The Saudi Arabia-Canada Feud, Explained

Saudi Arabia and Canada have found themselves in the middle of a diplomatic crisis, which threatens to end all diplomatic and economic contacts between the two countries. Saudi Arabia expelled the Canadian Ambassador in Riyadh on August 6, after Canada’s Foreign Minister, Chrystia Freeland, called for the release of Saudi human rights activist Samar Badawi on August 2.

Canada has refused so far to revoke its statements of support for Badawi and her brother Raif Badawi, prompting Saudi Arabia to increase its response on August 8. Samar Badawi is known for her advocacy on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia; her brother remains in jail, and his family has been living in exile in Canada after being imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for promoting religious tolerance.

 So far, Saudi Arabia has halted all future trade and economic agreements between the two countries, grounded all flights from Riyadh to Ottawa, and told its students in Canada to depart. Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, said on August 8 that Canada needed to “fix its big mistake,” and rejected international mediation for the dispute.

Owen Daniels, associate director of the Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, spoke with New Atlanticist’s David Wemer about the origins of the current disagreement and its implications for Saudi Arabia. Here is an excerpt from their conversation:

Q: Who is Samar Badawi and why do both countries care so much about her?

Daniels: Badawi is known for advocating for the abolishment of Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship laws. These laws essentially create female dependency on male authority figures like fathers or husbands, who have say over whether women under their care can travel, work, attend school, or get married. In 2012, Badawi received the International Women of Courage Award from the US Department of State by suing the government for women’s suffrage rights and suing her father’s right to guardianship over her for not allowing her to choose her husband. In 2014 she was banned from traveling outside the Saudi Arabia, and in 2016 she was briefly detained and released. She was also an opponent of the ban on women driving, which the government recently lifted.

Samar is also the brother of Raif Badawi, an online blogger and activist who is controversially imprisoned and lashed for “insulting Islam through electronic channels”; he operated a blog that advocated religious tolerance. Raif’s family left Saudi Arabia for Canada after his imprisonment, where they earned Canadian citizenship last month, and where they advocate for his release. The Trudeau government has prioritized human rights, and the initial tweet from the foreign ministry wasn’t as surprising as the Saudi response.

The Saudis prefer to receive such criticism behind-the-scenes, which may explain their public demands for Canada to back down.

Q: What specifically has Saudi Arabia done in response to Canada’s criticism?

Daniels: Saudi Arabia’s government responded to the Canadian Foreign Minister’s tweet by escalating right off the bat. In addition to expelling the Canadian ambassador, Riyadh has reportedly banned its citizens from receiving treatment in Canadian hospitals and the Saudi Grains Organization (SAGO) told European partners it would not be purchasing Canadian-origin wheat or barley. 

Saudis online who are unaffiliated with the government have contributed to tensions on social media. A pro-government Twitter account called “Saudi infographics” tweeted an image of a plane flying toward the Toronto skyline with the ominous warning: “As the Arabic saying goes: ‘He who interferes with what doesn’t concern him finds what doesn’t please him.’” The eerie, 9/11-invoking threat was deplorable, and Saudi authorities quickly suspended the account and disavowed it in a statement. But, with Saudi trolls calling for Quebecois independence on Twitter, the non-government social media activism contributed to heightening the controversy.

Q: Has Saudi Arabia responded to criticism like this before?

Daniels: Saudi Arabia has hit out at critics of its human rights record before. In 2015, Saudi Arabia pushed to disinvite Sweden’s foreign minister from an Arab League conference in Cairo where she was supposed to speak about women’s rights. Margot Wallstrom criticized the kingdom’s treatment of women and the imprisonment of Samar Badawi’s brother, Raif. This contributed to a broader cooling in relations that was accompanied by Sweden backing out of defense deals with the kingdom over concerns about Saudi involvement in Yemen and other human rights issues.

The rapidity with which this Canada episode has escalated, however, suggests the kingdom is taking a new, far more aggressive approach to international criticism of its domestic affairs.

Q: What impact will this have on Saudi Arabia’s international reputation?

Daniels: This episode certainly won’t help bolster the reformer image Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) is trying to cultivate. The government narrative is that MBS is a genuine reformer trying to restore moderate Islam to the kingdom and gradually introducing liberalizing reforms. There is a kernel of truth there. Beyond lifting the driving ban, the kingdom has taken steps to curb the powers of the morality police, increase gender-integration at soccer games and public events, and bring concerts and films back to Saudi. There are even tentative indications MBS might be considering allowing public religious practice beyond Islam. None of these liberalizing steps are easy in a highly conservative society.

However, the government is intent on controlling the narrative that reform is driven from the top-down. Paradoxically, this has led it to arrest and brand as “traitors” women who advocated for policies the government aims to implement. Freedom of speech or protest is not likely to be on the upcoming reform docket anytime soon. The Canada spat demonstrates how it will remain politically difficult for western governments to publicly stand with the Saudis so long as they continue to ruthlessly crackdown on dissent.

The incident also probably won’t inspire much confidence in investors, who will play a role in the ultimate success of MBS’s Vision 2030 socioeconomic reform plan. Saudi Arabia is an attractive developing market; foreign Saudi engagements like involvement in Yemen or the blockade of Qatar that hurt Saudi Arabia’s reputation with international governments don’t necessarily discourage international business. But disrupting trade with an entire country over a tweet might.

Q: Will Canada relent here? Are they really losing that much?

Daniels: Canada is currently seeking help from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and United Kingdom to quietly defuse tensions, although the UAE publicly supported a Saudi statement about rejecting external interference in its affairs. Given the relatively modest trade relations between the two countries and Canada’s current liberal government, it seems unlikely Ottawa will back down on the human rights message. Bilateral trade is worth about $4 billion a year, and Canadian exports to Saudi comprise 0.2% of the country’s total. That said, it would like to see friendly relations restored.

One item that might be on the chopping block as a consequence of the spat is a $13 billion arms deal with Canadian defense contractor General Dynamics for armored vehicles. The deal has actually fallen prey to tensions over Saudi human rights before – in 2014, the Liberal Party reluctantly granted export permits for the deal inked by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government under pressure from human rights groups. Delays and unwillingness to defend the sales against public criticism reportedly frustrated the Saudis then, and it’s unclear whether Saudi will follow through on the deal after this latest exchange. That could cost Canadian jobs.

Q: Where is the United States in all of this?

Daniels: The United States appears resolved not to involve itself in this dispute. The State Department’s line is that Saudi Arabia and Canada should work it out themselves. Given the US president’s more cordial relationship with Riyadh than Ottawa, and President Trump’s past disparaging comments about Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, it is hard to see much impetus from the top in chastising the Saudis on Canada’s behalf. It is a shame, because the United States could play a constructive role mediating between a NATO ally with whom we share a border and a key regional partner.

David A. Wemer is assistant director, editorial at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.

Image: Saudi Arabia's Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir speaks during a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia August 8, 2018. (REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser)