Canada, Saudi Arabia agree to restore relations 5 years after diplomatic feud

Canada and Saudi Arabia have agreed to name new ambassadors nearly five years after a diplomatic conflict halted relations and strained trade between the two countries.

Saudi Arabia expelled Canada's ambassador in 2018 over Ottawa's criticism of the kingdom's human rights record

A composite photo showing Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November 2022. (Rungroj Yongrit/The Associated Press, Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Canada and Saudi Arabia have agreed to name new ambassadors nearly five years after a diplomatic conflict halted relations and strained trade between the two countries.

Global Affairs Canada (GAC) released a statement Wednesday announcing the decision. The news was first reported by Reuters.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November.

GAC's statement suggests the two leaders discussed restoring relations at that time.

"In light of what has been discussed between [Trudeau and bin Salman] ... and the desire for both sides to restore diplomatic relations between the two countries on the basis of mutual respect and common interests, it has been decided to restore the level of diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia to its previous level," the statement reads.

Saudi Arabia's foreign ministry tweeted a similar statement on Wednesday.

Jean-Philippe Linteau has been named Canada's new ambassador to the Middle Eastern kingdom.

Saudi Arabia ordered Canada's ambassador to leave the country and announced it was freezing all new trade and investment transactions with Canada in August of 2018. The kingdom also recalled its own ambassador at the time.

The move was seen as retaliation against Ottawa over its criticism of Saudi Arabia's human rights record — specifically a GAC tweet that raised concerns about the arrests of prominent women's rights activists, including Samar Badawi.

A woman in a toque and gloves holds a sign that says "free Raif."
Ensaf Haidar, wife of blogger Raif Badawi, takes part in a rally for his freedom on January 13, 2015 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Badawi is the sister of Raif Badawi, a Saudi dissident blogger who has been imprisoned by the Saudi government since 2012 on charges of apostasy and "insulting Islam through electronic channels." Raif Badawi's wife Ensaf Haidar and their three children fled Saudi Arabia and have been living in Canada since 2015.

Relations between the two countries were further strained following the death of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October of 2018. 

Khashoggi — who wrote opinion columns for the Washington Post critical of the crown prince's policies — was killed inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. A U.S. intelligence report said Crown Prince Mohammed likely approved Khashoggi's killing.

'It's about time': former ambassador

But despite Ottawa's concerns about human rights, Dennis Horak — Canada's former ambassador, who was expelled from Saudi Arabia in 2018 — said "it's about time" relations were restored with the kingdom.

"They're an important player and they're hard to ignore. And I think having full diplomatic relations with them allows us to have our voices heard at senior levels, which in Saudi Arabia is what matters," he told CBC.

Horak pointed out that the kingdom aided in evacuations from Sudan during the recent fighting in the capital of Khartoum.

Saudi Arabia's Foreign Affairs Ministry said its Royal Navy forces carried out an evacuation operation, transporting 91 citizens and 66 people from countries from the Port of Sudan on the Red Sea coast to Jeddah. Canadian citizens were reported to be among those who escaped Sudan to Saudi Arabia.

A man in a suit and a stripped shirt sits inside a house.
Former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia Dennis Horak was expelled from the country in 2018. (CBC)

Horak also suggested that Saudi Arabia could have an impact on the war in Ukraine, as the country has ties with Russia.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy attended a summit of the Arab League in Saudi Arabia last week and called for greater cooperation between the two countries.

Last year, Crown Prince Mohammed secured the release of 10 foreigners captured by Russia in Ukraine. The move was apparently made possible by his close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Horak acknowledged that human rights in Saudi Arabia will continue to be a concern for Ottawa.

"It's always been a challenge for us in Saudi Arabia and with a lot of other countries," Horak said. "But you can walk and chew gum at the same time."

Horak suggested that the best way to voice concerns about human rights is to have a strong diplomatic presence in the country.

"It's far more effective to engage at that level, on a face-to-face level, than to issue any number of tweets," he said.

Raif Badawi's son, Tirad Badawi, told CBC News that he hopes the renewed relations allow Canada to lobby for the release of his father.

"It's not normal to keep him there [in prison]," he said. "We miss him a lot. I don't know if I have a word to describe how we miss him."

Former prime minister Stephan Harper also said he was "pleased" to see relations between the two countries restored.

"The kingdom is a longtime regional partner, one with whom we share many interests," Harper said in a tweet.

Thomas Juneau, an associate professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, said the shift in relations could be due to Saudi Arabia shifting its foreign policy.

"If you go back to 2018 when the dispute started, these were years where Saudi foreign policy was very aggressive," he said.

Juneau said that Crown Prince Mohammed has begun to steer his country's economic policy toward attracting foreign investment and tourism.

"I think he's come to understand in the last couple of years that foreign entanglements …  act as obstacles to foreign investment. They act as obstacles to [attracting] tourists," he said.


Darren Major

CBC Journalist

Darren Major is a senior writer for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He can be reached via email at darren.major@cbc.ca.

With files from Kate McKenna, The Canadian Press and The Associated Press