Saudi Arabia or Canada: Who Will Blink First?

Saudi Arabia or Canada: Who Will Blink First?

The Canadian government’s tweet was in reaction to Amnesty International’s report that the Saudi government had arrested several female human rights activists. One was Samar Badawi. An acclaimed activist herself, she’s also the sister of Raif Badawi, a blogger who’s been imprisoned in Saudi since 2012 and subjected to public flogging.

It all started with a tweet. Who knew then that a message of less than 280 characters could cause such diplomatic uproar! This then is what happened:

The Face-Off

The Twitter handle of the Canadian Foreign Ministry (@CanadaFP) on 03 August tweeted “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.”i

The Canadian government’s tweet was in reaction to Amnesty International’s report that the Saudi government had arrested several female human rights activists. One was Samar Badawi. An acclaimed activist herself, she’s also the sister of Raif Badawi, a blogger who’s been imprisoned in Saudi since 2012 and subjected to public flogging.

The Saudi government responded to the post with a steady string of retaliatory measures such as expelling the Canadian ambassador from Riyadh; recalling the Saudi envoy to Ottawa; suspending its national airline’s flights to Toronto; ending thousands of Saudi scholarship programs in Canada, and halting all its medical treatment programs in Canadian hospitals.ii

In fact, the Kingdom’s Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, while insisting that his country would not tolerate any foreign meddling in its internal affairs, has asked Canada “to fix” the “mistake” that the latter has made. Saudi Arabia has also categorically denied that the issue is not of human rights, but of “national security” since the individuals were in touch with “foreign entities and enemies overseas”.iii

The Larger Picture

Objecting to comments by other countries on human rights violations in one’s own nation is not new. Take for example the recent (and first) report by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on the alleged human rights violations in the Kashmir. India (both the government and the opposition political parties) came out strongly against the report.iv Hence, one cannot blame Saudi Arabia for protesting.

However, some analysts opine that Saudi Arabia’s reactions to the tweet were a little overboard - since this is not the first that the Kingdom has come under the scanner for its human rights record. Its seat in the UN Human Rights Council is a hotly debated topic. Another example is allegations of human rights violations by Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen.

Nevertheless, the reaction by Saudi Arabia to this particular tweet is actually quite typical of how the desert country is moving with its foreign policy under the de-facto leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. As the country is seeking to assert its place in the global sphere (moving away from its typical description of being just an oil-provider), the policies of the Crown Prince (who some call as a modernizer of the Kingdom) needs careful and prolonged watch.

The actions of MBS – as the Crown Prince is often known – are almost always in dichotomy. Take this for example, he removes the decades-old ban against women driving and then puts women protestors (who were asking for equal rights) behind bars. The recent spat, therefore, could underscore the volatility (maybe even fragility) of the Saudi government under the youthful prince.

The American Stand

Unlike its continental neighbour, the United States under President Donald Trump has shied away from raising issues regarding human-rights with the Saudis. There has also been a warming up of the old relations between the two – in fact Saudi Arabia was President Trump’s first foreign stop. Add to this, the perceived tensions between Washington and Ottawa, it could be that the Crown Prince thought that he has the backing of the US in this row.

However, though the US seems to portray a hands-off approach publicly, there are reports that the Trump administration is “privately” trying to persuade Saudi Arabia to tone down its hostilities with Canada.v

Conclusion

Canada and Saudi Arabia – both are allies and both stand to lose with this face-off. The US might be trying to bring both to the table, will America’s efforts bear fruit or will the tensions between the two allies worsen? It just remains to be seen: who will blink first, or will the two stretch out their hands for a shake together?

1. https://twitter.com/CanadaFP/status/1025383326960549889

2. https://edition.cnn.com/2018/08/07/middleeast/saudi-arabia-canada-intl/index.html

3. https://twitter.com/KSAmofaEN/status/1027266975653916672

4. https://www.firstpost.com/india/india-rejects-unhrc-report-on-alleged-human-rights-violations-in-kashmir-says-it-legetimises-terrorism-4550921.html

5. https://www.scmp.com/news/world/united-states-canada/article/2159264/us-staying-out-growing-dispute-between-canada-and

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.

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