Saudi Arabia is not happy with Canada. The international feud began with the Canadian government’s criticism of Saudi Arabia’s arrests of women’s rights activists. Saudi Arabia retaliated Monday by expelling the Canadian ambassador and froze new business with Ottawa as a sign of the kingdom’s newly aggressive foreign policy. The person likely behind this is Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the future leader.
The sudden and unexpected dispute bore the hallmarks of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old future leader, whose recent foreign policy exploits include the war in Yemen, the boycott of Qatar and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s surprise resignation broadcast during a visit to the kingdom. Hariri later rescinded the resignation, widely believed to be orchestrated by Riyadh, and returned to Beirut.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry made the announcement early Monday, giving Ambassador Dennis Horak 24 hours to leave the kingdom. It wasn’t immediately clear if he was in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia said it would recall its ambassador to Canada as well.
“Any further step from the Canadian side in that direction will be considered as acknowledgment of our right to interfere in Canadian domestic affairs,” the Foreign Ministry said. “Canada and all other nations need to know that they can’t claim to be more concerned than the kingdom over its own citizens.”
The Education Ministry began developing a plan to remove thousands of Saudi scholarship students out of Canadian schools and into schools in other countries. Not surprisingly, Bahrain and the UAE have joined Saudi Arabia’s side of the argument. The Canadian Foreign Minister, through a spokeswoman, justified the interference in the domestic affairs of another country by saying that Canada stands up for women’s rights, human rights, and freedom of expression. Well, sure, but we’re talking about Saudi Arabia here. Countries in the Middle East are not exactly known for men supporting women in living their best lives.
You may not be too surprised to learn that all the brouhaha started in the Twitterverse. Canadian diplomats took to Twitter to demand women’s rights activists in detention be released. It was just in June that the ban on driving was lifted for women. Women still need a male guardian’s permission to travel abroad and to marry. Allowing women to drive, thus agreeing that women should be free to move about, was a really big improvement. Saudi Arabia didn’t appreciate the Canadian diplomats meddling in their domestic affairs. Germany recently also learned of Saudi Arabia’s displeasure of foreign criticism when its diplomats criticized the war in Yemen.
Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.
— Foreign Policy CAN (@CanadaFP) August 3, 2018
The kingdom’s first response was to call the wording of the tweet (immediate release) “very unfortunate, reprehensible, and unacceptable.”
Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to be lectured to by the West and they are delivering the message. Naturally, a feud that started on Twitter includes more activity on the social media platform. A pro-Saudi government Twitter account shared a tweet of a digitally-altered photo of the skyline of Toronto with an image of a jet plane imposed that appeared to be headed into skyscrapers. You know, like the images of 9/11/01 terrorist attacks in New York, the Pentagon, and Pennsylvania that are forever burned into our memories at the hands of Saudi Arabian citizens. Yes, it’s disgusting. The tweet produced the outrage you would expect it to and was quickly deleted. The Saudi media ministry demanded the owner of the Twitter account shut it down pending an investigation into the matter. Screenshots last forever, though.
Now deleted, here a screenshot of the threatening Saudi "infographic" featuring an airliner headed for the Toronto skyline. pic.twitter.com/LrkCLxxjFk
— Tobias Schneider (@tobiaschneider) August 6, 2018
And the escalation continues. Later on Monday, the Saudi state airline, Saudia, suspended flights to and from Toronto by August 13.
The Crown Prince has a plan of reform of Saudi Arabia which will make the kingdom less conservative and more socially liberal while less dependent on oil. Investors are skeptical, given rash actions like these toward Canada.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has launched a grand reform plan, called Vision 2030, that aims to transform the kingdom from a staunchly conservative petrostate to a more socially liberal country less dependent on oil. But Prince Mohammed has also made it clear he won’t brook outside criticism of key decisions—a stance that analysts say could threaten capital flows that Saudi Arabia needs for its overhaul.
“Branding Saudi Arabia as an attractive destination for investment and trade is one of the underlying assumptions of Saudi Vision 2030,” said Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor and Middle East expert at the University of Ottawa. “Impulsive foreign-policy decisions like this have the exact opposite effect.”
As slowly as this part of the world moves, 2030 may be a bit of an overly optimistic date.