Canadian citizens are scrambling to make sense of a sudden diplomatic crisis between Canada and Saudi Arabia. On August 5, the Saudi foreign ministry announced on Twitter that the country was expelling Canada’s ambassador to the Kingdom and freezing all new business and investment transactions with Ottawa. Roughly 16,000 Saudi students in Canadian schools have also had their state-funded scholarships suspended, forcing them out of the country just before the start of the school year.
The announcement came in response to comments made by a Canadian diplomat over Twitter. Last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted in support of Saudi rights activists targeted by the regime, especially Samar Badawi. Badawi, a women’s rights advocate, was recently detained by Saudi authorities on spurious charges. She is the sister of jailed blogger, Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to ten years in prison in 2014 for criticizing Saudi clerics. Raif Badawi’s wife and children are Canadian citizens who live in Quebec.
The retaliatory move appears to have caught the Canadian government by surprise. Freeland’s tweets were not meant to dramatically alter relations with Riyadh. Instead, they reflected standard lip service from federal Liberals in support of a so-called rights-based foreign policy agenda and rhetorical, in lieu of actual, commitment to following through on promises made to the Badawi family to try and secure Raif’s release. The government has been criticized over the years by rights groups, as well as Badawi’s family members, for doing little to pressure the kingdom into freeing the imprisoned activist.
Despite a foreign policy agenda emphasizing liberal values, federal Liberals have taken a cautious approach toward Saudi Arabia since coming to power in 2015. While Saudi Arabia has long maintained an egregious rights record, both at home and abroad, the Canadian government considers it to be an important trading partner. Saudi Arabia is the number one purchaser of Canadian military goods and technologies after the United States, and is one of Canada’s largest export markets in the region overall. Two-way merchandise trade exceeded $4 billion last year; roughly 10 percent of Canadian crude oil imports come from the country.
The Saudi foreign ministry justified its response to the tweets by describing them as “an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” as well as an “attack” on the country’s sovereignty.
According to Bessma Momani, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo, the punitive measures have nothing to do with Canada in particular. Several countries, in addition to the UN and EU, have expressed concern and disapproval over the arrest of Saudi rights activists. As Momani explains in an article in the Globe and Mail, the Saudi reaction toward Canada is part of an increasingly aggressive Saudi foreign policy, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, designed to make his mark on global and regional affairs. Since Canada is a relatively insignificant trading partner for Saudi Arabia, it is an easy target for a government that wants to dissuade other nations from criticizing Saudi domestic affairs.
It is unclear how far the current feud will go, but there is one potentially positive outcome: the scraping of the Saudi-Canadian arms deal. In 2014, Canada’s then-ruling Conservative government announced a $15 billion sale of heavy assault and light-armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia. The move has since been criticized based on Saudi Arabia’s abysmal rights record. After being voted into power in 2015, the Liberal government nonetheless approved the export permits and has continued to defend the deal in economic terms. This despite evidence showing Canadian military equipment has been used by Saudi forces to kill dissidents at home, as well as civilians in Yemen.
While the Liberals previously attempted to protect the arms deal, they may now have to watch it unravel at the hands of their trading partner. After all, if the deal was initially intended by Saudi Arabia to strengthen its diplomatic partnership with Canada, as some expertsargue, they have little use for it now. They can easily find their military hardware elsewhere.
This potential outcome should be welcomed. While it would lead to job losses in southern Ontario, and represent a humiliating defeat for Liberals, it would help remedy Canada’s complicity in war crimes in Yemen.