Saudi Arabia & Canada: What went wrong?

Spearhead Analysis – 15.08.2018

By Syed Murtaza Zaidi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Muhammad Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince, has made concentrated efforts to extend his influence, both within and outside his country. To that end, many of his detractors within the kingdom have had to suffer through harassment and imprisonment unless they agreed to bend to his will, while on the international front, Qatar and Iran are two of the countries that have had to face the wrath of the ambitious Saudi prince, who has shown his propensity to take whatever action he deems necessary to confirm his ascension to power. However, his recent moves are slightly more conspicuous, especially considering the target for his ire now is Canada.   

Seeds of disillusion

On August 2, 2018, Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, posted the following message on twitter: “Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. 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”. One day later, Global Affairs Canada posted on their twitter feed the following message: “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists”.

While Donald Trump’s recent excursions on twitter have highlighted to the world at large, the enormous impact social media can have on global affairs, nobody could have been prepared for Saudi Arabia’s response to these messages.

The Saudi officials took these statements as an attempt by the Canadian government to interfere in their internal affairs, with their foreign ministry releasing the following statement: “The Ministry affirmed that the Canadian statement is a blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs, against basic international norms and all international protocols. It is a major, unacceptable affront to the Kingdom’s laws and judicial process, as well as a violation of the Kingdom’s sovereignty”. They further added that “Throughout its long history, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has never accepted any interference in its domestic affairs by, or orders from any country. The Kingdom views the Canadian position as an affront to the Kingdom that requires a sharp response to prevent any party from attempting to meddle with Saudi sovereignty. It is quite unfortunate to see the phrase “immediate release” in the Canadian statement, which is a reprehensible and unacceptable use of language between sovereign states”.

The Saudis were clearly livid over this ‘attempt to interfere’ in their local affairs yet their response did not end here. They decided to increase their pressure on the government of Canada, by adding at the very end of their statement that “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recalls the Ambassador of the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in Canada back to Riyadh and considers the Canadian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia as Persona-Non-Grata who must leave the Kingdom within the next 24 hours. The Kingdom will put on hold all new business and investment transactions with Canada while retaining its right to take further action”. It seemed the Saudis were in no mood to waste any more time in making their position over this controversy clear to the rest of the world.

Further Action

In the week since this dispute began, the Saudis have raised the stakes by making several other contentious moves. They suspended all Saudi Airline’s flights to and from Canada, and cancelled all imports of wheat and barley as well, a considerable blow as the Kingdom is among their biggest importer of these food crops.

The Saudi authorities directed all the Saudi students currently studying in Canada to return to their homeland, which included a large percentage of medical students and hospital residents. This move alone is estimated to cost the Canadian economy over $1 billion. Additionally, the Saudis also announced the suspension of all trade with Canada, which could be a huge blow for the North Americans; the kingdom is their biggest trade partner among Asian and African economies today, with an estimated annual trade of $3-4 billion.

The Saudi authorities also directed the Central Bank and their State Pension Funds manager for their overseas accounts, to sell off all Canadian equities, bonds and cash holdings “no matter the cost”. This was more of a financial power move than anything else, yet it served as another reminder to the world of the lengths to which the Kingdom is willing to go to prove their point.

One development that is currently making the Canadian government quite apprehensive is the over $15 billion arms deal that they signed with the Saudis. The agreement includes about 900 combat vehicles, and was a widely debated within Canada, due to Saudi Arabia’s sketchy human rights track record, as well as reports that the vehicles would be used to target their own marginalized citizens, like the large Shia population within the Kingdom. Yet, the previous government of Stephen Harper had agreed to the deal, and the Trudeau government decided to uphold it, once they came in to power. If the Saudis back out now, this could mean the loss of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue that the under-fire Canadian Prime Minister cannot afford, especially considering his government is up for reelection next year.   

Victims of Circumstance

While it is increasingly apparent that the Saudi response to the whole controversy has been considerably dramatic, it has also led many to question as to why the Canadian Foreign Ministry even got involved in this mess in the first place. The answer is Ensaf Haidar.

She is a Canadian citizen and a Human Rights activist, whose husband Raif Badawi is currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia on charges of Apostasy and for insulting Islam and senior religious figures within the kingdom. He was the creator of a website called ‘Free Saudi Liberals’, and it was his writings on this forum that originally brought him to the attention of the state authorities. He was first arrested in 2008, and then again in 2012, after which he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, a fine of 1 million riyals and 1000 lashes, of which fifty have already been administered back in 2015.

 His sister, Samar Badawi is also an activist, and has campaigned for a Saudi woman’s right to vote, drive and to have a greater autonomy in the male dominant society that allowed her despicable father to abuse her for most of her childhood. She was married to Waleed Abulkhair, a lawyer and the founder of the ‘Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia’ (MHRSA). He represented both his wife and her brother in their various legal cases against Saudi authorities, till he himself was arrested in 2014 and sentenced to fifteen years behind bars. Badawi continued her various forms of protests despite the incarceration of both her husband and brother, and was eventually arrested as well, along with Nassima al-Sada, another political and civil rights activist.

With all of these prominent rights activists in custody, Ensaf Haider found herself, and her children alone and without support in Saudi Arabia. As she had not been subjected to a travel ban, and due to the death threats she received for her association with civil rights groups, she decided to flee to Canada, who granted her and her family citizenship. Since then she has spoken on multiple international forums about the plight of her family and friends behind bars, and has been campaigning for their release ever since.

It was her Canadian nationality that prompted the Canadian government to do what they could in order to help her and her associates, and they decided to take the diplomatic route. They could never have imagined that the Saudis would react so vehemently to such intrusions in to their private affairs.


In light of the rising tensions between Canada and Saudi Arabia, Prime Minister Trudeau adopted a defiant tone when facing questions about this developing issue. He stated that “Canadians have always expected our government to speak strongly, firmly, clearly and politely about the need to respect human rights at home and around the world” and that “We will continue to stand up for Canadian values and indeed for universal values and human rights at any occasion”.

This was emblematic of the current Canadian government’s progressive foreign policy that has also led to clashes with the more regressive, and arguably more aggressive, foreign policy adopted by the US government under Donald Trump. It was also in line with the assertive statement made by the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel Al-Jubeir, who said that “if Canada made a mistake, it’s on Canada to fix it” and that “there is no need for mediation, a mistake was made and it should be corrected”.

The refusal of both countries to back down, and the US’s refusal to act as a mediator in this dispute, works primarily in the favor of Saudi Arabia. Not only does this entire episode reaffirm the financial and political influence that the Saudis enjoy today, it also shows Muhammad Bin Salman’s rising stock within the current US government. It also serves as a message, not only to the world, but to the conservative voices within Saudi Arabia, who might have thought the kingdom was straying from its historic roots. The arrest of the civil rights activists, and their firm stance against foreign involvement within the country, will go a long way in allaying those fears.