Canada rows with Saudi Arabia over crackdown on activists

By Prarthana Mitra

The Canadian government’s recent criticism of the treatment and arrest of civil activists in Saudi Arabia has sparked a high-profile diplomatic row that seems to be worsening by the hour.

After Canada’s foreign ministry demanded an unconditional and immediate release of women’s rights activists last week, Riyadh retaliated by first expelling Canadian ambassador Dennis Horak and recalling its own ambassador, before suspending new trade and investment with Ottawa.

Last Wednesday, the Saudi Press Agency reported that it was ending all treatment programmes in Canadian hospitals, with arrangements underway to transfer Saudi patients out of the country. According to latest reports, the Saudi education ministry has also asked all students studying in Canada, with a scholarship or otherwise, to leave and relocate to schools in other countries.

Amidst the escalating spat, a pro-Saudi organisation on Tuesday tweeted a digitally altered image that represented a plane flying towards Toronto’s CN Tower, referring ostensibly to a 9/11-style attack. A caption read warnings for “sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong”. “He who interferes with what doesn’t concern him finds what doesn’t please him,” read another.

Here’s what is happening in Saudi Arabia

On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch reported that among the arrested were noted women’s rights activists Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah, which “gravely concerned” the Canadian Global Affairs ministry. Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said, “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.”

Over a dozen women’s rights activists have been targeted since May for campaigning for the right to drive and end the male guardianship system, and become unwitting targets of a smear campaign. Interestingly, Badawi’s sister-in-law recently gained Canadian citizenship while her brother Raif Badawi, a dissident blogger, has been rotting in Saudi prison since 2012.

The fallout

Saudi foreign ministry tweeted, “The kingdom of Saudi Arabia … will not accept interference in its internal affairs or imposed diktats from any country,” adding, “The Canadian position is an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of #SaudiArabia and is in contravention of the most basic international norms and all the charters governing relations between states.”

Saudi Arabia, under their new crown prince, has pushed back against criticism from the international community before, issuing similar diplomatic sanctions on Germany and Sweden in the recent past. Many pro-Saudi outfits have even taken this opportunity to remind Canada of its own history of civil rights violations with respect to its indigenous populace.

With Canada’s souring relations with its southern neighbour and Trump’s vehement Islamophobic stance, it will be interesting to note Washington’s reactions to the issue. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have already defended Saudi Arabia in the dispute. But from the looks of it, Canada looks determined to hold aloft the human rights banner even at the cost of damaged business relations with Saudi Arabia.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

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