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Diplomatic Feud Between Saudi Arabia, Canada Worsens

People line up to check in for a flight from Toronto Pearson International Airport to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in Toronto, Canada, Aug. 10, 2018.

The diplomatic feud between Saudi Arabia and Canada, triggered by a tweet criticizing the Gulf kingdom’s human rights record, looks set to worsen this week with the suspension of direct Saudi flights to Canada.

Neither side is showing signs of wanting to ease a quarrel that flared when Canada’s foreign minister criticized the recent arrests of 11 prominent rights activists in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia accused Canada of interfering in its internal affairs with the tweets that called on the Gulf kingdom to release detained “civil society activists.”

Following the tweets posted August 5, the feud has only worsened, with media in both countries piling on and urging government officials in their respective countries to not back down.

The Saudis have expelled Canada’s ambassador and recalled their own envoy from Ottawa, ordered home 15,000 scholarship students studying at Canadian universities and hospitals, and frozen bilateral trade and investment, including halting barley and wheat imports.

Both governments can benefit politically from the standoff when it comes to domestic politics, say analysts, who suspect the feud could play out for some time.

FILE - Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland speaks after receiving the Foreign Policy's Diplomat of the Year 2018 award.
FILE - Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland speaks after receiving the Foreign Policy's Diplomat of the Year 2018 award.

The diplomatic spat took Canadian officials off guard. They say the tweets by Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland protesting the detention of female critics of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, were hardly unusual and amounted to routine critiquing of the Saudi rights record. They accuse Riyadh of an absurd overreaction.

But analysts say the sharp reaction by Riyadh may have less to do with Canada and more to do with domestic Saudi politics, fitting in with a recent pattern of aggressive Saudi behavior that has seen Riyadh engineer a standoff with Gulf neighbor Qatar, which it is blockading, and continuing to pursue the war in Yemen, despite allegations of human rights violations.

They say the crown prince appears to be ramping up Saudi nationalism to try to reduce the risk of a reactionary backlash from conservative clerics and their supporters in the royal family to a series of reforms the crown prince has implemented, part of a high-profile social and economic modernization program designed to refashion Saudi Arabia that’s been unfolding the past two years.

The reforms include allowing women to drive, opening movie theaters, and allowing concerts. Economic modernization, including welcoming greater foreign investment, is designed to reduce the Saudi economy’s dependence on oil.

“No one should interpret this as a tantrum from Riyadh,” tweeted Hisham Al-Zoubeir Hellyer, an analyst with the Atlantic Council, a U.S.-based research group. “It is far more likely to be a calculated move, designed to establish a new litmus test internationally for continued relations with Saudi Arabia. The question is whether or not everyone will buckle or refuse."

The Canadian government shows little sign of backing off, although Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has acknowledged recently that Saudi Arabia has made progress on human rights.

Much of the Canadian media is supportive.

“We should not apologize, and we should be ready to accept further retaliation from Riyadh,” wrote Jim Warren, a columnist for the Toronto Sun.
“When we consider Canadian values versus Saudi Arabian values, we must stand up for what is right and for what we believe in. This will require sacrifices. Doing the right thing sometimes costs you something.”

In its efforts to bring the Canadian government to heel, Riyadh has organized an apparently coordinated social media offensive, which has taken several bizarre turns, including targeting Canada’s women’s rights record, by accusing Canada of being one of the worst oppressors of women.

One social-media posting, which was deleted after being linked to the Saudi government, warned Canada not to “stick its nose where it doesn’t belong,” with the message superimposed over a photograph depicting a plane flying into Toronto’s CN Tower.

“While in the short-term, both sides may benefit politically from brow-beating each other before domestic constituencies, it doesn’t appear that anyone truly stands to gain from this in either country,” argues Shuvaloy Majumdar, an analyst at Canada’s Macdonald-Laurier Institute and a former government adviser.

In a tweet, Majumdar faults the Canadian government for the dispute, arguing it should have been more careful in how it campaigns for human rights, “One doesn’t just wave a wand or issue a tweet."