Saudi-Canadian relations take a tumble

Behind the scenes, the Canadian government has been consulting with Germany and Sweden on how to resolve the dispute.
Sunday 12/08/2018
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir speaks during a news conference in Riyadh, on August 8. (Reuters)
Fast escalation. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir speaks during a news conference in Riyadh, on August 8. (Reuters)

LONDON - A social media post from Canada’s Foreign Ministry led to the biggest diplomatic spat in Saudi-Canadian relations.

Reacting to a call by Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland for the release of jailed Saudi activists, the Saudi government issued a statement August 6 rejecting “a blatant interference in the kingdom’s domestic affairs, against basic international norms and all international protocols.”

“It is a major, unacceptable affront to the kingdom’s laws and judicial process, as well as a violation of the kingdom’s sovereignty,” the statement said, while warning that “any other attempt to interfere with our internal affairs from Canada means that we are allowed to interfere in Canada’s internal affairs.”

Riyadh expelled Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia and recalled its envoy from Ottawa. Saudi Arabia suspended Saudi flights to and from Canada and any new trade. Saudi students on scholarship in Canada must relocate to other destinations, such as the United States and the United Kingdom.

Riyadh said government-sponsored medical treatment programmes in Canada were being discontinued and that Saudi citizens in Canada for treatment would be moved to other countries.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, at a news conference August 8, said the kingdom was considering further action and dismissed reports that the United Arab Emirates had been asked to help defuse tensions.

“There is nothing to mediate,” Jubeir said. “Canada made a big mistake… and a mistake should be corrected.”

Jubeir said the arrests that prompted the dispute were not tied to activism.

“The issue has nothing to do with women’s rights but they were involved with foreign elements in threatening people and that it was leaking information about the kingdom to others. Some of those who were found to be not guilty were considered innocent, others were not,” he said.

Anti-Canada posts were in abundance on social media with the hashtag “Saudi Arabia expels Canada’s ambassador” trending. The hashtag “BoycottCanada” also began trending, with Saudi and UAE Twitter users forwarding lists of Canadian businesses and products to avoid.

Regional and Arab players, including the Arab League, expressed support for Saudi Arabia but Qatar, a Gulf Cooperation Council member involved in a year-old dispute with a group of Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia, issued a statement saying Riyadh’s position “does not represent” Doha’s.

Russia’s statement on the dispute said human rights issues should not be politicised and needed to be addressed with respect and the customs and traditions of the country in question in mind.

“We have always said that the politicisation of human rights matters is unacceptable,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said. “What one probably needs in this situation is constructive advice and assistance rather than criticism from a ‘moral superior’.”

The European Union issued a statement of solidarity with Canada, as did Yemen’s Iran-supported Houthi rebels, who are fighting a Saudi-led coalition.

It appeared Canada may be softening its stance.

“We don’t want to have poor relations with Saudi Arabia. It is a country that has great significance in the world, that is making progress in the area of human rights,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said August 8, adding that his government would always promote Canadian values and that diplomatic talks between the two countries would continue.

Behind the scenes, the Canadian government has been consulting with Germany and Sweden, two countries that have had similar disputes with Riyadh, on how to resolve the dispute.