Canada, a casualty in the campaign for new Saudi nationalism

As Gregg Carlstrom reports from the Middle East, the dispute not only sends a message to allies and trade partners, but fuels support for a new Saudi identity.    

By: /
August 9, 2018
Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seen during a meeting with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the United Nations in New York City in March, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Levy

Compared to what Donald Trump tweets on a daily basis, Chrystia Freeland’s remarks were benign.

On Aug. 2 the foreign minister tweeted she was “very alarmed” by the arrest of Samar Badawi, a Saudi women’s rights activist and the sister of jailed blogger Raif Badawi. “We continue to strongly call for [their] release,” she added.

That was it, a statement of concern, a staple of diplomacy in a liberal democracy. But for Saudi Arabia this was “overt and blatant interference” in its internal affairs. The kingdom responded with shocking fury. It recalled its ambassador from Ottawa, expelled the Canadian envoy in Riyadh, and froze bilateral trade and investment.

Then it set about punishing its own citizens. At least 8,000 Saudis study in Canada on government-funded scholarships. No longer: Riyadh froze the money and ordered the students home. The loss of tuition will hurt Canadian universities, but not deeply. It will have a more serious impact on the young students. Though the kingdom promised to “transfer” them to other countries, it is unclear how that will work, especially weeks before the fall term is set to begin. Riyadh has also told an unknown number of Saudis receiving medical treatment in Canada to leave the country.

This is not the first time Saudi Arabia has reacted strongly to criticism. It recalled its ambassador from Sweden in 2015, after the Swedish foreign minister called the jailing and flogging of Raif “medieval.” It did the same with its ambassador in Germany last year after the German foreign minister appeared to criticize Saudi Arabia for putting Lebanon’s prime minister under house arrest. It also reportedly blacklisted some German companies from doing business in the kingdom.

Canada’s criticism, like that of many other Western countries, certainly smacks of hypocrisy. If it was serious about Saudi’s human rights record, it would stop selling weapons to the kingdom. The hypocrisy, though, works in Saudi Arabia’s favour. This is a serious spat over purely symbolic criticism — and it shows no signs of abating.

"Canada offers an easy target because it is a trivial relationship, not an indispensable ally or a major trading partner."

That may be just fine with Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the headstrong Saudi crown prince. For his allies, it serves as a blunt warning. He hopes to reshape the Saudi economy and end its long-standing reliance on oil revenue, a plan that will mean hundreds of billions of dollars in contracts and investment opportunities. It seems that money will have strings attached: namely, that governments keep quiet about his domestic policies. Canada offers an easy target because it is a trivial relationship, not an indispensable ally or a major trading partner. Bilateral trade in 2017 was less than CAD$4 billion.

Canada has not backed down. “We will… continue to speak clearly and firmly on issues of human rights at home and abroad,” Trudeau said at a press conference on Aug. 8. Canada’s allies, though, have been neither clear nor firm. “Normally this is when we’d turn to the White House for support,” one Canadian diplomat in the region said in an interview with OpenCanada. But Trump, its current inhabitant, has mocked Trudeau as “meek and mild” and started his own trade war with Canada. His State Department is sitting on the fence. Britain, for its part, urged both sides to show “restraint,” as if Canada’s anodyne tweets were on a par with the Saudi reaction.

Indeed, even the response on Saudi social media was far nastier than anything Freeland tweeted. Thousands of Saudi social media accounts were part of what could only be a coordinated campaign, posting identical messages on Twitter that bashed Canada for its treatment of Indigenous people, its record on women’s rights, even its bestiality laws. Al Arabiya, a Saudi-funded satellite channel based in Dubai, aired a segment on “prisoners of conscience” in Canadian jails. One of them, the late Ernst Zündel, was a Holocaust denier. Another, the author and academic Jordan Peterson, is not actually in prison.

But the Twitter mobs and the propaganda on state media also serve a purpose for the crown prince. His agenda is not only economic: he aims to reshape Saudi society. Women are now permitted to drive after he lifted a decades-old ban. Young Saudis flock to cinemas and concerts, also long forbidden. These scenes would have been unthinkable a few years ago. They are also unpopular with a religious establishment that once held great power. The clerics, afraid they too might be arrested, have so far kept quiet. To keep them quiet, MbS hopes to dilute the kingdom’s traditionally conservative religious identity, replacing it with a new Saudi nationalism. Wars and diplomatic feuds help him rally his subjects.

In the long run, though, this dispute will have a cost for Saudi Arabia. The most telling reaction this week came not from Washington or London but from Saudi Arabia’s Arab allies. They eagerly joined last year’s blockade of Qatar. This time, though, they offered only rhetorical support; Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have not recalled their own ambassadors or halted economic ties. The kingdom is out on a limb by itself. It may not need Canada. But it does need both allies and investors — and they are likely to be troubled by Saudi Arabia’s increasingly rash behaviour.