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Saudi-Canada row: Silencing Western criticism?

Wesley Dockery
August 7, 2018

Saudi Arabia has cut economic ties with Canada and expelled its ambassador after a call from Ottawa to release a human rights activist. Experts say the move is an attempt to silence critics and assert Riyadh's authority.

Saudi Arabia | Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Jensen

Saudi Arabia gave Canada's ambassador in Riyadh, Dennis Horak, 24 hours on Monday to leave the country, declaring him persona non grata. The country also announced all new economic trade with Canada would be suspended. The move came in reaction to a tweet last week from Ottawa's foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, who said that "Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women's activists in Saudi Arabia including Samar Badawi." Freeland urged the Saudi government to "immediately release them." 

Saudi Arabia has denounced the tweets as "blatant interference in the country's domestic affairs," as well as a "major, unacceptable affront to the kingdom's laws and judicial process." The Saudi government has said that it will cut scholarships for thousands of its students to study in Canada and national airline Saudia announced that it will suspend flights to Toronto beginning on August 13.

Read more: Saudi Arabia expels Canadian envoy for urging activist's release

Despite the diplomatic blowback, Freeland has stayed firm on her criticism of the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. "We stand by what we have said," she said Monday. "We will always speak up for human rights and women's rights."

Bahrain, UAE stand by Saudis

Several Arab nations in the region have expressed support for their Saudi allies in the dispute with Canada. "We can only stand with Saudi Arabia in defending its sovereignty and taking the necessary measures to protect its laws," Anwar Gargash, the minister of state for foreign affairs in the United Arab Emirates, tweeted Monday.

"Bahrain regrets Canada's position, based on totally erroneous information that has nothing to do with reality on the ground," Bahrain's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement. "It absolutely rejects its unacceptable intervention in Saudi internal affairs."

Mohammad bin Abdullah al-Zulfi, a Saudi political analyst and former member of the country's Shura Council, a government advisory body, said he is proud of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and his government's response to Canada. "Saudi Arabia is a strong country and doesn't need Canada, Germany or even America," he told DW.

Saudis 'have had enough' Western criticism 

Guido Steinberg, a Middle East expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, believes there are two reasons why Saudi Arabia has reacted so harshly to the statements from the Canadian Foreign Ministry. On the one hand, the Saudi leadership has become "insecure" and "paranoid," he told DW, but it is also possible that the "Saudis have had enough of Western criticism."

"They might want to send a signal that they simply do not want to hear this anymore," said Steinberg. He contends that the Saudis are making an example of Canada, and showing other Western nations that it is unacceptable to criticize the country's domestic policy. "The Saudis are brash and somewhat insecure, but they know they are an important country," Steinberg said.

Middle East expert Guido Steinberg
Steinberg says the Saudis want to send a signal that criticism of their domestic policies won't be toleratedImage: DW/M. Aqil

According to Günter Meyer, director of the Center for Research on the Arab World at the University of Mainz, Crown Prince bin Salman is trying to prove to his people that his government is still effective in its foreign policy. Saudi Arabia has supported rebels in Syria who are losing a war against President Bashar Assad, and its military have become bogged down by the bloody and costly war it is waging in neighboring Yemen. "Mohammed bin Salman is being weakened in multiple areas of his foreign policy, so accepting such a hard criticism from Canada would weaken his position even more," Meyer told DW.

Although Canada is standing by its criticism, Meyer believes that the country has a lot to lose. "From the Canadian perspective, it is a very serious backlash," he said. Meyer argues that Saudi students who have had their scholarships to study in Canada revoked will move to the United States or the United Kingdom to pursue higher education, which is a loss for Canadian universities.

The annual trade between the countries is worth roughly 4 billion Canadian dollars (€2.65 billion, $3 billion), with much of that being Saudi purchases of Canadian military hardware. Saudi Arabia could potentially make up for those purchases by buying more materiel from the United States, for example — a move which would likely cut into Canadian defense industry profits.

Read more: Saudi Arabia: The crown prince and the generation gap

Could it happen to Germany?

In November 2017, Riyadh summoned Berlin's ambassador after German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel remarked that Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri was being kept against his will in Saudi Arabia. Gabriel also made remarks that were seen as critical of the Saudi war in Yemen. Riyadh reportedly blacklisted German companies as a result of the incident.   

When Steinberg was asked about whether Riyadh could expel Berlin's ambassador if Germany criticizes Saudi policy, he replied: "Absolutely. They want to try and stop all Western criticism of their policies." As of now, Saudi Arabia doesn't even have an ambassador to Germany in Berlin, Steinberg noted, and it is not particularly interested in strengthening its relationship with European countries to the extent it has with US President Donald Trump's administration. "Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is no longer relying on the Europeans or Canada," he said.