On Saudi Arabia, Canada’s stance is principled — but conflicted
By TONY BURMANForeign Affairs Columnist Fri., Aug. 10, 2018
So, we now know how the royal House of Saud sounds when it chooses to roar.
It is incredibly loud, but strangely off-key.
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at a summit in April. His response to Canada’s human rights criticism suggests he wants the world — and Saudi activists — to know he will not be trifled with. (BANDAR AL-JALOUD / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE)
Like a hammer pounding a flea, it wasn’t the sound of power and strength that we would have expected from the Saudis, but one of weakness and paranoia.
Clearly, the mood these days is not sunny and bright inside the fabled Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, effectively being led now by its aggressive, thin-skinned 32-year-old Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
But, however contradictory Canada’s foreign policy can often be, Ottawa this time is on the side of the angels in its criticism of that country’s appalling human rights record.
To be reminded why, we need only to focus on the horrific Saudi-led airstrike of a busy civilian market in neighbouring Yemen in the early hours of Thursday morning.
This was less than a day after Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, lectured Canada that his country would not “accept dictates” or “interference” in its internal affairs from Canada.
His rebuke was in angry response to Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and her department urging Saudi authorities in a tweet “to immediately release” women’s rights activists and other human rights advocates recently arrested.
But just a few hours after the Saudi minister issued his warning, his country’s military showed the world what it really means to interfere in another nation’s affairs.
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On Thursday, more than 40 civilians — most of them children under 10 — were killed in a Saudi-led coalition airstrike in rebel-held northern Yemen. The Saudis defended the attack as a “legitimate military action” in response to rebel provocation.
In the world’s most brutal and forgotten war — with well more than 10,000 dead — the Saudi coalition is backing Yemen’s government against the rebel Houthi movement. Saudi’s military has been accused of war crimes against Yemeni civilians by human rights advocates.
But Saudi Arabia’s penchant for meddling in the affairs of others extends well beyond Yemen. It recently kidnapped Lebanon’s prime minister in an effort to control its government. And it has conspired with neighbouring Gulf countries to try to isolate Qatar for challenging Saudi primacy in the region.
In fact, it was reported last week by the investigative news website The Intercept that the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates planned to launch a military invasion of Qatar last year before it was stopped by former U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson.
So, somewhat cynically, Saudi Arabia can truly claim real-life expertise in how to “interfere” in other countries’ affairs.
But the angry dispute this week between Canada and Saudi Arabia didn’t relate to the Saudis’ foreign adventures. It concerned what is actually happening to human rights — particularly women’s rights — within the kingdom itself.
The catalyst came about 10 days ago when Amnesty International learned that the Saudi government had arrested at least 15 prominent women activists, including internationally recognized human rights campaigner Samar Badawi.
Samar Badawi is also the sister of Raif Badawi, a blogger imprisoned since 2012 and publicly flogged for his actions. Raif Badawi’s wife and children fled to Canada in 2015 and are now Canadian citizens.
A week ago, Freeland tweeted that “Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.”
In retaliation, the Saudis went wild. They kicked out Canada’s ambassador, suspended new trade, started selling off its Canadian assets and ended funding for about 15,00 Saudi students in Canada.
The reaction seemed excessive, to say the least. In diplomatic terms, Canada’s original message to the Saudis was not extreme, and the Canada-Saudi trade relationship is quite limited.
But the consensus among Middle East analysts is that it wasn’t Canada that Crown Prince bin Salman had in his crosshairs. Instead, this was bin Salman’s warning to the world — and to Saudi human rights activists — that his Saudi Arabia is not to be trifled with.
As for Canada, it has figuratively won this month’s gold star within the international human rights community, and beyond.
The New York Times, supporting Canada, wrote that “Saudi rulers did the kind of thing that backward, insecure despots often do — they lashed out and penalized their critics.” In Britain, The Guardian newspaper praised “Ottawa’s justified criticism” and wrote it was “time to back Canada.” And the Financial Timeseditorialized that “the West should stand by Ottawa rebuffing a thin-skinned crown prince.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau upped the ante on Wednesday when he said that Canada will not apologize for standing up “for Canadian values and human rights.”
We shall see.
Let us not forget that it was this Liberal government that approved the $15-billion deal to sell military vehicles to Saudi Arabia originally worked out by the previous Harper government. There is reason to believe that some of these vehicles have been used by the Saudis to crush the very internal dissent that Canada embraces.
If the Middle East has taught us anything, it is that talk is cheap.
Tony Burman, formerly head of CBC News and Al Jazeera English, is a freelance contributor for the Star. He is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyBurman