Saudi Arabia’s Contest with Canada Escalates, Sending Clear Messages of Saudi Autonomy

The escalating diplomatic rancor between Saudi Arabia and Canada is snowballing fast, but it is not just about Saudi Arabia and Canada. Saudi Arabia’s dramatic responses to Canada’s “insulting” tweet are coded political messages to its rivals and allies alike to stand down.   

The escalating diplomatic rancor between Saudi Arabia and Canada is snowballing fast, but it is not just about Saudi Arabia and Canada. Saudi Arabia’s dramatic responses to Canada’s “insulting” tweet are coded political messages to its rivals and allies alike to stand down.   

The political crisis between Saudi Arabia and Canada over calls for the Kingdom to halt its human rights violations have escalated to an unprecedented level, by far the worst in the history of the two countries. The Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s four-line tweet expressing concerns over the arrest of human rights activists in the kingdom stoked Saudi Arabia’s reaction, or overreaction as some observers described it, of outrage and action. 

“Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists,” the Canadian minister tweeted. 

In a remarkable move, Saudi Arabia immediately severed its bilateral relations with Canada by recalling its envoy and declaring that the Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia was a persona non grata required to leave Saudi territory within 24 hours. Saudi Arabia also suspended all new business transactions and investments linked with Canada and cancelled the Saudi state airlines’ direct flights to Toronto. In addition, Saudi Arabia said that it would withdraw all Saudi students in Canada, estimated to be more than 12,000 students, and remove all Saudi patients from Canadian hospitals. 

The facet of the Saudi response that is quite incomprehensible to political analysts and observers around the world is that over the years Saudi Arabia has been repeatedly and openly condemned numerous times for human rights violations by many countries and international organizations, but it has never reacted in this way before. In January 2018, a group of British lawyers launched a campaign to drop KSA from the United Nations Human Rights Council, arguing that membership of Saudi Arabia in the council was “contradictory and ironic.” KSA did not respond in any significant way. In her visit to Saudi Arabia on April 30, 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that she had raised the issue of women’s rights, the war in Yemen, and other sensitive human rights issues in her discussions with the Saudi King Salman Ibn Abdulaziz. Again, Angela Merkel was not criticized for broaching these issues. 

The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor of the U.S. Department of State annually publishes a report on human rights practices in the world. The 2017 report on Saudi Arabia was thick, containing 55 pages criticizing Saudi Arabia.  Yet, again, there was no significant adverse Saudi reaction.

The U.S. State Department’s report included a significant paragraph about human rights “abuses” in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia: 

The most significant human rights issues included unlawful killings, including execution for other than the most serious offenses and without requisite due process; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention, including of lawyers, human rights activists, and anti-government reformists; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression, including on the internet, and criminalization of libel; restrictions on freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion; citizens’ lack of ability and legal means to choose their government through free and fair elections; trafficking in persons; violence and official gender discrimination against women, although new women’s rights initiatives were announced; and criminalization of same sex sexual activity. 

The report goes on to list and describe specific abuses of human rights against many activists, reformers, journalists, and peaceful dissidents in various parts of the country. Yet, Saudi Arabia simply ignored the report. It did not withdraw its ambassador from the United States and did not consider the State Department’s report “interference” in Saudi internal affairs. In fact, just the opposite: relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States grew even stronger. In March 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) visited American President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., and was met with open arms and an open wallet! During the meeting, MBS and Trump agreed on an investment plan involving $200 billion, including large purchases of U.S. military equipment.   

If Saudi Arabia has been seemingly inured to criticism in the past over human rights abuses, what explains its unexpected over the top reaction to Canada over a mere tweet? 

The Saudi Foreign Ministry stated that “KSA through its history has not and will not accept any form of interfering in the internal affairs of the Kingdom. The KSA considers the Canadian position an attack on the KSA and requires a firm stance to deter who attempts to undermine the sovereignty of the KSA.” 

It seems that Saudi Arabia under the lead of MBS has grown weary of allegations of human rights abuses coming from every quarter. Canada, it appears, is merely being used as a whipping boy, with the punishment inflicted on it a message from the Saudi Crown Prince to his enemies and allies alike, that Saudi Arabia will change at its own pace according to his vision and timetable, and that any mention of the Saudi human rights record will cause serious consequences. Clearly, the extraordinary move also sends a signal to unite Saudis and kindle their nationalist feelings as the prince paves his way to the throne.

The overreaction towards Canada is also significant in the context of other actions taken by Saudi Arabia internally and regionally over the last year. In November 2017, Saudi Arabia arrested a number of prominent Saudi billionaires, including members of the royal family, ostensibly in an anti-corruption campaign. Yet some observers claim that the move was only a means to “clip the wings” of certain powerful Saudis and consolidate the power of the Crown Prince.

In November 2017, Lebanon accused Saudi Arabia of holding its Prime Minister Saad Hariri hostage and forcing him to resign during his visit to Riyadh on November 3, though both Hariri and Saudi Arabia denied the accusation. MBS was also, allegedly, the mastermind of both the blockade on Qatar and the ongoing devastating war in Yemen.  Indeed, the powerful Crown Prince has focused on suppressing dissension and rivals at home and silencing complaints from abroad, all while maintaining an outward façade of reform and loosening restrictions on Saudi citizens.  

These developments in Saudi Arabia since the Crown Prince MBS came to power in 2015, along with the current political crisis with Canada, are clear messages directed internally and internationally that MBS is a power to be reckoned with.