Getting Tough With Canada

Saudi Arabia should practice what it preaches before complaining about foreign interference in its internal affairs

By Abdel Bari Atwan

It would be an under-statement to describe Saudi Arabia’s response to the Canadian government’s criticism of its human rights record as a mere over-reaction. The Canadians publicly called for more freedom for Saudi women’s rights campaigners including Samar al-Badawi, sister of the detained blogger Raef al-Badawi, and Lujain al-Hathlawi, who was one of the first to demand the right for women to drive, as well as other activists such as Aziza al-Yousef, Nouf Abdelaziz, Iman an-Nafjan and Mayaa az-Zahrani. Riyadh responded by expelling the Canadian ambassador, recalling the Saudi ambassador from Ottawa, suspending all trade links with Canada, and withdrawing around 15,000 Saudi students who had been sent to the country to study – mostly at medical and scientific institutions—as well as patients being treated at Canadian hospitals.

The official Saudi stance was articulated by Muhammad az-Zulfah, a former member of the appointed Shoura (Consultative) Council, in a BBC radio interview. He said the action against Canada was designed to send a powerful message to other countries that interfering in Saudi domestic affairs was a red line that should not be crossed. He said it was Canada’s demand for the immediate release of the women activists that triggered the crisis, and that Saudi Arabia cannot tolerate being treated in this way.

The Canadian government may have used ‘undiplomatic’ language in the view of Saudi officials by demanding the immediate release of the detainees. But many observers viewed the Saudi response as over-the-top, massively disproportionate to the original Canadian ‘crime’. Criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record does not warrant such draconian measures. Many Western states regularly express similar criticism – not least the US State Department in a recent report.

The annual volume of trade between Saudi Arabia and Canada is worth around $4 billion. Suspending it will hurt the Saudi side more, even though its wealth enables it to turn to other countries to find markets. The Kingdom still needs friends – especially in the West on which it is reliant – rather than to make more enemies. This is especially the case when it is waging a war in Yemen, losing another war in Syria, and preparing for a forthcoming one with Iran. The loss sustained by Canada will remain marginal given that it has the world’s tenth strongest economy with a GDP of well over one and a half trillion dollars.

Many argue that Saudi Arabia’s interests are not well served by its rulers’ ultra-sensitive attitude to the issue of foreign interference in their internal affairs. It is not an issue that it should be raising given in its own heavy-handed interference in the affairs of many other countries, including military intervention in Syria, Libya and Yemen – and maybe Iran as well soon — aimed at changing their regimes.

Saudi Arabia fell out with Germany, one of the Western world’s heavyweights, over similar criticisms related to the Kingdom’s intervention in Yemen, resulting in the suspension of German arms sales. Now it has lost Canada too. God alone knows with whom the third, fourth or fifth quarrel will be. It is routine for Western governments to criticise human rights violations documented by global organisations specialised in the field, and this is unlikely to cease as a result of Saudi Arabia’s heavy-handed and vindictive treatment of Canada.

The Saudi government has demanded that Canada apologise for its stance. But this is unlikely to happen. The Canadian government’s first response was that it would continue to defend human rights worldwide, and not just in Saudi Arabia, as a cornerstone of its foreign policy.

In the 1980s, the Saudi government demanded a similar apology from Britain over the airing of the TV docudrama Death of a Princess, which the Kingdom deemed to be an affront. The crisis was resolved by the British government expressing its ‘regret’ – rather than ‘apology’ – that the film had been broadcast: and this was done by the junior Foreign Office minister Douglas Hurd rather than the then foreign secretary, Lord Carrington. Both sides sufficed with this compromise.

Saudi Arabia has the right to uphold its sovereignty and prevent others from interfering in its domestic affairs, but only if it sets an example itself. It used to do that in decades past, more or less, by pursuing a more flexible diplomatic approach aimed at gaining friends, neutralising enemies, and trying to avoid making any more.