Canada and Saudi Arabia at Loggerheads

September 1, 2018 Updated: September 4, 2018

When a house cat starts a fight with a wild cat, the results are unlikely to favor the house cat.

And so, Canada has stumbled into a pissing match with Saudi Arabia.  It appears to be one of those instances when Canadian sanctimony over ran its appreciation of political realities and consequences are being suffered.

And instead of muting its pronouncements, Ottawa has doubled down in its criticism.

To lay out some parameters.  Saudi Arabia is not Sweden; it does not adhere to League of Women Voters niceties.  It is an absolute monarchy run on very restrictive social and cultural religious precepts.

Its concern for the human rights so intensely valued by Western states is peripheral.  Its laws, including capital punishment, are brutally enforced, including amputations for theft and beheadings for a variety of crimes.

Saudi’s major asset is massive oil reserves that provide the country disproportionate global political and economic leverage, prompting outside observers to look past the many internal infelicities that it evidences.

There are, however, if not “winds” of change, some low velocity “zephyrs” suggesting incremental political and cultural change.  The current de facto if not de jure leader, Muhammad bin Salman (MBS), has announced ambitious plans to bring Saudi closer to modern norms economically and culturally.  In his view, inter alia Saudi will become much less dependent on oil production and expand the rights of its citizens, notably including women.

How will this be done?  The aphorism regarding how porcupines make love applies: “Very carefully.”

Thus, in many respects, the right of a woman to drive a car unescorted is a tertiary item but became a talisman of change.  And after extended delays, it was instituted on June 25.

Preceding this change, a Saudi female activist had been jailed for her persistent efforts for women’s rights (she remains jailed).

The current contretemps began when the Saudis arrested two more human rights activists including award-winning women’s rights campaigner Samar Badawi, who has challenged Saudi’s male guardianship laws.

Badawi also had close ties to several prominent rights activists, including her former husband Waleed Abu al-Khair, a lawyer serving a 15-year prison sentence for defending human rights.  She is also the sister of Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger sentenced to public flogging and a 10-year prison sentence for dissenting views.

On Friday, Aug. 3, the Canadian ambassador tweeted “We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release [my emphasis] them and all other peaceful activists.”

The Saudis took umbrage:  expelled the Canadian ambassador; recalled their ambassador; froze new trade, suspended flights, recalled thousands of students, barred its citizens from receiving medical care in Canada, and began dumping Canada’s assets.

Canadians, however, doubled down with Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland emphasizing that Canada would never stop supporting human rights, and so on.  One wonders, in passing, whether Canadian defense of women’ s rights would have been so categoric if Freeland had been male.

Notably, Canada received no support from other Western states.

Saudis also doubled down, arresting more activists and indicating that most would be subject to the death penalty, including a woman.

Clearly, however, this has not been the most adroit episode in Canadian diplomacy.  One suspects they believed the Saudis would behave as punching bags, and no contingency plans were made or even contemplated as necessary.

Indeed, it had the same level of thought as evinced by Prime Minister Trudeau immediately following the end of the G-7 meeting when he superfluously repeated that he would not be bullied by the United States.  This followed the rumor that the president had privately offered a desired NAFTA concession on the “sunset” clause.  Senior U.S. government officials were vocally not amused, and, subsequently, there has been little bilateral progress on NAFTA in contrast to the progress with Mexico.

Canadians have ignored some realities, to wit, substantial numbers of Saudi women are believed to be satisfied with their existence.

The individuals involved are not Canadian citizens for whom they could legitimately campaign.

Moreover, demanding Saudis ignore their justice system, indicated Ottawa’s contempt for Saudi mores.  Such, at a time when MBS had just made a major concession on women driving and needed to placate powerful Saudi religious conservatives.

Canada needs to learn that sanctimonious naivety has major limits even in soft power diplomacy.  There is humble pie to be consumed and not by Mohamed bin Salman.

David T. Jones is a retired U.S. State Department senior foreign service career officer who has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as an adviser for two Army chiefs of staff. Among his books is “Alternative North Americas: What Canada and the United States Can Learn from Each Other.”


Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.