Saudi Arabia recalled its diplomatic envoy to Ottawa on Monday and issued a 24-hour expulsion notice against Canadian ambassador, Dennis Horak, declaring him a “Persona-Non-Grata,” according to the Saudi Press Agency.
The Kingdom has also frozen all new trade and investment deals with Canada.
The sudden escalation in tensions between the two allies comes after the Canadian Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged Saudi Arabia to release its detained human rights activists. Since May 15, more than a dozen high profile activists have been arrested in what Human Rights Watch has called “an unprecedented crackdown” on civil society in Saudi Arabia.
Nassima al-Sadah and Samar Badawi, sister of Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who was arrested for insulting Islam in 2012, are the most recent victims of Saudi Arabia’s unofficial campaign to silence voices of dissent in the Kingdom.
Samar Badawi is considered to be one of the most high-profile, women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. Badawi received the U.S.’s International Women of Courage Award for her advocacy work in 2012 by former U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and First Lady, Michelle Obama.
Although women in Saudi Arabia were granted the right to drive in June, the Kingdom’s strict interpretation of Sunni Islam continues to limit Saudi women’s participation in society. Women in Saudi Arabia are still required to obtain approval from a male guardian for a number of basic activities.
However, this is not the first time that Badawi has been arrested. In 2010, she was jailed for seven months for disobeying her father, who she claimed had physically abused her from the age of 14 after her mother died of cancer. Badawi is well-known for challenging the male guardianship system in her country, which is probably one of many reasons why she was arrested last week.
When the news of Badawi’s arrest became public last week, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Chrystia Freeland, took to Twitter to urge Saudi Arabia to release Samar Badawi and her brother Raif.
“Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.”
The Canadian Department of Global Affairs followed up with a statement on their official Twitter account, calling for Saudi Arabia to release the two rights activists arrested last week.
“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.”
In retaliation, the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a scathing statement that condemned Canadian pressure to release the detained activists, calling it a “blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs.”
“The Kingdom views the Canadian position as an affront to the Kingdom that requires a sharp response to prevent any party from attempting to meddle with Saudi sovereignty,” the statement read.
The Saudi government further denied Canada’s claims and emphasized its displeasure with Canada’s use of forceful language against the Kingdom.
“The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs has expressed disbelief by [sic] this negative unfounded comment, which was not based in[sic] any accurate or true information. The persons referred to were lawfully detained by the Public Prosecution for committing crimes punishable by applicable law, which also guaranteed the detainees’ rights and provided them with due process during the investigation and trial,” the statement said.
“It is quite unfortunate to see the phrase ‘immediate release’ in the Canadian statement, which is a reprehensible and unacceptable use of language between sovereign states.”
Bahrain’s Foreign Minister, Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, supported the Kingdom’s response to Canada’s diplomatic pressure in a statement on Monday. Saudi Arabia’s staunch ally criticized Canada for what it called an “unacceptable intervention in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” according to Bahrain’s official news agency.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s strong reaction, the Canadian government has shown no sign of backing down. Canada’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Marie-Pier Baril, emphasized that Canada would “always stand up for the protection of human rights, very much including women’s rights, and freedom of expression around the world.” Baril also added that the Canadian government would “never hesitate to promote these values.”
Amnesty International claimed that Saudi Arabia’s response to Canada’s stance on the Kingdom’s crackdown on civil society “showed that it was important [that] Western countries not be intimidated into silence over Riyadh’s treatment of dissenters,” according to Reuters.
“Instead of pursuing human rights reform, the government of Saudi Arabia has chosen to lash out with punitive measures in the face of criticism. States with significant influence in Saudi Arabia — such as the USA, UK and France — have now remained silent for far too long,” said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East Director of Campaigns.
Although Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, has been lauded for his efforts to diversify his country’s economy, his recent crackdown on Saudi civil society has made it clear that this change can only come from the top.
However, can the Kingdom continue to silence internal dissent and dismiss external critics?
Last year, bilateral trade between Saudi Arabia and Canada surpassed $4 billion, according to the Canadian government. While Saudi-Canadian trade consists largely of Saudi petrochemicals, plastics, and other products, a significant portion of the two-way trade is based on Canada’s export of military vehicles armed with high power weaponry.
Ottawa said that the controversial 2014 contract, won by the Canadian unit of U.S. weapons maker General Dynamics Corp, was the largest advanced manufacturing export win in Canadian history worth $13 billion, according to Reuters.
While trade relations between the two countries are likely to be negatively impacted by the recent diplomatic upset from Riyadh, that is not the only thing that will be disrupted by this sudden escalation of tension.
Saudi Arabia announced that it would be suspending educational exchange programs with Canada and moving Saudi scholarship recipients to other countries, according to a report by Saudi-owned Al Arabiya on Monday. It is estimated that more than 15,000 students are enrolled at Canadian universities. Although the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain said they supported Riyadh, they did not follow suit.
Mohammed Bin Salman is working hard to modernize his country by promoting new economic sectors and increasing foreign investment. However, he might undermine his vision for the Kingdom if he continues to interact recklessly with his allies and disregard international human rights norms. If Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince genuinely refuses to commit to liberalizing his country, both socially and economically, he could lose many strategic allies, which could cost his country dearly in the future.