Beside goodwill but not sovereignty

Saudi Arabia says no to mediation because the fault lies with Canada alone

The ongoing bitter diplomatic spat between Saudi Arabia and Canada over Riyadh's human rights record underscores a newly aggressive foreign policy led by the young Crown Prince and de facto ruler of the oil-rich kingdom, Mohammad bin Salman.

The row erupted last Monday when Saudi Arabia expelled the Canadian Ambassador and recalled its envoy from Ottawa after Canada demanded release of jailed human rights activists in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia also announced freezing of all new trade and investment transactions with Canada, suspended passenger flights and also imposed a number of other sanctions.

The row sparked following a series of tweets from Canada's Foreign Ministry expressing concern over arrests of civil society activists in Saudi Arabia. Riyadh described the move a violation of its sovereignty and imposed a string of diplomatic sanctions against the North American country.

It all started when Saudi Arabia took umbrage to a number of tweets by Canadian officials, including Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, denouncing the detention of women's rights activists Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah by Saudi authorities, and demanded their immediate release along with other women activists. Saudi Arabia described Canada's online plea as, "grave and unacceptable violation of the kingdom's law and procedure."

Both the campaigners were arrested in Saudi Arabia in late July, according to Human Rights Watch. Samar, a Canadian passport holder, is the sister of blogger Raif Badawi who was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to 10 years in jail and 1000 lashes for "insulting Islam" in a case that sparked international outcry. After Raif Badawi's arrest, his wife Ensaf Haider fled to Canada with their three children. On July 1, Canada Day, they were granted Canadian citizenship. Ensaf is publicly and tirelessly campaigning for the release of her husband, much to the chagrin of the Saudi government.

As part of its punitive measures, the Kingdom froze all new trade with Ottawa, ordered around 16,000 students in the North American country to either return home or complete their studies in another part of the world and cancelled all direct flights to Toronto by its state airline. It also stopped all medical treatment programs in Canada and is said to be planning to transfer all Saudi patients, currently receiving care in Canadian hospitals, to move to other countries.

The Saudi central bank and state pension funds ordered overseas asset managers to offload their Canadian equities, bonds, and cash holdings "no matter the cost," the Financial Times reported, citing two unnamed sources.

The Saudis also seem to be upset with the Canadian media scrutiny of a USD 15 billion arms deal reached under Canada's former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The deal involves sale of light armoured vehicles. Justin Trudeau's Liberal government decided to go ahead with the sale despite concerns in the Canadian media that the weapons could be used against Saudi citizens in the restive Eastern Province or in the ongoing war in Yemen.

There appears to be no sign of any reconciliation so far. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir has threatened additional measures and said mediation is not an option because the fault lies with Canada alone.

Canada, however, seems to be unperturbed by the Saudi actions. In her first public comment on the dispute, the Canadian Foreign Minister said that "Canada will always stand up for human rights in Canada and around the world—and women's rights are human rights."

The Kingdom's allies like Bahrain, the UAE, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority have supported the action. However, the US, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, has stayed away from taking any side. State Department spokesman Heather Nauert said, "both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together. We cannot do it for them; they need to resolve it together."

Asked by reporters why the US is not publicly siding with Canada, a neighbour and NATO ally, Nauret said Washington would encourage Riyadh to respect due process and make public more information about some of its legal cases. The Saudi action, by any measure, is an extraordinary response that has left many observers perplexed.

According to analysts, Saudi Arabia's move to sever diplomatic ties with Canada could be seen as both a power play for the Crown Prince, as well as a sign that the Kingdom is no longer willing to quietly ignore Western demands for political liberalisation.

Although the Crown Prince has undertaken reforms like opening cinemas for the first time in decades and allowing women to drive, he seems to be in no mood to allow human rights activities in the kingdom. This, they say, is evident from the action against Badawis.

"It is pretty clear that he [the Crown Prince and de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia] is using Canada to send a message to the rest of the world that if you want to trade with Saudi Arabia, then you need to shut up on human rights," Nader Hashemi, director of the University of Denver's Center for Middle East Studies at the Josef Korbel Korbel School of International Studies, told Al Jazeera. However, some observers see the Saudi action as yet another foreign affairs adventure undertaken by the Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman, after the war in Yemen, now in its fourth year, and economic and diplomatic blockade of Qatar, now more than a year old.

The Saudis appear to be going "full Qatar" on Canada, Thomas Juneau, an Assistant Professor at the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, was quoted as saying by the Globe and Mail in an apparent reference to Riyadh's action against its tiny neighbour.

The Saudi action seems to send a clear signal to Canada and other nations that goodwill gestures will always be appreciated and reciprocated but measures or words that are deemed to violate its sovereignty and norms of international relations would be answered with full force.

(The author is a former Editor of PTI. He has also served as West Asia Correspondent for PTI, based in Bahrain from 1988 to 1995. The views are strictly personal)

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