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Saudi Arabia's spat with Canada not the first for a Western country

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman conducts a meeting with Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and other members of their delegations at 10 Downing Street, London, on March 7, 2018. (Dan Kitwood/Associated Press)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up hereand we'll deliver it directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.


  • Saudi Arabia turns up the pressure on Canada amid a spat over human rights, but it's not the first time this has happened to a Western country.
  • Steven D'Souza gives a first-hand account of how New York City's Vision Zero program is saving lives and what Canadian cities can learn from it.
  • Will Steven Seagal help further U.S.-Russia relations?
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here

Kingdom of anger

Saudi Arabia's fury over Canada's perceived interference in its domestic affairs show no signs of abating. 

A Friday morning tweet from Global Affairs Canada, calling for the release of Samar Badawi and other "peaceful human rights activists," has already resulted in the expulsion of Canada's ambassador, the recall of some 16,000 Saudi students studying at Canadian schools and the suspension of direct flights to Toronto.

But now there are warnings of more dire economic consequences to follow.

In an interview published today, Imad Al-Dukair, the president of the Saudi-Canadian Business Council, tells the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that the federal government's "irresponsible act" risks seeing Canadian companies frozen out of the kingdom's Vision 2030 program, which spent hundreds of billions on efforts to modernize and diversify the Saudi economy. 

It's a theme that has been embraced by media within the country as well.

The Saudi Gazette tells readers that the kingdom's decision to freeze all new commercial deals and investments has put Canada "on the verge of economic standstill." Which is surely an overreach given that the same article puts the annual value of Canadian exports to Saudi Arabia at 4.04 billion riyals, or $1.4 billion Cdn.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, left, told a news conference Monday that Canada stands by its comments about human rights in Saudi Arabia under King Salman, right. (Jimmy Jeong/Canadian Press, Alex Brandon/Associated Press )

The English-language Arab News published an unsigned editorial urging Canada to consider its next moves carefully, as "a rift with the kingdom is usually hard to fix" and carries "the real risk of upsetting the entire Muslim and Arab worlds." The paper suggests that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau send a delegation "on the next plane" to Riyadh to apologize for the "breach of diplomatic etiquette," lest relations with Canada follow the path of the kingdom's ongoing feud with Qatar

The list of Saudi allies who have fallen into line and denounced Canada's mild Twitter critique as unacceptable is growing by the hour. The governments of Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates have released statements of support, as have the Muslim World League, Gulf Co-operation Council and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Canada is not the first Western country to encounter such blowback for raising issues of human rights with the Saudis.

In 2015, the kingdom temporarily recalled its ambassador to Sweden and put a hold on business visas after Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom criticized the flogging of blogger Raif Badawi — Samar's brother — and scrapped a $39-million US arms deal. 

And this past March, it was reported that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known by his initials MBS, had ordered a freeze on all government contracts to German firms after the country's foreign minister criticized Saudi "adventurism" in Yemen and Lebanon.

Of course the major worry for Canada will now be the fate of a $15-billion contract for almost 1,000 light armoured vehicles between the Saudi government and London, Ont.'s General Dynamics. The controversial deal, struck in 2014 and approved in 2016, called for the vehicles to be delivered starting in 2017, but it's not clear how many have already been sent as Ottawa refuses to release the "commercially confidential" information.

But Saudi grudges do have limits.

When the crown prince went on a world tour to promote his modernization drive in April, he travelled in the accustomed fashion of Saudi royalty, arriving for a meeting with France's Emmanuel Macron in the back of a chauffeured, German-made Mercedes-Benz.

Pedestrians, cyclists and cars all coalesce in New York City. Since taking on Vision Zero in 2014, city officials say the city has experienced a 28 per cent decline in traffic fatalities and pedestrian deaths have gone down 45 per cent. (Tiffany Foxcroft/CBC)

New York's state of mindfulness

Steven D'Souza reports from New York City on the delicate dance among cars, bikes and pedestrians — and the lessons the metropolis might be able to teach Canadian cities:

The moment I arrived in New York City almost four years ago, I quickly realized that this city has a pace all its own and I better get up to speed or get out of the way. 

People are constantly on the move, always in a hurry, but because of congestion on the roads, and even sidewalks, they often aren't getting where they want to quickly. It takes a certain knack for navigating New York on foot, by car and on two wheels.

You see it in something as simple as crossing the street: real New Yorkers rarely stand on the curb while they wait for a walk signal. Most stand out on the roadway, anxious to cross, annoyed that cars (and hordes of tourists) are forcing them to slow down. Once there's an opening, whether the light has changed or not, they cross.

Now in Toronto or another major Canadian city, oncoming traffic would probably lay on the horn, angry that someone on foot dare get in their way, but in New York, drivers are mostly indifferent to the hundreds of pedestrians that criss-cross in front of them everyday.

When you're in such close quarters in such a dense area, drivers, pedestrians and cyclists are forced to come to an understanding, a détente. No one mode will rule the road here.

When looking at ways to make streets safer, New York's varied urban design and sprawl made it an ideal comparison for most Canadian cities. As I watch the balance on the roads, you realize so much of it comes from design and deliberate action.

A cyclist crosses the Williamsburg Bridge between Manhattan and Brooklyn, one of the busiest cycling corridors in the city. New York estimates there are more than 1.5 million people who have cycled at least once in the last year. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

New York is a place of big ideas and bold thinking, a place that will forge ahead despite opposition. The transformation of Times Square into a pedestrian friendly space, which began almost a decade ago, is a good example.

Now, while our story looked at solutions, it's important to note, none of what New York  accomplished came easy. New Yorkers are opinionated so it was no surprise that whenever we mentioned we were doing a story on Vision Zero we got an earful. One of our Uber drivers went on a long diatribe about how misguided the plans are and how it slows down traffic (ignoring the irony of the proliferation of ride-sharing vehicles on the city's roadways). 

And we recognize that it's politically advantageous for the city to tout its Vision Zero success. After all it was a key campaign platform that got Mayor Bill de Blasio elected.

The question is: what's stopping Canadian politicians from taking a similar stand when it comes to road safety? 

D'Souza's special report on New York City's Vision Zero plan for safer streets and how it differs from Toronto and other Canadian cities aired Monday night. Watch it on The National.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and U.S. actor Steven Seagal shake hands after visiting an oceanarium built on Russky Island, in the Russian Far Eastern port of Vladivostok on Sept. 4, 2015. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Government Press Service Pool Photo/AP)

Steven Seagal, the unlikely humanitarian

The Kremlin's decision to name Steven Seagal, '90's action star and current-day punchline, as its new "special envoy" to the United States is a bit of a head scratcher.

True, Vladimir Putin granted his fellow martial arts devotee citizenship in the fall of 2016, at the actor's request. And the 66-year-old does seem to hold a special place in his heart for Russia.

"I am deeply humbled and honoured," Seagal wrote on his Twitter account Sunday. "I hope we can strive for peace, harmony and positive results in the world. I take this honour very seriously."

It's just that his new job's focus on "Russian and American Humanitarian ties," seems a wee bit out of place. 

Over the course of his two-decade career starring in such shoot-em-up epics as Above the Law, Under Siege and On Deadly Ground, Seagal has killed more than 800 celluloid villains.

And in recent years, he has mostly been known for cozying up to dictators like Ramzan Kadyrov of the Chechen Republic and Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus. 

The actor has been a regular visitor to Russia in recent years and has accompanied Putin to several martial arts events. (Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik, Kremlin File Pool/AP)

That is until two women went to the Los Angeles police in March to accuse him of rape and sexual assault during Hollywood encounters in the 1990s and early 2000s, building on other #MeToo allegations levelled at the action star. (Seagal denies the charges.) 

Still, the United States is a strange enough place these days that people aren't immediately discounting the possibility that Seagal could be the bridge between Putin and Donald Trump. 

Steven Seagal "may have a shot at helping Putin get into Trump's good graces," the Washington Post reports

"Seagal's fame may make him more appealing to Trump. Plus, the movie star has publicly sung the president's praises before."

Maybe Canada should see if Chuck Norris is interested in helping out with the NAFTA renegotiations. 

A few words on …

Not being limited by age.

Quote of the moment

"I feel sick to my stomach that I lost my mom — for nothing. We are in a first world country living like we're in a third world country." 

-Iqaluit resident Bernice Clarke despairs over Nunavut's soaring tuberculosis rate, three years after her mother died from complications arising from the disease.

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Today in history

Aug 7, 1954: Vancouver's four-minute 'Miracle Mile'

Two months after Britain's Roger Bannister became the first to break the four-minute mile barrier, he went head to head against the second man to accomplish the lung-busting feat, Australia's John Landy. More than 35,000 packed Empire Stadium in Vancouver to see the showdown between the Commonwealth's best, and CBC carried the race live across the country. Almost 65 years later, it remains one of the most exciting finishes in track and field history. 

Vancouver's four-minute 'Miracle Mile' race in 1954

4 months ago
Duration 6:46
The world's fastest men face off against each other during the 1954 Miracle Mile race in Vancouver. Aired on a CBC Television news special on Aug. 7, 1954.

That's all for today.

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