As Saudi Arabia intensified its backlash against Canada last week amid the surprising diplomatic row that has erupted in recent days, the entire affair has the appearance of a serious overreaction.
The strange episode began with a relatively tame comment from Canada’s Foreign Affairs ministry regarding Saudi Arabia’s recent detaining of rights activists in that country. “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists,” the tweet said.
As diplomatic messages go, it seemed no more provocative than numerous other statements which nations issue from time to time when its leaders feel moved to comment on the actions of another country.
Saudi Arabia, however, reacted as if Canada had launched a nuclear missile into downtown Riyadh.
Calling Canada’s message a “major, unacceptable affront to the Kingdom’s laws and judicial process” and “blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs,” Saudi Arabia responded by expelling the Canadian ambassador, recalling its own ambassador and freezing all new trade and investment with Canada.
The Mideast nation followed that up by announcing Aug. 6 it was suspending scholarships for about 16,000 Saudi students studying in Canada and ordering them to attend schools elsewhere. Then on Tuesday, Saudi Arabia said its state airline would suspend all flights to and from Toronto starting next week.
Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Foreign Affairs minister, responding Aug. 5 to the Saudis’ initial retaliatory actions, wasn’t backing down. “Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights and freedom of expression around the world,” she said. Freeland also noted there wasn’t anything “new or novel” about Canada’s long-held position with regard to human rights issues around the world.
Hanging in the balance is Canada’s $15-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia that includes providing armoured vehicles. That, along with the fact Saudi Arabia is one of Canada’s key export markets in the Middle East, means there could be a sizable hit to our country’s wallet over this dispute. The economics of the situation suggest Canada should apologize and try to patch things up with the Saudis. But it’s not that simple. Which should Ottawa put first, principles or economics?
Some observers believe the Saudis’ strong action against Canada is as much a message to other Western nations as to Canada itself. Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa, said in a Canadian Press story that Saudi Arabia’s response sends a message to other countries not to “mess” with the Saudis.
Perhaps he’s right. Saudi Arabia’s harsh reaction seems out of proportion to the situation but if the intent was to let Canada know to mind its own business, the message has surely been received.
The dispute will likely blow over soon, but Canada might hesitate before criticizing Saudi Arabia again in the future.