Saudi Overreaction to Canadian Human Rights Concerns Exacerbates Issues for Kingdom

A tweet from Canada’s Foreign Policy Ministry sparked a war of words and a series of political clashes between the Northern American country and Saudi Arabia when Canadian officials expressed their “grave concern about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi” and urged the Saudi authorities to “immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists.”

The Arabian kingdom’s response to this online appeal was to impose serious political and economic sanctions leading to a diplomatic crisis and many observers scratching their heads as to what really was behind the Saudis’ overreaction to what appeared to be a simple tweet.

Was the Canadian move a “grave and unacceptable violation of the kingdom’s laws and procedures,” as the Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir declared in a press conference last Wednesday? For the Canadians, the answer is no. Otherwise, Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland would not have said in her first public comment on the dispute that “Canada will always stand up for human rights in Canada and around the world — and women’s rights are human rights.” Was the Canadian commentary serious enough that the kingdom had to impose such drastic punitive measures?

Clearly, the kingdom’s call to expel the Canadian ambassador in Riyadh, freeze all new trades with Canada, cancel Saudi direct flights to Canadian airports, and call for about 16,000 of its students to return home or at least leave the country, as well as the removal of thousands of Saudi patients who are receiving medical care in its hospitals, went way out of proportion. The whole of the package of punishments is unprecedented. The enormity of the reaction indicates a problem not only with Saudi foreign policy, but also with the entire political system of the kingdom. Undoubtedly, this reaction is not merely about a critical tweet, but is rather another indication that KSA is facing many structural problems under the leadership of Mohammed bin Salmane.

Certain protocols are routine and common in worldwide politics. Countries like Canada, for example, frequently announce their positions on civil rights issues such as freedom of speech or freedom of assembly. Canada’s actions in this contretemps are fairly innocuous and “not particularly out of the ordinary,” as Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor of Middle East politics at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, opined. Perhaps under normal circumstances Saudi Arabia would have responded much more moderately to the Canadian accusations, quietly and more consistently with the usual standards or channels of international diplomacy. Why did KSA not rely on diplomatic channels or official lines of communication with its allies through their diplomats to resolve the dispute?

Certainly, part of the answer has to do with the young prince Mohammed bin Salmane’s own political character. The crown prince, “drunk on power” and with the tacit but unmistakable support of Donald Trump, perhaps felt that he had to orchestrate what most political experts are calling in essence a “coup d’état” within one of the largest producers and exporters of oil around the globe. In November 2017, the young prince launched a purge within his own royal family ending in the arrest of dozens of senior princes, high ranking officials, wealthy media icons, businessmen, and some members of the military. It all happened over a single weekend and it was clear that “the kingdom had never been this unstable,” as Robin Wrights reported in her article “The Saudi Royal Purge—with Trump’s Consent” last year in the New Yorker. But, it did not stop there. Actually, the crackdown continues to target more people including some of the Saudi religious leaders, and there is no sign when it will end. 

Then comes his own untamed, irrepressible ambitions and political immaturity. With no one to dare say “no” or “that’s enough” and Trump in his back pocket, more political flare-ups are inevitable. Undoubtedly, the prince wants more power at whatever the cost. Though he strives endlessly to portray himself as a knowledgeable, modern reformist figure, bin Salmane is still struggling to secure his position as the real leader of the kingdom. There are, in fact, some indications that his hold on power is precarious as the tension grows over many of his policies including with respect to the Palestinian issue. Otherwise, the skepticism in the Middle East about a possible deal with the Americans and the Israelis would not have grown to the level of fear among Arabs about the future of Jerusalem. 

Yet, there are more serious problems brewing which all add up to Saudi Arabia’s internal political insecurity and impact its foreign policies. The devastating war in Yemen continues to bring criticism to the kingdom just as does the crisis of Qatar. Further, Iran believes that KSA was directly involved in Trump’s punitive measures against Iran.

There is another major factor at play. Friday’s tweet appears to serve the prince’s political agenda as it came at a time when the young prince is in urgent need of delivering his own message to the world: “without silence, no trade.” The potential for losing credibility in the eyes of his own people, his Arab allies, and world leaders, is precipitating ever more assertive acts. The clear warning is “if you want to do business with us, stay away from our affairs.” There is no middle ground, and “nothing to mediate,” as Foreign Minister al-Jubeir told reporters in Riyadh last week.

The official Saudi threats may indicate the Kingdom’s determination to reject all interference in its own policies, especially in the areas of civil rights and human rights, no matter the cost. Yet, the threats appear to be more of an indication of KSA’s political insecurity or fragility. Otherwise, why would a relatively routine remark like that of the Canadians have created such drama?

The world is watching carefully, as much as are the Saudis themselves. They should know that neither the prince’s global tours to enforce economic ties with the West nor the efforts they are making to champion the kingdom as a “modern” state will achieve their goals as long as the crackdown on domestic civil liberties, the war on Yemen, and the tension with Qatar persist. Yes, the rift with Canada should settle down sooner or later, but the new Saudi Arabia has a long way to go. Many see in the “tweet contest” a good lesson from which to learn; at least for the crown prince.