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.”
“Interference” may seem like a strange way to characterize the Canadian government’s statement. Saudi Arabia has been criticized over its human-rights abuses in the past—given its treatment of women and minorities, its restrictions on freedom of expression, and its record of holding political prisoners—including by the United Nations and the United States. But the kingdom has reacted to criticism in the same terms before: In 2015, when a German vice chancellor criticized Riyadh over its violent treatment of dissident blogger Raif Badawi, the Saudi Press Agency released a statement written by an unnamed foreign ministry official, saying the kingdom “does not accept any interference in its internal affairs.”
But now is perhaps an even more sensitive time for Saudi Arabia. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, has been advancing his Vision 2030, a plan to overhaul the kingdom’s economy and international reputation through various reforms. In June, Saudi women got the right to drive, a move hailed as a historic—though long overdue—win for women’s rights activists. But that win has been bookended by losses: Several of the women who had campaigned for the right to drive were imprisoned or ordered not to speak to journalists about the reform. Some speculated that MbS didn’t want them to take credit for it, and that he wanted to control the narrative in the press. Some believe a similar desire may be animating Riyadh’s response now.
“MbS sees himself as managing an unprecedented and delicate reform process and doesn’t want outside criticism making it more difficult, let alone from allies who are beneficiaries of Saudi business, so he is very upset at the Canadians,” Ali Shihabi, the founder of the Arabia Foundation, wrote to me in an email. But “both sides are playing politics here,” added Shihabi, a Saudi national who is close to the government. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has upheld a $15-billion arms deal to Saudi Arabia that was concluded by his conservative predecessor in 2014, yet now he “wants to defend himself from criticism of that decision by grandstanding and posturing on women’s rights.”
The arms deal, which saw Canada sell light-armored vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia, was presented by Saudi officials as a confidence-building measure that would lead to deeper ties between the two countries, including on trade and security. But that didn’t happen.
“For Justin Trudeau, who was trying to brand his government as progressive and feminist, selling weapons to Saudi Arabia was obviously uncomfortable to say the least,” said Thomas Juneau, a professor at the University of Ottawa who specializes in Middle Eastern affairs. Trudeau chose not to cancel the arms deal, although it had outraged many Canadians. But he seemed to decide that the best way to manage the awkward optics was to avoid engaging much with Saudi Arabia. “So all the promises that were supposed to follow from the big LAV deal never materialized,” Juneau said. “The result is that there was a significant buildup of irritation on the Saudi side. I went to Saudi Arabia earlier this year and the frustration among Saudi officials and analysts toward Canada was palpable and strong and growing. I could clearly see black clouds ahead.”
There’s another reason why Saudi Arabia might feel inclined to single out Canada: The activist mentioned by name in the Canadian statement, Samar Badawi, is the sister of Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes in 2013. His wife, Ensaf Haidar, now lives with their three children in the Canadian province of Quebec, and from that perch she often lambasts the kingdom. (Quebec, incidentally, is currently being mentioned by many Saudi Twitter users, who are suggesting Canada is hypocritical to decry human-rights abuses in the kingdom. “In Saudi Arabia we feel worried about Canada committing cultural genocide against Indigenous people,” several people tweeted in identical terms, in a classic case of whataboutism. “We also support the right of Quebec to become an independent nation.”)
Picking on Canada, which is not one of Saudi Arabia’s most important allies, is a relatively low-cost way for Riyadh to send a message to the West as a whole. That message, according to Juneau, is this: “We do not tolerate criticism of our domestic affairs. If you do criticize, you will be severely penalized.” Juneau argued that this is of a piece with MbS’s broader modus operandi, which involves implementing some reforms while exerting tight control over the process. “When he locks up women’s rights activists at the same time that he’s allowing women to drive—that’s not incoherent. It’s perfectly coherent. That’s his way of saying: I am reforming socially, but you guys, you civil society, don’t get any big ideas.”
If Saudi Arabia’s response to criticism has gotten harsher under MbS than it was under previous leaders—the crown prince has also hit back at Sweden as well as Germany for criticizing the kingdom—Shihabi suggested there’s a reason for that. MbS needs to telegraph not only to the West, but also to Saudis, that he’s not letting his country be pushed around by foreign powers. “He is undertaking a very delicate political balancing act and outside critics have no understanding or appreciation of (or purposely ignore) the political forces (for and against) on the ground that he has to deal with as he pulls the country into the 21st century,” he wrote.
Those who stand to lose out most as a result are the approximately 16,000 Saudi students in Canada, who will now be relocated. “It’s so sad. They’re just numb at this point,” said Bessma Momani, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo in Canada. She added that Canadian universities will also lose bigtime. “We get a lot of revenue from international students; we kind of depend on them. Saudis are one of our largest contingents of foreign students.”
Meanwhile, some are calling for other countries to stick up for Canada. “The U.S. and EU need to back Canada up and make clear that we will not back down when it comes to defense of women’s rights and human rights,” Susan Rice, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote on Twitter. The Trump administration, which has deepened America’s traditional alliance with the Saudis, has so far not issued a statement on the recent arrests in the kingdom.
But the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and the Palestinian Authority have announced they stand with Saudi Arabia, raising the possibility that Canada may face escalating repercussions across the region.