Saudi Arabia telling more than 150 students to leave University of Regina

More than 150 students at the University of Regina are being told they have a month to leave the country after officials in Saudi Arabia announced a plan to move thousands of Saudi scholarship students out of Canadian schools to take classes in other countries.

153 Saudi Arabian students were enrolled at the University of Regina, 9 at the University of Saskatchewan

The Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is shown in Ottawa on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018. Saudi Arabia says it is ordering Canada's ambassador to leave the country and is also having Saudi students withdraw from Canadian universities, including the U of R. (David Kawai/Canadian Press)

More than 150 students at the University of Regina are being told they have a month to leave the country after officials in Saudi Arabia announced a plan to move thousands of Saudi scholarship students out of Canadian schools.

The move comes as tensions rise between the Middle Eastern country and Canada. Saudi officials have said they plan to withdraw all scholarships to relocate students to other countries.

It's estimated that 20,000 Saudi students are studying in Canada. 

There are about 153 Saudi students currently attending the U of R and 94 per cent of them are on scholarship from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

"Students are being encouraged to leave our university and Canada within a month," Livia Castellanos, the Associate Vice-President and Chief International Officer at UR International, said in an interview with CBC Radio's The Morning Edition. 

"I have been doing this job for almost 20 years, I have worked in several schools in Canada, this is the first time I've seen something of this nature."

Castellanos said it's not just scholarship students who are being told to pack their bags; the students who are paying themselves are also being told to leave.

The University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon has only nine Saudi students registered for the 2018-2019 school year, according to Patti McDougall, the vice provost of teaching and learning. She said she isn't sure yet how many of the students are funded by the Saudi government

McDoughall said the university will do everything it can to help those affected.

"We have scholarships and bursaries, we can help facilitate employment, and with regard to those students that are graduate students its not uncommon for funding to be available through a supervisor's grant," she said.

'Unfortunate, reprehensible, and unacceptable'

The dispute between the two nations appears to be over a tweet on Friday from Global Affairs Canada.

"Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists," the tweet said.

Ensaf Haidar stands next to a poster of a book of articles written by the imprisoned Saudi blogger and Haidar's husband, Raif Badawi, on June 16, 2015, in Montreal. Samar Badawi, Raif's sister, has also been arrested. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The Saudi Foreign Ministry called the use of "immediately release" in Canada's tweet "unfortunate, reprehensible, and unacceptable in relations between states."

It dismissed Canada's characterization of the activists as "an incorrect claim" and said Canada's attitude was "surprising."

Saudi Arabia said on Sunday that it is ordering Canada's ambassador to leave the country and freezing all new trade and investment transactions with Canada in a spat over human rights.

Saudi state television later reported that the Education Ministry was coming up with an "urgent plan" to move thousands of Saudi scholarship students out of Canadian schools to take classes in other countries.

'Never thought students would be suddenly removed'

Castellanos said she knew the Saudi Arabia scholarships were going to be "dying down," but she didn't expect all of them to be withdrawn.

"We were preparing ourselves for this, but we never thought the students would be suddenly removed from our university," she said.

"Usually the governments let us know with time in advance about their closure of their scholarships and they let students graduate."

Castellanos said the university is concerned because none of the students being forced to leave will have completed their education. She said the majority of students were in undergraduate programs and around 15 were studying for their masters degree.

She said she hopes the Saudi government understands the academic and professional implications of its actions in pulling students from their education. And in the meantime, the University of Regina will do everything they can to help.

The decision to pull thousands of students also has broader implications for the university, as Castellanos said Saudi students brought a lot of culture to the school.

"This will not only be detrimental to our university but also to all the Saskatchewan students who experienced having the Saudi students as a part of our community.

"So I think for us that is the saddest part of our story."

With files from The Canadian Press