from Pressure Points

Saudi Arabia and Canada

August 7, 2018

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Saudi Arabia has ordered its ambassador to Canada to come home and has expelled the Canadian ambassador, stopped Saudia flights to Canada, stated that all new commerce with Canada will now be reviewed, and told Saudi students there—there are 12,000—to study elsewhere. These are significant actions, not least for those 12,000 young Saudis who were just weeks away from the start of the new school year. How will they find new places to study in such a short time?

The full Saudi statement is here. Here are excerpts:

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been made aware of the statement by the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Canadian Embassy in the Kingdom, on the so-called civil society activists who have been detained, urging Saudi authorities to release them immediately.

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The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs has expressed disbelief by this negative unfounded comment, which was not based in any accurate or true information….

The Ministry also affirmed that the Canadian statement is a blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs, against basic international norms and all international protocols. It is a major, unacceptable affront to the Kingdom’s laws and judicial process, as well as a violation of the Kingdom’s sovereignty….It is quite unfortunate to see the phrase “immediate release” in the Canadian statement, which is a reprehensible and unacceptable use of language between sovereign states.

Canada and all other nations need to know that they can’t claim to be more concerned than the Kingdom over its own citizens. Thereby, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recalls the Ambassador of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in Canada back to Riyadh for consultation and considers the Canadian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia as Persona-Non-Grata who must leave the Kingdom within the next 24 hours. The Kingdom will put on hold all new business and investment transactions with Canada while retaining its right to take further action.

What was the Canadian action that led to this fierce reaction? A tweet from Canada’s foreign minister saying “Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia,” and that “Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.” And the following day a tweet from the foreign ministry saying “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.”

These are not harsh or shocking statements. The Raif Badawi case has long been a matter of international concern and comment. The United States commented in 2015 that “We are greatly concerned by reports that human rights activist Raif Badawi will start facing the inhumane punishment of a 1,000 lashes, in addition to serving a 10-year sentence in prison for exercising his rights to freedom of expression and religion. The United States Government calls on Saudi authorities to cancel this brutal punishment and to review Badawi’s case and sentence.” This is surely tougher than the Canadian comments. Moreover, the United States had no actual link to the case whereas Badawi’s wife and three children are now Canadian citizens. In addition, there has been plenty of comment about the current combination in Saudi Arabia of social and economic reform with the government’s absolute insistence on setting the pace of change—and punishing Saudis who seek to increase it. For example, just days before the kingdom allowed women to drive it punished women activists who had long sought that change.

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The Saudi position amounts to this: no government may comment on anything that happens in the kingdom. Any such comment is a violation of Saudi sovereignty. Thus the phrase in the Saudi statement that the Canadian comments were “against basic international norms and all international protocols.”

That’s an untenable position in 2018. Remember Ronald Reagan calling the Soviet Union “totalitarian darkness” and an “evil empire?” Yet the Soviets did little more than protest verbally, while relations continued normally. That’s because over the decades—from the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to the Helsinki Accords and the entire post-Cold War period—the practice of commenting on human rights issues around the globe has become a “basic international norm.” Governments do it all the time. The United States publishes an annual volume of human rights reports that have been extremely critical at times of Saudi Arabia. The executive summary of the most recent "Country Report" on Saudi Arabia says “The most significant human rights issues included unlawful killings, including execution for other than the most serious offenses and without requisite due process; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention, including of lawyers, human rights activists, and antigovernment reformists; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression, including on the internet, and criminalization of libel; restrictions on freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, movement, and religion” and then gives substantial detail. Again, this is much tougher than anything the Canadians said.

I suppose the Saudis are sending a message that such criticism will come at a high cost, or at least at a high cost unless you’re the United States. One can well imagine that numerous other countries will in fact be scared off, not wanting to pay the price the Canadians will.

Perhaps one of those countries will be the United States. The reaction of the State Department to the whole affair was this:

We are aware of Government of Saudi Arabia’s statement recalling the Saudi ambassador to Canada and expelling Canada’s ambassador. Canada and Saudi Arabia are both close allies of the United States. I refer you to the Canadian and Saudi Ministries of Foreign Affairs for further information.

That’s an indefensibly weak response. I’m not suggesting a declaration of war, but what if State had said this:

We are aware of Government of Saudi Arabia’s statement recalling the Saudi ambassador to Canada and expelling Canada’s ambassador. Canada and Saudi Arabia are both close allies of the United States, and we hope that their relationship quickly returns to normal. Support for human rights around the world is a policy of the United States Government and we do not believe that any nation should suffer when its officials express such support, especially in cases involving its citizens and their families.

That would have been a mild brushback of the Saudi overreaction, and would have been a useful suggestion to the Saudis that they were going too far. I certainly hope we have told them so privately. I hope we have also told them that their overreaction has likely strengthened, not weakened, Prime Minister Trudeau and his government and made all Canadians far more aware of the Badawi case and others like it.

I remain supportive of the social and economic reform efforts associated with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and wish him every success in them. They are critical to Saudi Arabia’s future. I can understand, even if I cannot always support, his efforts to control every aspect of the pace of change lest his experiment with modernizing so many parts of Saudi life evoke so much internal opposition that it fails. But there’s no way to defend what the Saudis have done here. Their foreign ministry should have issued a statement saying the Canadians should butt out, they have their facts wrong, we resent it, and so on, and had their ambassador angrily say the same to the foreign minister—and left it at that. What they have done is an unforced error.

And while I’m at it, hat’s off to the Canadians for their concern about the family of a Canadian citizen and about human rights around the world.

UPDATE: I am pleased to say that the State Department took a somewhat better line at today's press briefing. Spokesman Heather Nauert said this: 

We have a regular dialogue with the Government of Saudi Arabia on human rights and also other issues. This particular case regarding Canada, we have raised that with the Government of Saudi Arabia. They are friends, they are partners, as is Canada as well.

Both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together. We can’t do it for them. They need to resolve it together. The United States respects – has respect for international recognized freedoms and also individual liberty. That certainly has not changed, and that’s basically where we stand today....

I can tell you that we have those conversations with the Government of Saudi Arabia. We have had conversations with them about this as it pertains to Canada. But we would encourage both governments to work out their issues together. It’s a diplomatic issue. Saudi Arabia and Canada can certainly stand to work it out together. We would encourage the Government of Saudi Arabia overall to address and respect due process and also publicize information on some of its legal cases.

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