Getting Tough with Canada (2)

Riyadh seems to think it needs no other friends so long as it has Donald Trump

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Saudi Arabia has ratcheted up its harsh punitive measures against Canada in response to the Canadian foreign minister’s tweet condemning the detention of Saudi rights activists and demanding their immediate release.

The Financial Timesreported that the Saudi central bank and state pension funds have instructed their overseas asset managers to dispose of all their Canadian equities, bonds and cash holdings, and to do so “no matter the cost”.

Financial experts say it will be very costly for Saudi Arabia to hastily sell off these assets in a non-commercial manner and at an economically inappropriate time. The move will also shake the confidence of prospective foreign investors in Saudi Arabia. It was already severely shaken by the arrest of some 350 businessmen, including princes, on corruption charges, who were forced to hand over a large proportion of their wealth in exchange for their release. Some of them remain in detention, refusing to relinquish their property and assets and denying the accusations of corruption against them.

This impetuous Saudi decision was made in anger at what the Saudi government considered to be a violation of diplomatic norms and interference in the country’s internal affairs. It deemed the fact that the Canadian foreign ministry translated the tweet into Arabic for 11,000 followers to see amounted to an act of to “incitement”. 

Canada will certainly sustain substantial losses as a result of Saudi Arabia’s decision to suspend trade relations, withdraw 15,000 students studying in Canada, and halt airline flights to the country. But Saudi Arabia will lose a lot too, both materially and morally.  Saudi students will suffer badly, and the lives of many of them will be turned into hell. How will they find appropriate universities in other countries within a matter of a few weeks, and arrange to move their families there and find accommodation and schools for their children? Saudi patients being treated in Canadian hospitals may suffer even more. They will have to be quickly relocated, and then subjected to a whole new round of medical tests, investigations and consultations. And all because Canada criticised Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, a view which is anything but contentious. Hardly anyone inside or outside the Kingdom denies that it violates human rights, and the arrest of the activists is no secret: it was announced by the official state news agency.

Perhaps the Saudi authorities intended to send a powerful message to the country’s neighbours and other states via its ‘sanctions’ against Canada: namely, that it will in no way tolerate any interference in its domestic affairs. It is entitled to do so. But the message has limited impact when the targets of its denunciation – Canada, and previously Germany and Sweden — are countries that opened their doors to refugees fleeing war and persecution (especially from Syria) and have independent judiciaries, elected parliaments and good human rights records.

Unfortunately for the orchestrators of this campaign against Canada, it comes at a time when the media worldwide have been reporting the latest of the many massacres committed by Saudi-led forces in Yemen, this time the killing of 55 and wounding of 77 mainly children in an air raid in Saada province.

We wish the kingdom would have criticised the Canadian government for supporting and finding excuses for Israeli massacres in the Gaza Strip and South Lebanon, or for refusing to recognise an independent Palestinian state, or keeping silent about numerous Israeli abuses. But instead, the Saudi media have been highlighting reports of violations of the rights of indigenous people in Canada and of abuses in Canadian jails. They forgot that jails in Saudi Arabia and most Arab countries are unfit for keeping animals, and that their inmates — especially political prisoners — are subject to the most unspeakable torture.

By launching this campaign, Saudi Arabia has inadvertently called attention to its own human rights record and its recent arrest without trial of hundreds of male and female activists or their supporters as well as clerics, some of them elderly and ailing. The latest was Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, who was arrested on Sunday to join his colleagues Safar al-Hawali, Salman al-Awda and a long list of others behind bars.

Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau is unlikely to back down in this crisis with Saudi Arabia. He has vowed to continue defending human rights there and everywhere else. But even if he does relent and offer an apology, he would be doping so to safeguard the interests of his country and people, as an elected prime minister accountable to his voters and answerable to a party, a legislature and a free press. That is what makes him different from our Arab rulers.

A Saudi journalist who dared criticise his country’s actions against Canada remarked that if Saudi Arabia broke off relations with every government that faulted its human rights record, there would be no foreign embassies left in Riyadh.

To this we could add a caveat: it would still have one friend, Donald Trump, and an American embassy. Perhaps the Saudi government thinks that this friendship spares it any need for any others.