What started as an online dispute turned into a raging fire of tense political clashes between Saudi Arabia and Canada.
On August 1, Amnesty International, a well-known human rights organization announced the Saudi government had arrested a number of female activists. Lynn Maalouf, the organization’s Middle East research director referred to the arrests as a “draconian crackdown.” Maalouf released a statement in which she described events of women being targeted, harassed, and even placed under travel bans because of their activism. One of the women to which Maalouf was referring is Saudi activist Samar Badawi, the sister of Raif Badawi, who has been detained since 2012 for “insulting Islam.”
After learning of Samar Badawi’s imprisonment, Canada’s foreign minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted she was “very alarmed” and that “Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time” and that the nation continues to “strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.” Canada’s foreign ministry also took to Twitter, calling for Saudi Arabia to “immediately release” Raif and Samar Badawi along with all other peaceful human rights activists.
After two days of silence, Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry weighed in, tweeting:
“The negative and surprising attitude of Canada is an entirely false claim and utterly incorrect.” In a string of tweets that followed, Saudi Arabia accused Canada of interfering with the internal affairs of the Kingdom and ordered the Canadian ambassador to leave the country within 24 hours. On the same day as the barrage of enraged tweets flooded social media, Saudi Arabia declared it was going to suspend “all new trade and investment transactions” with Canada. Canada treaded lightly in response to the news, asking for clarification from Saudi Arabia. Freeland firmly held her ground, emphasizing the value that Canada places on human rights in a public statement: “We are always going to speak up for human rights, we are always going to speak up for women’s rights and that is not going to change.”
Freeland’s courage, while heroic in the eyes of many, seemed to boil the blood of those who didn’t agree with her take on the issue. Fear ripped through many Canadians when a tweet – now deleted – was published by a Saudi account, @infographic_ksa. The tweet featured a photo with an Air Canada plane headed towards the Toronto skyline, captioned with “Sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong!” and the Arabic saying: “He who interferes with what doesn’t concern him finds what doesn’t please him.” The image seemed to be a chilling parallel to the 9/11 attack, causing a cyber outrage. The account deleted the tweet, saying it had been misunderstood.
Saudia, the Saudi state airline announced that all flights inbound and outbound to Toronto would be suspended from August 13. Additionally, 15,000 Saudi students being sponsored to study in Canada received news that they would no longer receive support to study abroad and would be forced to head back to Saudi Arabia.
So where does the US stand amid all this outrage and constant finger-pointing? The murky waters of American politics have washed away enough international relations with Middle Eastern countries and the US risks losing an alliance with Saudi Arabia if they try to defend their neighbours to the north. The US refused to back Canada on their decision, encouraging the two countries to resolve the issue in a diplomatic manner.
Accusations were hurled at Canada through Saudi media, claiming the country was one of the worst oppressors for women. Shortly after Saudi media criticized Canada for the disappearance of over 1,000 indigenous women, news surfaced that Israa al-Ghomgham, a female political activist had been given the death sentence in early August. No female political activist has faced the death penalty before Al-Ghomgham. The news left many wondering why the same country criticizing Canada for its “oppression of women” would choose to execute a female activist for the first time in history.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is now walking on eggshells as he tries to resolve the issue with the impending execution looming in the background.
While still an ongoing clash, the dust has started to settle and a small sigh of relief was let out when Saudi Arabia announce that Saudi medical trainees in Canada would be permitted to stay in the country for a while longer.
When reflecting on this tense situation between Canada and Saudi Arabia, it is important to consider the origin of the entire dispute. Social media, while an accessible platform through which individuals are able to voice their opinions has become a dominant form of communication. What started with an angered tweet escalated into a riveting political, economic, and social issue between two countries.
Today’s politicians must remember to read social media posts with a grain of salt and understand that there are inherent biases in many published tweets which often cause confusion.
Yes, social media is user-friendly and a direct way to communicate with people across the world, but political leaders should not disregard the power of face-to-face conversations. In a matter of human rights and justice, we cannot afford any miscommunications when someone’s life is on the line.