Opinion

Canada cannot yield to Saudi Arabia's deranged overreaction

If Canada folds, some fear that a line would be drawn in the sand, and behind that line, petty Arab dictators could do what they want with their activist communities, without as much as a complaint from the world.

The regime's reaction to a couple of tweets is more about snuffing out its own country's voices of dissent

If Canada folds, some fear that a line would be drawn in the sand, and behind that line, petty Arab dictators could do what they want with their activist communities, without as much as a complaint from the world. (Cliff Owen/Associated Press)

Back in March, Saudi Arabia's powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (popularly known as MBS), went on a two-week tour throughout the United States, shaking hands with Hollywood elite, media personalities and politicians.

As University of Denver analyst Nader Hashemi noted at the time, MBS was trying to change Saudi Arabia's optics problem, given the frequent beheadings, the brutal war in Yemen and ongoing activism for human rights in the country. The charm offensive on 60 Minutes and meetings with Oprah and Bill Gates were supposed to change all that. MBS spent years and billions to present to the world an image of a bold, shrewd, yet responsible reformer.

The celebrities who met him would be forgiven for embracing him back then, when he still seemed somewhat credible. But MBS has since persecuted the country's leading women's rights activists, intimidated the once-vibrant Saudi feminist movement into silence, corrupted and shut down his country's once-dynamic public sphere and hunted down every last independent voice for human rights in the country.

MBS met with members of the British Royal Family in March. (Yui Mok/Associated Press)

When Canada's foreign ministry spoke out, then — first via a tweet from Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, then from the foreign ministry's Twitter account — it wasn't in a vacuum: it came as Saudi authorities targeted two of the last independent Saudi women's rights activists in the country, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sada.

"Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women's rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists" the ministry tweeted. Canada was right to speak out.

MBS has been trying to convince the world that Saudi society has been regressive and backward, and that he alone will drag it into the 21st century. This image indeed speaks to certain Western prejudices about Saudis, but it's not entirely accurate. Saudi society has changed deeply over the past few decades, and while regressive forces are still influential, there are many talented, responsible, highly educated and world-conscious Saudi women and men who are more than capable of being at the helm, as their country's governance catches up. Unfortunately, these are exactly the people MBS has targeted with arrests. Canada was right to speak out for their fundamental human rights and call for their release.

But this is where things got bizarre. In response to Canada's statement, the Saudi regime's reaction seemed more deranged than firm. The Saudis expelled the Canadian ambassador, put a stop to new trade and investment, barred their citizens from receiving medical treatment in Canada, instructed their overseas asset managers to dump their Canadian assets "no matter the cost" and recalled 15,000 students from Canadian universities, jeopardizing their education. By any measure, it was an overreaction, which left most analysts confused. After all, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights used similar language in the weeks prior, but MBS didn't sever ties there, nor did he recall his ambassador to the UN.

So why Canada and why now? There are at least two reasons to note.

First, there is speculation that MBS's move was a calculated attempt at deterring foreign criticism as he attempts to bring Saudi society in line with his new vision. The argument, pushed by some Saudi-paid lobbyists, is that he needs to do this in order to assuage regressive elements in society. But even if this response was, in theory, a convincing deterrent, the bungling way in which Saudi media reacted – calling out "Canadian human rights abuses," for example  – shows more laughable incompetence than national pride.

Canada is perhaps a Western country that Saudi Arabia could take aim at, as a signal to other countries who may wish to speak out about human rights in similar ways. Canada was a safer target economically, as the Saudi state has extensive trade deals with both the U.K. and the EU, while the U.K. benefits from hundreds of millions of pounds spent by Saudi tourists. It is almost certain that MBS watched U.S. President Donald Trump's recent trade spat with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and saw an opportunity to hit at a liberal Western country, and appear to be standing up for "national sovereignty."

The regime wants to pose such reforms as the lifting of the driving ban as a gift from a magnanimous reforming monarchy. (Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters)

Second, and at a more profound level, MBS is worried about effective social movements in Saudi Arabia. As this audio alert from May explains, the regime wants to pose such reforms as the lifting of the driving ban as a gift from a magnanimous reforming monarchy, rather than the result of 25 years of defiance, activism and consciousness-raising by two generations of Saudi women. If the reform is seen as a victory for grassroots activism, two things could follow: it may spawn ever-more political rumblings internally, and these activists could form alliances globally, become media stars and be spurred on by countries pushing universal human rights – like Canada.

If Canada folds, some fear that a line would be drawn in the sand, and behind that line, petty Arab dictators could do what they want with their activist communities, without as much as a complaint from the world. This is exactly what these dictators want: to snuff out the last voices of dissent in their countries so that they can hear no voice but their own.

The prospect of international solidarity with native human rights activists is so deeply threatening that taking a sledgehammer approach to some tweets from the Canadian foreign minister seemed, to a fresh and inexperienced MBS, completely justified.

Amarnath Amarasingam is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Waterloo. He tweets at @AmarAmarasingam

Iyad El-Baghdadi is the President of the Norway-based Kawaakibi Center, an NGO focused on the future of liberty in the Arab and Muslim world. He tweets at @iyad_elbaghdadi

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this column read that the "U.K. benefits from hundreds of billions of pounds spent by Saudi tourists." That should have read "hundreds of millions." The above text has been corrected.
    Aug 09, 2018 1:55 PM ET

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