The Saudi Arabian government announced it would be suspending all new trade and investment with Canada after Canadian officials urged the kingdom to release civil society and women’s rights activists.
The sanctions were announced just 48 hours after this tweet from Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland:
“Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia...We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.”
The kingdom also recalled its ambassador to Canada, expelled the Canadian ambassador, and said it would be relocating the 7,000 Saudi students currently studying in Canada. Saudi flights to and from Toronto will be suspending start next week.
According to UN reports, Saudi Arabia has detained or arrested at least 18 activists since mid-May, including Saudi-American human rights campaigner Samar Badawi.
Badawi rose to international prominence for her courage in challenging the kingdom’s male guardianship system. She spent most of 2010 in prison after disobeying her father, who she claims physically abused her starting at age 14.
In 2012, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton presented Badawi with the US International Women of Courage Award. That same year, her brother Raif was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam” on the Internet.
Saudi officials, who insist Badawi and the other activists are being detained lawfully, claim Canada's language represents “blatant interference in the kingdom’s domestic affairs” and “a major, unacceptable affront to the kingdom’s laws and judicial process.” Officials took particular issue with the phrase “immediate release,” which they say is a “reprehensible and unacceptable use of language between sovereign states.”
In 2017, two-way trade between Saudi Arabia and Canada was just over $3 billion USD.
As many have pointed out, the sanctions will likely hurt Riyadh far more than they will hurt Canada.
“Expelling an ambassador over criticism of human-rights issues is the worst thing you can do,” reports a Gulf-based diplomat quoted in The Wall Street Journal. “It confirms prejudices about Saudi Arabia that exist among businessmen in Europe, for instance, while helping investors from countries where business comes first and that aren’t too concerned about human rights issues.”
In all likelihood, the sanctions on Canada are yet another attempt by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to rile up nationalists and assert Saudi dominance. If you think about it, expelling an ambassador is in line with previous actions such as his kidnapping of the Lebanese prime minister, his detention of wealthy Saudis to gain money for the government, and his bullying of Qatar.
The sanctions could also be intended as a warning to dissuade other Western nations from criticizing SA’s domestic affairs.
“Picking on Canada, which is not one of Saudi Arabia’s most important allies, is a relatively low-cost way for Riyadh to send a message to the West as a whole,” explains The Atlantic’s Sigal Samuel. “When [Mohammed] locks up women’s rights activists at the same time that he’s allowing women to drive - that’s not incoherent. It’s perfectly coherent. That’s his way of saying: I am reforming socially, but you guys, you civil society, don’t get any big ideas.”
Editor's note: Saudi Arabia has been marketing itself as a state moving toward moderateness. But every once in a while you see its true colors - a Muslim state with radical tendencies.