorities to release civil and women’s rights activists.
Saudi Arabia was not having it. In a blustery Aug. 6 tweetstorm, the country’s Foreign Ministry announced that it was recalling its ambassador to Canada and gave the Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia 24 hours to leave. The state airline said it would stop flying to Toronto. Saudi scholarship students were told to pack their bags. Trade and investment were frozen.
Pulling ambassadors and threatening to suspend investment was a “massive overreaction” and offered an important lesson, said Thomas Juneau, assistant professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa. “The lesson was that MBS is reckless and completely overreacts to threats,” he added, using the crown prince’s nickname.
If the kingdom’s diplomatic meltdown spooked the allies, few said so publicly. The White House did not rush to Canada’s side or appear to reevaluate the young prince. Asked to comment on the case, the State Department dodged. “Both sides need to resolve this diplomatically together; we can’t do it for them,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said at the time.
“There was deafening silence at the time of the Canada-Saudi Arabia kerfuffle,” said Bessma Momani, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo. “No traditional allies spoke up, and that was felt very deeply here.”
Now, the disappearance and likely murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey has some in the United States wondering whether it was wrong to ignore Canada’s stance and the crown prince’s overheated reaction.
“Canada’s foreign secretary was prescient with this tweet,” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote on Twitter. “When so many world leaders and tycoons were fawning over MBS, Canada showed concern about human rights in Saudi Arabia. MBS then went nuts to punish Ottawa, but subsequent events underscore that Canada was right all along.”
“As Saudi Arabia threatens massive economic reprisals against the U.S. if held to account for the disappearance of a WashPo columnist, a friendly reminder that the Trump administration formally labeled America’s top source of imported oil, Canada, a threat to national security,” the Atlantic’s David Frum wrote.
It is not clear whether this new skepticism extends to the White House. On Tuesday, President Trump said that the Turkish claim that Saudi assassins killed and dismembered the missing journalist was another case of “guilty until proven innocent,” but he did not provide evidence to substantiate his claim.
It was the latest in a series of contradictory moves in the Khashoggi case. Trump sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to meet with the Saudi king and has vowed to find out what happened to Khashoggi. But he has been careful not to call out Saudi authorities because he does not want to compromise deals. “We would be punishing ourselves,” he said last week.
On this, too, the Canadian case may be instructive. Although Canada’s ties to Saudi Arabia are small compared with U.S.-Saudi Arabia links, this summer’s standoff showed that there are limits to what the Saudis can and will do. The effect on the Canadian economy was real, but limited, experts said, because it was more of a performance than anything.
“The Canada-Saudi Arabia economic relationship, in the big scheme of things, is very small. We were a sacrificial lamb for the Saudis to make a point,” Momani said.
Would they make the same point to the United States? It is possible, but unlikely, that the Saudi leadership would try to hit the United States with the same force, simply because canceling massive arms deals or messing with world oil markets could hurt Riyadh more than Washington, Juneau said.
“This all comes down to the credibility of Saudi threats, and the credibility of Saudi threats is low,” he said. “The U.S. . . . completely has the upper hand.”
The question is how Trump will play it.