August 10, 2018

IntelBrief: The Saudi Sensitivity Over Canada

Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman  (AP Photo/Christophe Ena) .
  • Riyadh has reacted with extreme sensitivity over a Canadian Foreign Ministry statement expressing concern over the detention of women activists in the Kingdom.
  • Riyadh is threated by the slightest criticism now, as the carefully crafted image of its new leader as a reformer is running into headwinds internally and externally.
  • The U.S. has stayed silent over the serious breach in relations between its neighbor and ally, preferring to ignore Saudi politics and policies that run counter to U.S. values.
  • On August 8, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih said oil imports to Canada would not be affected by the rupture in relations, but other sectors and both Saudi and Canadian individuals have been affected.


The intensity of the diplomatic rupture between Saudi Arabia and Canada is surprising, even for a country as sensitive to criticism as the Kingdom. On August 3, the Canadian Foreign Ministry tweeted about the country’s concern over Riyadh’s dentition of several women activists. The arrests were surprising, as they came amid the loosening of restrictions on women in Saudi Arabia, including allowing them, finally, to drive cars. The Canadian tweet read: ‘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.’

Riyadh’s reaction was swift and dramatic: it expelled the Canadian ambassador in Riyadh and recalled its own ambassador from Ottawa. Riyadh also cancelled thousands of Saudi students’ enrollment in Canadian colleges just before the start of another school term. The Kingdom went on to cancel ‘all new’ trade and investment in Canada, suspended all Saudi flights into Canada, and stopped sending citizens for medical treatment to Canada. Importantly, Saudi’s neighbors, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have not responded in kind against Canada—a different situation by far than the still on-going and damaging dispute with neighboring Qatar. Riyadh is the only country to recall its ambassador to Canada and likely will remain the only one; the overreaction is notable even for Saudi Arabia.

On August 8, Saudi Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih sought to make clear that oil wasn’t on the table in terms of retaliatory restrictions against Canada for the tweet, however. Al-Falih stated ‘The current diplomatic crisis between Saudi Arabia and Canada will not, in any way, impact Saudi Aramco's relations with its customers in Canada.’ The two countries don’t actually trade all that much with each other; in 2017, they traded approximately $3 billion in total value, with Canada sending about $1.2 billion to Riyadh last year.

As he seeks to manage change in the Kingdom, Crown Prime Mohammad bin Salman has cracked down on perceived dissent and critique both internally and externally. On the eve of the highly-publicized and anticipated lifting of the ban on women drivers in Saudi Arabia, the government arrested several very high-profile activists, some of whom had been pushing for reform on women’s rights for years. Samar Badawi, whose detention was referenced in the Canadian tweets, is a women’s rights activist well-respected outside Saudi Arabia for her work but reviled by Riyadh. She was arrested in early August.

The issue should be transitioning into a ‘face-saving’ phase, yet this might be delayed given how dramatic the moves by Riyadh have been. On August 8, ForeignMinister Adel al-Jubeir stated, ‘Canada has made a mistake and needs to fix it.’ On the same day, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau said that while Canada would always speak out for human rights, it did not want ‘poor relations with Saudi Arabia. It is a country that has great significance in the world, that is making progress in the area of human rights.’ It is uncertain how far Canada will walk back its rather straight-forward and mild criticism over the detention of Badawi, whose brother, Raif, is also in a Saudi prison. Raif’s wife and children were granted asylum in Canada in 2015. The impulsive and high-profile reaction by Riyadh will make it harder for the Saudi government to let the issue fade away. Meanwhile, it has made the point to other countries that any criticism, however slight, will be met with immediate consequences.


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