Saudi Arabia 'allergic to criticism', making example out of Canada, analysts say

Saudi Arabia's diplomatic retaliation against Canada is likely the result of several factors, analysts say, including Riyadh's thin skin, its frustration with Ottawa, and its Crown prince's penchant for a muscle-flexing foreign policy that seeks to make one thing clear: Criticism won't be tolerated.

Riyadh launched sanctions against Canada for criticizing arrest of political activists

Saudi Arabia's diplomatic row with Canada is just another example of the brash foreign policy moves of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, some analysts say. (Cliff Owen/Associated Press)

Saudi Arabia's diplomatic retaliation against Canada is likely the result of a combination of factors, analysts say, including Riyadh's thin skin, its frustration with Ottawa, and its Crown prince's penchant for a muscle-flexing foreign policy that seeks to make one thing clear: Criticism won't be tolerated.

In fact, the latter is why one analyst who spoke with CBC News says a "grovelling" public apology from Canada is likely the only way to resolve the dispute.

The political dust-up began Friday after Canada's Foreign Affairs Department sent out a tweet saying it was "gravely concerned" about the arrest of political activists in Saudi Arabia and urging Riyadh to immediately release women's rights activist Samar Badawi and others.

Saudi Arabia responded with what foreign policy analyst Daniel Drezner of Tufts University in Massachusetts​ called "the oddest sanctions effort" he's seen in a long time. It includes:

  • The expulsion of Canada's ambassador.
  • A freeze on "all new trade and investment transactions" between the two countries.
  • The suspension of all Saudi flights to and from Toronto.
  • An order for Saudi students to leave Canadian schools.
  • Plans to transfer all Saudi nationals receiving medical treatment in Canada to hospitals outside the country.

'Allergic to criticism'

For several years now, Saudi Arabia has responded with swift diplomatic action in the face of human rights critiques, said ​Rex Brynen, a political science professor at McGill University who specializes in Middle East politics.

"We've seen it before when they've been criticized by the Swedes and the Germans — often very mild criticism — that they've reacted quite harshly," he said.  "So it's partly Saudi Arabia I think being allergic to criticism."

Activist Samar Badawi, seen here with former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, right, and former first lady Michelle Obama, left, in 2012, was arrested in Saudi Arabia. (Gary Cameron/Reuters)

In 2015, the Saudi government recalled its ambassador to Sweden after that country's foreign minister criticized the flogging of jailed blogger Raif Badawi, who is the brother of Samar. And last year, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Germany after its foreign minister made remarks considered to be a critique of Saudi military intervention in Yemen.

The Saudi government may also have an underlying source of frustration with Ottawa, namely the controversial $15-billion sale of light-armoured vehicles to Riyadh.

The deal, which faced some criticism in Canada, as it involved supplying weapons to a country with a notorious human rights record, was made by the Stephen Harper government and later finalized by Justin Trudeau.

Saudi Arabia viewed the LAV deal really as an investment to deepen ties with Canada, including on trade, science and academics, and security and defence co-operation, said Thomas Juneau, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa's Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

"But that didn't happen, mostly because the Liberals really didn't want to be seen as deepening co-operation with such a brutal dictatorship," Juneau told the CBC Radio's As It Happens. "That really frustrated the Saudis a lot and we just saw that boil over."

Isn't so much about Canada

But the University of Waterloo's Bessma Momani suspects Saudi Arabia's sanctions actually have more to do with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's penchant for brash foreign policy moves.   

"This is really a reflection of his style. It's got the footprints of his modus operandi all over it. The very severe type of action," the political science professor told CBC's Ottawa Morning.

She pointed to the severing of diplomatic ties with Qatar, after alleging it has ties to extremists and is too close to Iran, as one example of Salman's "quasi-irrational-type moves." Another example was forcing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to publicly resign during a trip to Saudi Arabia last year — a resignation he later rescinded.

Certainly, under King Salman and his son, the crown prince, "Riyadh has turned away from its traditionally cautious and timid foreign policy toward a far more assertive, ambitious, hyper-nationalist and often impulsive preference for throwing Saudi weight around," Juneau wrote in the Washington Post. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland made it clear Canada won't back down from its critical stance against Saudi Arabia's human rights record. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

And it's also clear, according to Brynen, the Saudis have decided to make an example of Canada. 

"They're saying to everyone else in the international community, 'You really don't want to criticize us because look what happened to the Canadians when they did it,'" Brynen said.

On Monday,  Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland made it clear Canada won't back down from its critical stance against Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

"We are always going to speak up for human rights. We're always going to speak up for women's rights. And that is not going to change," she told a news conference.

Juneau points out in the Post that trade between the two countries amounts to about $3 billion to $4 billion a year — about the amount of Canada-U.S. trade in two days — meaning the sanctions are unlikely to have a significant impact.

But if Canada is looking for some diplomatic peace, nothing short of a public apology will resolve the dispute, Brynen said.

"They want to make an example of us and therefore we would have to do an awful lot of grovelling and apologizing, I think, to get the Saudis to end it," he said.

From the Saudis' point of view, if these moves are partially to send a broader lesson to the international community, it only makes sense for them to publicly humiliate Canada in exchange for getting back in their good graces, he said.

"Wouldn't make sense for them to do this and then we have some nicely worded joint diplomatic statement that resolves the problem. We have to look like we're climbing down."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.