The Trudeau government has been caught by surprise. What may seem like a run-of-the-mill critical tweet penned by Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs boomeranged badly. Saudi Arabia’s reaction to being ‘ordered’ to release jailed activists ‘immediately’ was swift and punitive.
The Canadian ambassador to Riyadh was told he was persona non grata. Trade and investment has been frozen. Saudi fund managers have been instructed to sell assets in Canada despite the potential cost. Saudi has suspended flights to Toronto. Thousands of Saudi students as well as all Saudis undergoing medical treatment were told to leave Canada within four weeks.
“Canada knows what it has to do,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir but there is no apology forthcoming. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is unrepentant. “We will continue to speak strongly and clearly in private and in public on questions of human rights,” he noted. That is his prerogative but there is a heavy diplomatic and economic price to be paid for his selective pedestal. He has been casting about for heavyweight allies to act as mediators without success. The US, UK and Europe have indicated they are staying well away from this spat. Conversely, the kingdom’s friends, among them the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain and the Palestinian National Authority, have announced their solidarity.
Moreover, how can Canada claim to be a supporter of human rights when 61 per cent of Canadians polled see their country as being pro-Israel? The Trudeau-led government has condemned the BDS movement which Ontario’s legislature characterised as being ‘racist’. Furthermore, his government has voted against approximately 16 UN General Assembly resolutions since it took power.
Many western commentators consider the kingdom’s reaction harsh. However, it sends a long overdue signal that foreign entities attempting to meddle in the domestic affairs of others will not be tolerated. Countries have courts which must be respected.
Ottawa does not have a leg to stand on in this row particularly since no Canadian citizen is directly involved. Like all countries Saudi has its own laws and those are well known to the population. People who break them for whatever reason are aware of the risks they are taking. Whether or not the Canadian government approves of those laws is neither here nor there.
Secondly, Canada’s timing is bad. Hammering Riyadh over the incarceration of a Saudi-born Canadian’s sister just when it is liberalising, modernising and expanding women’s rights is uncalled-for.
Instead, the kingdom should be congratulated and encouraged for opening up which it is doing at its own pace with respect to the sensitivities of religious conservatives within the society. Saudi women are in the process of being empowered. In June, they took to the wheel for the first time. This year more job opportunities have opened up for female employees and women entrepreneurs no longer require a guardian to register a business.
The youth are also being catered for with the lifting of a decades-old ban on cinemas, theatres and concerts. Foreign and domestic tourism is now being encouraged with mega projects in the pipeline.
That said Saudi isn’t the only regional country that’s been taken to task by outsiders. Earlier this year, the US complained about the jailing of a Bahraini activist, the country that has separated hundreds of children from their parents on its southern border, where unarmed African Americans are routinely shot dead by police and which vehemently defends Israel’s killing of Palestinian demonstrators.
Turkey is currently suffering from America’s wrath in terms of sanctions and tariffs over the house arrest of an evangelical pastor, a resident of Izmir for 23 years, accused of espionage and actions related to terrorism. He may or may not be guilty. That is for a Turkish court to decide. So does the Trump administration have any moral or legal right to demand his immediate release, which places the fate of one individual above US-Turkish mutually-beneficial relations?
Hopefully Saudi’s retaliation will be interpreted as a red line by countries that would do well to quit throwing stones in glass houses. The time has passed when regional states can be treated as low-hanging fruit to be chastised and insulted at whim.
Canada and the US have got away with regime change in this part of the world to the detriment of populations still suffering from the negative effects of their wars. The Saudi leadership that was mercilessly attacked by the pro-Iranian Obama administration has at last stood up to be counted. Bravo!
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.