Canada will meet with Saudis to discuss diplomatic rift: Freeland

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says she'll meet with her counterpart from Saudi Arabia on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

Talks between Freeland, Saudi counterpart could be first step to restoring relations

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland may meet with her Saudi counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir, this week, in an effort to draw down the diplomatic dispute between the two countries. (Jose Luis Magana/Associated Press)

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says she'll meet with her counterpart from Saudi Arabia on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

The goal of the meeting would be to begin to mend fences between the two countries after an explosive dispute this summer following Canadian criticism of the kingdom's arrests of human rights activists.

"I have been in close touch with Adel [bin Ahmed al-Jubeir] all summer. We call each other on our cell phones," she told a crowd at the Council of Foreign Relations​ in New York City Tuesday morning.

"We are going to meet in New York ... We are hoping to meet in New York this week and I think that's a good thing."

Ottawa called for the release of Samar Badawi, the sister of well-known detainee Raif Badawi, on Aug. 2. Samar Badawi is also the sister-in-law of a Canadian citizen.

"We feel a particular obligation to women who are fighting for their rights around the world, women's rights are human rights," said Freeland. "And we feel a particular obligation to people who have a personal connection to Canada. A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian." 

Saudi Arabia responded with a string of harsh measures that included telling thousands of Saudi students on government scholarships to leave Canadian universities and relocate to other countries, a ban on Saudi flights to Canada, and orders to brokers and bankers to suspend transactions with Canadian entities.

The kingdom also declared the Canadian ambassador persona non grata and gave him 24 hours to leave the country. He has not returned.

Neither the aging and infirm King Salman, nor his son and the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, plan to speak at the UN General Assembly.

Instead, Jubeir is in New York.

It was Jubeir who spoke for Saudi Arabia at the height of the dispute with Canada, holding a news conference where he appeared to lecture Canada on its responsibility to defuse tensions.

"Canada knows what it needs to do," he said. "Canada started this, and it's up to Canada to find a way out of it."

Saudis partially relent

But Canada did not back down, and instead the Saudi side appear to have quietly dropped at least one of their more extreme (and expensive) measures.

After ordering medical students and interns to leave Canada by Aug. 31, Saudi authorities relented just days before the deadline, telling students they could continue at their posts for the time being.

But the reprieve only helped about 1,000 Saudi medical students. At least 7,000 non-medical Saudi students were forced to interrupt their studies. Some chose to file asylum claims in Canada rather than obey orders to return home.

Also, a major pending contract for Saudi Arabia to buy light armoured vehicles from General Dynamics Canada survived the dispute.

CBC News recently reported that Saudi Arabia had reduced the size of that order. but that reduction had occurred more than a year before the latest dispute.

Timing an issue

Both Canada and Saudi Arabia have chosen to allow their foreign ministers, rather than heads of state or heads of government, to deliver their country's addresses to the General Assembly.

Under UN protocol that means they must wait until later in the week to speak. Freeland speaks on Saturday morning. Jubeir is the last to speak in the whole week, on Saturday afternoon.

The spat with Canada generated headlines around the world and was widely seen as a sign of the impetuous and aggressive style of the new crown prince, known to many Saudis by his initials MBS.

The government of Canada has sought to defuse tensions with Saudi Arabia, but has said it will not apologize for its stance. 

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