Was Canada's criticism of Saudi Arabia a diplomatic faux pas?

Saudi Arabia announced Sunday it would cease new trade deals with Canada in reaction to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's tweets calling for the 'immediate release' of detained Saudi activists.

Freeland's tweets were consistent with Canada's foreign policy, says professor

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told a news conference Monday that Canada stands by its comments about human rights in Saudi Arabia that led to diplomatic sanctions from the country. (Jimmy Jeong/Canadian Press)
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The unusually heated dispute between Canada and Saudi Arabia over the weekend was not a diplomatic blunder on Canada's end, a political science professor says.

"Our particular viewpoint on Saudi Arabia has been consistent … which is we are concerned about [their] human rights track record," Bessma Momani, a professor at the University of Waterloo and Balsillie School of International Affairs, told The Current

"It really is, I think, more [of a] reaction problem with the Saudis and how they tend to take things to the extreme."

The Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is shown in Ottawa on Sunday. (David Kawai/Canadian Press)

Saudi Arabia announced Sunday it would cease new trade deals with Canada and expel the Canadian ambassador in reaction to tweets from Global Affairs Canada and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland calling for the "immediate release" of detained Saudi women's rights activists.

Despite the backlash, Freeland said Canada defends its position and will continue to speak against human rights abuses going forward.

Given the severity of Saudi Arabia's reaction, some critics wonder whether Canada was smart to use such strong language of condemnation in its initial tweets. 

But Momani told The Current's guest host Laura Lynch such criticism​ of Saudi Arabia is common among Western countries.

"Increasingly, the international heat on Saudi Arabia — not just for its domestic policies — which I think are obviously very critical, but also even [its] foreign policy, is very, very high."

Professor Bessma Momani says Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's controversial tweets about Saudi Arabia are completely consistent with Canada's past diplomatic posturing towards the autocratic country. 0:56

Back at home, Momani said concern for human rights is a core value that most Canadians expect to be promoted. She maintains that Freeland was only keeping with Canada's previous foreign policy posturing.

"I would also point out that for the civil society actors jailed today in Saudi Arabia — for the journalists, the poets, the intellectuals — I mean there are hundreds that are being arrested for political purposes or reasons — I think they really appreciate Canada's voice on this."

Going forward, Momani believes Canada has no choice but to ride out the feud. She said Saudi Arabia's defacto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is unlikely to compromise.  

"There really is no other way out, other than if we were to change foreign ministers ... which is absolutely non-negotiable for a sovereign country."

"It's not going to be easy of course. But the fact that we haven't engaged in further Twitter war is really important," she told The Current.

"Some of the comments that are coming out of Saudi Arabia are very hurtful about Canada and some of these are even from semi-official news outlets. I think we need to be careful not to sort of stoop to that low level."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page. 


This segment was produced by The Current's Donya Ziaee, Allie Jaynes, and Kristian Jebsen. 

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