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'Easy target' Canada weathers Saudi ire in diplomatic spat

AFP | Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Saudi-Canada relations further deteriorated this week after Canada raised the Gulf kingdom’s arrests of human rights advocates on social media. Riyadh has sought to punish Ottawa’s outspokenness, but it appears that Canada can in this case afford it.


Canada’s already frayed relations with Saudi Arabia took a dramatic turn for the worse this week, setting off a firestorm of diplomatic and economic reprisals from Riyadh. Canadian foreign ministry tweets last week raised Saudi ire in protesting the Gulf monarchy’s recent detention of a number of women’s rights activists. They included Samar Badawi, whose blogger brother Raif has been jailed since 2012 in his native Saudi Arabia. His wife Ensaf Haidar and their three children, to whom Canada granted asylum, live in Quebec and became Canadian citizens last month.

Deeply annoyed by Canadian diplomats’ tone in “urg[ing] the Saudi authorities to immediately release [those newly arrested] and all other peaceful human rights activists”, Riyadh expelled Canada’s ambassador and recalled his Saudi counterpart in Ottawa. The oil-rich Gulf monarchy said it would freeze all new trade and investment transactions with Canada. It moved to suspend scholarship programmes for Saudi students in Canada and to transfer the 15,000 Saudis studying there to other countries. It even suspended the flights of state airliner Saudia to Toronto. The tick-tock of reprisals continued Wednesday when Saudi Arabia announced it was stopping all medical treatment programmes in Canada and would transfer Saudi patients out of Canadian hospitals.

The stern reaction is one way for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, increasingly at the helm in Riyadh, to send a stark warning to Western capitals who might be tempted to criticise the kingdom’s human rights record.

On the one hand, Canadian universities are highly dependent on financing from foreign students, who pay higher tuitions than locals, and Saudi students make up the fourth largest contingent of foreigners.

But on the other, the Saudi reprisals are unlikely to weigh too heavily on the Canadian economy. “Saudi Arabia is only second in terms of Canadian exports to the Gulf region and only nearly 10 percent of petroleum imports from Ottawa come from the Saudi monarchy,” France 24 Canada correspondent François Rihouay notes.

Trade between the two nations represents only four billion Canadian dollars (€2.66 billion), according to official figures, while Canadian exports to Saudi Arabia counted for no more than 0.24 percent of its exports in 2016, as reported by the World Bank. The Canadian dollar dipped a paltry 0.3 percent on the US dollar after Saudi Arabia announced the economic relations’ freeze, Bloomberg reported.

As it stands, Canada’s $15 billion contract to provide light armoured vehicles to the Gulf nation appears unaffected by the quarrel. Centre-leftist Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s conservative predecessors concluded that deal in 2014 – before Trudeau’s 2015 election and the Saudi crown prince’s own rise in standing. The contract, far from vital for the Saudis from a military perspective and controversial at the time in Canada, was meant to deepen trade relations between the two countries. But the bid for closer ties waned after the election of Trudeau, a vocally feminist proponent of minority rights. Beyond honouring the agreed contract, Trudeau’s government distanced itself from a regime not known as a guiding light on civil rights. The stance deeply irked the Saudis and strained ties.

In the current quarrel, analysts in Canada say the country represented “an easy target” for Saudi Arabia in the emboldened crown prince’s bid to make an example of a dissenting voice at ostensibly low risk.

“If you’re going to go after a Western government critic… you’re going to go after Justin Trudeau,” Bessma Momani, a political science professor at Canada’s University of Waterloo, told The Globe and Mail newspaper. “You have a female foreign minister, you have a feminist prime minister…. It frankly sells in Saudi Arabia among [the] clique of like-minded dictators and autocratic regime leaders who are tired of the West telling them how to run things.” Momani noted that the British parliament has criticised Saudi actions in Yemen without weathering a similar response. “You don’t pick on the UK, where a lot of Saudi tycoons have their money. You go after Canada. It’s an easy target.”

Canadian observers are also questioning the ultimate calculus for Saudi Arabia, surmising that picking on Canada might not be as low-cost to the kingdom as it appears on the surface.

Roland Paris, a former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau, noted that there is a big difference between Saudi Arabia’s utterly effective punishment of its diminutive neighbour Qatar and its retribution against Ottawa. “Canada isn’t vulnerable little Qatar. If the Saudis want to disrupt the education of their own students, it would be an unfortunate, self-defeating move,” Paris tweeted.

Indeed, Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, noted that the Saudi students disrupted by the current dispute include 1,000 medical students. Writing in the Washington Post, the Middle East specialist noted that “by some counts, more than a third of Saudi doctors have received training in Canada”.

“Overall, this is a risky gamble for Riyadh, one that could be damaging in the longer term,” Juneau surmised. “Crown Prince Mohammed is trying to pitch his country as a stable and attractive investment destination as part of his efforts to reform the Saudi economy. This impulsive decision [to sanction Canada], in combination with aggressive actions in Qatar, Yemen and elsewhere, can only be counterproductive in this regard."

Unbowed by the Saudi riposte, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland on Monday responded to the expulsion of Canada’s ambassador, saying, “Let me be very clear… Canada will always stand up for human rights in Canada and around the world, and women’s rights are human rights.”

“The consequences of this crisis will be relative because Canada doesn’t depend on Saudi Arabia, all the more so because its natural resources allow it to speak freely,” international relations specialist Gauthier Rybinski told France 24. “It is a freedom of speech so rare today that contrasts with the deafening silence of the other Western chancelleries. None of them saw fit to support Canada in this affair, to not rankle Riyadh, a petroleum giant at the forefront against Iran."

Indeed, beyond this rumpus with Riyadh, there is concern in Canada and the US about the bigger picture, given Washington’s apparent desire to stick to the sidelines in this crisis. Donald Trump has forged closer ties with Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the US president memorably blasted Trudeau after attending the G7 summit in Canada in June.

“Canada has no backing at all from the US in its current spat with Saudi. This is new,” Juneau, the Middle East specialist, tweeted Tuesday. “Not a big deal: the dispute is spectacular, but ultimately not very important. But this should be a source of major anxiety: when a real crisis comes, and we are alone, what do we do?”

“Both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a briefing on Tuesday. “We can’t do it for them. They need to resolve it together."

Responding to news that Ottawa would seek help from Britain and the United Arab Emirates in resolving its dispute with Riyadh, Carnegie Fellow and Middle East expert Perry Cammack tweeted, “With a normal American administration: 1) Saudi Arabia wouldn’t dream of breaking ties with Canada; 2) Washington would be the obvious mediator.”

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