Canada and Saudi spat escalates following Twitter comments

Published On August 8, 2018 | By lindscharlton | International, News, Politics

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman cut diplomatic and trade ties in reaction to a tweet by the Canadian Foreign Ministry indicating concern about the arrest of women’s rights activist Samar Badawi. [Reuters]

Lindsay Charlton, Michelle Neha and Ornella Cariello

Canada and Saudi Arabia are in the midst of a diplomatic dispute following a tweet calling to free detained human rights activist made by the Canadian Foreign Ministry.

The tweet raised concerns about the arrest of Samar Badawi, the sister of Raif Badawi, a well known inprisoned Saudi Arabian dissident blogger.

The Saudi regime responded to what they believe is interference in its internal affairs by declaring the Canadian ambassador a persona non-grata and expelling him from the country, withdrawing it’s students out of Canadian schools, cutting flights to Canada and freezing all trade with Ottawa.

“We are deeply concerned that Saudi Arabia has expelled Canada’s ambassador in response to Canadian statements in defence of human rights activists detained in the kingdom,” said Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said in a statement. “Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights and freedom of expression around the world. We will never hesitate to promote these values and we believe that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy.”

She said the Canadian Embassy in Riyadh will continue its regular consular services.

“Canada will continue to advocate for human rights and for the brave women and men who push for these fundamental rights around the world,” Freeland said.

Aurel Braun, professor of International Relations and Political Science at the University of Toronto, said the Canadian tweet caused a substantial reaction by the Saudis and raises the question of whether the Canadian government expected it.

“The Saudi regime, I want to emphasize this is a regime that engages in deplorable repression, there is no dispute about that,” he said. “But this is a regime that has began to improve so there is some reform, not enough. So they are hyper sensitive and this is well known, they have gone after Sweden before and we were aware of that. 

“So one of my concerns is, were we prepared for this?” Braun asks. “And it seems to me that there is inadequate evidence to suggest that we were, that there would be this harsh of a reaction, and this is a very harsh reaction.” 

He said the nations must now try to address the tension between principle and effect.

“The principle is that we stand for human rights, it’s a noble principle, it’s commendable and it is something that Canada has issued throughout its existence,” Braun said. “At the same time, we need to ask however, will it have the intended effect?” 

Braun mentioned the military deal former Prime Minister Stephen Harper made with the Saudis in 2015 where he sold $15-billion of fighting vehicles despite the knowledge of their human rights track record.

This didn’t just happen over night, that deal was first reached by the Conservative government but it could have been cancelled by the Liberal government,” he said. 

In terms of reconciling this dispute, Braun suggests it may be up to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to see if he may be able to cool things down and find a resolution.

“It is a matter of using whatever diplomatic skills we have or mediators to try and tamper this down but I just have a sense that the Saudis especially the Crown prince who is in his 30s and fancies himself to be a reformer and wants to have a kind of controlled reform which you can argue is hardly possible but that’s his intent. Whether he can be swayed somehow, I’m not sure what we can offer,” Braun said. 

While the tweets were written to express Canada’s concern over the detained activists, Braun suggested it would have been wiser for Canada to avoid social media and raise the issue in a less public forum.

“I think we can all come together and agree on the principle of defending human rights but we also need to think carefully, are we achieving what we had hoped and are we being consistent in how we address this issue internationally because that affects our credibility,” he said. 

Economic effects

Saudi Arabia’s retaliations including halting all direct flights to Toronto via its state airline and suspended scholarships for about 16,000 students studying in Canada. The country has asked its students to return and plans to relocate students to other countries.

This move could have economic repercussions as Canada exported products worth $1.5 billion in 2017, with about $497.5 million worth in military goods. The Canadian Trade Commissioner Service says Canada imported $2.6 billion worth of goods from Saudi Arabia. Canada imports only 10 per cent of its crude oil supply from the Saudis.

Saudi Arabia imports armoured vehicles, tanks, automobiles, spare parts, machinery tools, equipment, electrical equipment and machinery, pharmaceutical products and raw minerals.

According to a report issued by Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Statistics, the largest portion of Canadian exports to the Kingdom was automobiles and their spare parts worth about $522.2 million, about 38 per cent of the total exports.

They are followed by machinery and machinery tools worth almost $212.4 million comprising 15.12 percent of the exports. The decision to stop trade between the two countries might slow down the economy but not cause a lasting trade deficit.

The recall of approximately 15,000 Saudi students from Canada and accompanying relatives could remove as much as $2 billion in annual investment in the Canadian economy.

Controversial image 

A Saudi Arabian youth organization apologized for posting, and later deleting, an image on Twitter showing an Air Canada plane heading towards the CN Tower, evoking images of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S.

“As the Arabic saying goes: ‘He who interferes with what doesn’t concern him, finds what doesn’t please him,’” read a message superimposed over the image from the Twitter account @infographic_KSA on Monday.

The page also accused Canada of “sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong.”


Infographic KSA later tweeted another image without the plane, before apologizing for its original tweet.



The account is verified by Twitter and has more than 350,000 followers. It has a history of posting messages that are supportive of the Saudi government.

On its website, Infographic KSA describes itself as a “voluntary non-profit project” made up of volunteers interested in technology.

Social media users were quick to point out that the image seemed to reference the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, in which planes were deliberately flown into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington.

More than 2,700 people were killed in those attacks. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi Arabian citizens.


The Saudi Ministry of Media announced it launched an investigation into the account and ordered it to shut down “until investigations are completed.” 


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