The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Ottawa, Canada. Riyadh recalled its ambassador to Canada and is freezing all new business and investment transactions. Image Credit: AP

Manama: Saudi Arabia said it was freezing all new trade and investment relations with Canada and declared the Canadian ambassador to Riyadh as  persona non grata, giving him 24 hours to leave the kingdom, in response to Canada’s call for the release of anti-government activist Samar Badawi.

Riyadh also recalled its ambassador to Canada for consultations and stressed it retained its right to take further action, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement on Monday morning.

The Saudi decisions were in reaction to Canada’s "blatant and unacceptable interference" in the domestic affairs of the kingdom, the ministry explained.

The Saudi move gained the support of neighbouring Bahrain, which said it stands with Saudi Arabia and rejects Canada's interference in the kingdom's internal affairs, according to the foreign ministry.

In Saudi Arabia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was "made aware of the statement by the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Canadian Embassy in the Kingdom on the so-called civil society activists who have been detained and that urged the Saudi authorities to release them immediately."

Last week, the Canadian government called for the “immediate release” of two women arrested by Saudi Arabia.

The ministry, in a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA), stressed that “the negative and surprising statement by Canada lacked credibility and was not based on genuine information or facts.”

The individuals mentioned in the statement were lawfully detained by the Public Prosecution for committing crimes punishable by law as per the legal procedures that also guaranteed the detainees’ rights and provided them with due process during the investigation and trial, the ministry said.

“The Canadian statement is a blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs and violated basic international norms and all protocols between states. It is also a major and unacceptable affront to the Kingdom’s laws and judicial process, as well as a violation of the Kingdom’s sovereignty. 

“Throughout its long history, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has never accepted, and will never tolerate, any interference in its domestic affairs or any dictation from any country. The Kingdom views the Canadian position as an affront to the Kingdom that requires a firm stance to prevent anyone from attempting to undermine the sovereignty of Saudi Arabia.

“It is very unfortunate to see the expression ‘immediate release’ in the Canadian statement, which is a reprehensible and unacceptable use of language between sovereign states.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, while expressing its absolute and categorical rejection of the Canadian stand regarding this matter, confirms its commitment to non-interference in the internal matters of other countries, including Canada, and in return categorically rejects any interference in its domestic affairs and internal relations with its citizens. 

“Any further step from the Canadians in this direction will mean that we are allowed to interfere in Canada's internal affairs. Canada and all other nations should be well aware that they cannot be more concerned about Saudi citizens than Saudi Arabia.

“Therefore, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia recalls the Ambassador of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques to Canada for consultations and considers the Canadian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia as persona non grata who must leave the kingdom within the next 24 hours. The kingdom also puts on hold all new commercial and investment transactions with Canada while retaining its right to take further action,” the ministry said.

Saudi Arabia's growing display of assertiveness

Samar Badawi AFP

Saudi Arabia's response to Canada's call for the release of anti-government activist Samar Badawi is a dramatic escalation that highlights the kingdom’s increasingly assertive foreign policy under Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman.

Meanwhile, Canada is “seeking greater clarity” about the matter, a spokeswoman for Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said.

The Saudi Foreign Ministry cited remarks last week by Freeland and the Canadian embassy in Riyadh, criticising the arrests of Badawi, a Canadian citizen whose brother Raif Badawi, a blogger who was critical of the government, is already in jail in the kingdom.

Canada’s remarks are “an affront to the kingdom that requires a sharp response to prevent any party from attempting to meddle with Saudi sovereignty,” the ministry said.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. AFP

Under Prince Mohammad, King Salman’s son and the power behind the throne, Saudi Arabia has reacted more assertively against countries that it perceives as intervening in its internal affairs. 

In little more than a year, the kingdom has led a four-country coalition that severed ties with neighbouring Qatar, recalled its ambassador to Germany and cut back its trade dealings with some German companies amid a diplomatic row. 

“The rupture in Saudi diplomatic relations with Canada underscores how the ‘new’ Saudi Arabia that Mohammad Bin Salman is putting together is in absolutely no mood to tolerate any form of criticism of its handling of its domestic affairs,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Texas.

Saudi foreign policy began to change when King Salman succeeded his late brother Abdullah in 2015, and positioned his son as the most powerful prince in the kingdom. 

As defense minister, Prince Mohammed is also in charge of the kingdom’s military involvement in Yemen against Iranian-backed Al Houthi militants. Under previous leaders, the kingdom largely chose subtle diplomacy and relied mainly on its financial firepower to gain influence. 

Critics of that policy say the kingdom struggled to achieve its objectives. The stand-off pits a Saudi government that’s slowly opening the door to women’s rights against Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, an outspoken champion of women’s advancement, who named a gender-balanced cabinet shortly after his 2015 election.

Just two months ago, Saudi women were given the right to drive and there are a growing trends towards more liberal attitudes.

“We are seriously concerned by these media reports and are seeking greater clarity on the recent statement from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Marie-Pier Baril, a spokeswoman for Freeland, said in an email.

“Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, very much including women’s rights, and freedom of expression around the world. Our government will never hesitate to promote these values and believes that this dialog is critical to international diplomacy.”

Saudi investments in Canada

Saudi investments in Canada include G3 Global Holdings Ltd., a joint venture between Bunge Ltd. and Saudi Agricultural & Livestock Investment Co., which purchased the former Canadian Wheat Board in 2015. Saudi Arabia has invested about $6 billion in Canadian businesses since 2006, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Tanks, armoured vehicles and parts and motor vehicles accounted for about 45 per cent of Canada’s 2016 exports to the kingdom, while crude oil and copper ores comprised about 98 per cent of imports, according to a government report.

Saudi Arabia supplies oil to the Irving refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick. The arrests were in line with Saudi laws, and those detained have been provided with due process during investigation and trial, according to the foreign ministry statement.

The Irving Oil Ltd. refinery in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. Bloomberg

So far this year, Canada has exported C$1.4 billion ($1.08 billion) in merchandise goods to Saudi Arabia and imported C$2 billion in imports, leaving it with a cumulative year-to-date trade deficit with the kingdom of about C$640 million, according to Statistics Canada data.

With inputs from Habib Toumi, Bureau Chief, and agencies