The pandemonium started with a tweet, as so many political uproars seem to do these days.
“Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi,” said a tweet from the Canadian government’s official foreign-policy account last Friday. “We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists.” Canada was responding to the arrest days earlier of two activists, the latest targets of a Saudi government crackdown on women’s rights campaigners, more than a dozen of whom have been arrested since May.
Within days, the kingdom declared the Canadian ambassador persona non grata and expelled him from the country, on Sunday ordering him to leave within 24 hours, and summoned its own ambassador to Canada back home. It also froze all new trade and investment deals with Ottawa. On Monday, it canceled educational exchange programs between the two countries, including scholarships and fellowships, and stated that all its students currently in Canada would be relocated to other countries. The Saudi state airline suspended flights in and out of Toronto.
It was an unusually harsh reaction, and the kingdom’s own statement on the matter latched onto two words in particular. “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,” Riyadh said. The Saudis also said the Canadian statement was “a blatant interference in the kingdom’s domestic affairs, against basic international norms and all international protocols.” They warned, “Any other attempt to interfere with our internal affairs from Canada means that we are allowed to interfere in Canada’s internal affairs.”