A single tweet has intensified the diplomatic crisis between Saudi Arabia and Canada. Last week, Canada’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs posted on Twitter that it was “gravely concerned” about the detention of civil and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland publically acknowledged that “Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights and freedom of expression around the world”. Saudi Arabia has responded to Canada’s comments with the expulsion of its Canadian ambassador, recalled Saudi students in Canada, barred all Saudi citizens from receiving Canadian medical treatment, the suspension of flights to Toronto and have suspended future trade negotiations with the Canadian government.
The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that Canada’s comments are “a major, unacceptable affront to the Kingdom’s laws and judicial process, as well as a violation of the Kingdom’s sovereignty.” Canada has indicated that it will not back down on its comments despite jeopardising trade and business deals with the kingdom. According to Al Jazeera Nader Hashemi, director of the University of Denver’s Centre for Middle East Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies stated that “it’s pretty clear that [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman] is using Canada to send a message to the rest of the world that if you want to trade with Saudi Arabia, then you need to shut up on human rights.” Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa has also stated that Canada’s comments were not out of the ordinary. He described the tweets as “the spark that lit the fire” on the already simmering Saudi frustration with Canada.
Vast debate regarding an $11 billion ($15 billion Canadian) dollar weapons deal between Saudi Arabia and Canada has erupted in recent years. The deal was conceived and approved by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s predecessor. However, Trudeau’s government quietly signed the agreement in 2016. Trudeau has had to defend the agreement ever since amid unrelenting disapproval from human rights groups and media who continue to question why Canada would trade light-armoured vehicles (LAV) with Saudi Arabia despite the kingdom’s flawed human rights record. Canada not forcefully coming to Saudi Arabia’s defence has caused “building frustration and irritation” over the past two years, according to Juneau. Due to Canada’s recent comments, the future of the weapons deal is now uncertain.
At a time when fewer states are vigorously promoting human rights, it is positive to see Canada standing up for the non-violent civil and women’s rights activists. International criticism can be a very powerful tool if used effectively. Juneau states that “if Canada backs down, then it’s no longer the liberal democracy that it claims to be.” Human rights groups must continue to support Canada’s comments. However, international criticism is not always the solution, sometimes quiet diplomacy between states can be just as effective. Therefore, it is hoped that diplomatic talks will continue with both Saudi Arabia and Canada to help ease this growing diplomatic crisis. The easing of diplomatic frustrations will hopefully lead to beneficial discussion on the improvement of human rights which may lead to the liberation of such activists. Furthermore, if Canada attempts to save the weapons agreement, this would undermine Canada’s recent comments and their long-standing stance on human rights. As Juneau states “You can’t take a firm stand on human rights, and on the side [say], ‘but can we please keep the deal, pretty please?’ It can’t work that way.”
Despite both Saudi Arabia and Canada’s different stances on human rights, both states must ensure that effective diplomacy is utilised to calm this diplomatic crisis.