As It Happens

Saudi Arabia 'justified' in cutting ties with Canada, says head of pro-Saudi group

Saudi Arabia is "very much justified" in cutting diplomatic ties with Canada, says the executive director of a pro-Saudi lobbyist organization.

Tweet demanding release of jailed activists 'not an appropriate means of diplomatic dialogue': Reem Daffa

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, has refused to apologize to Saudi Arabia, which continues to imprison activists despite reforms brought in under Crown Mohammed bin Salman, left. (Cliff Owen/AP, Patrick Doyle/CP )
Listen6:48

Saudi Arabia is "very much justified" in cutting diplomatic ties with Canada, says the executive director of a pro-Saudi public relations and registered lobby organization.

Tensions have escalated between the two countries since Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland's ministry issued a statement on Twitter Friday demanding the Saudis release imprisoned blogger Samar Badawi and other jailed human rights activists.

Canada — which previously approved the $15-billion sale of Ontario-made light-armoured vehicles to the Kingdom — has refused to back down from the statement.

Reem Daffa, executive director the Washington-based Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee, spoke with As It Happens guest host Matt Galloway about the ongoing diplomatic feud. 

Here is part of their conversation. 

Is Saudi Arabia justified in the diplomatic war that it's begun against Canada this week? 

It is very much justified, though I wouldn't call it a war, but it is a diplomatic stance and retaliation against what Canada is doing right now.

What's wrong with a tweet that urges the release of a women's rights activist?

A commanding tweet to immediately release individuals detained for breaking laws in a sovereign country is not an appropriate means of diplomatic dialogue, nor is it carrying out diplomatic relations.

What's the law that's been broken by Samar Badawi?

We're still going on these preliminary investigations to know exactly what these people have done.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland had signalled that Canada will not be backing down from its critical stance against Saudi Arabia's human rights record. (Patrick Doyle/Canadian Press)

If you can't explain what's going on, and if there are still questions as to why it is that they're being held, why shouldn't the Canadian government be concerned?

The Canadian government can be concerned, but the way they portray that, they cannot criticize — especially through social media.

They have just been detained. They go through the process of the law of the land. And every other country should respect that.

Saudi Arabia has kicked out Canada's ambassador. New trade has been frozen. We're hearing that the government is selling off Canadian assets, it's halted all flights to Canada. It's kicking out thousands of Saudi Arabian students all because of a tweet. Does that seem proportionate to you?

Yes, because that tweet has come from a diplomat, has come from a representative of the country, the Canadian country.

The Saudi government has accused Canada, and you've used this word as well, of meddling with Saudi Arabian sovereignty. There are a number of people, including a guest that we spoke with earlier this week, who say that that's a bit rich at the very least, and it's hypocritical on its face.

He's a professor. His name is Thomas Juneau. Here's what he said:

"Saudi Arabia is leading an extremely brutal war in its neighbour in Yemen, killing tens of thousands of people and completely ravaging the country. It's imposed an embargo on Qatar, its neighbour. It literally kidnapped and took as a hostage the Lebanese prime minister late last year. Saudi Arabia meddles far, far more than Canada ever has."

Reem, given that list of things that Saudi Arabia has been involved in, is it not a bit rich to accuse Canada of meddling?

Saudi Arabia has been protecting its borders. That's all it has been doing, whether with the blockade with Qatar, whether the fight with the Houthis in Yemen.

They do not intend to meddle in anyone's foreign or sovereign land.

And when it comes to taking hostage the Lebanese [Prime Minister,] he was never taken hostage and he said that himself.

So no. Saudi Arabia is the last country on Earth that would meddle in any other country.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chyristia Freeland says Saudi Arabia's new sanctions don't change Canada's position when it comes to human rights concerns in that country. 3:03

The Crown prince ... has trumpeted the fact that women for the first time are allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. And at the same time, women's rights activists are being thrown in prison. Do you see a disconnect between those two things?

Those activists have been proven that they were funded by Saudi Arabian adversaries.

I don't know that people have seen evidence of that. What do you mean by that?

It was given out in BSKSA, our No. 1 Saudi Arabian channel, that they were funded by Saudi Arabian adversaries. 

This is the channel funded by the Saudi Arabian government?

Correct.

Reem Daffa is the executive director the Washington-based Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee. (Submitted by Reem Daffa)

So again, you don't see a disconnect between the arrest of a women's rights activist and the belief that the government, and particularly the Crown prince, is improving the lives of women in Saudi Arabia?

There's a way to be an activist. There are multiple outlets in Saudi Arabia to talk to officials, to write letters to. You know, civil activism is actually being protected and being advanced in Saudi Arabia.

What's the wrong way to be an activist for women in Saudi Arabia?

The wrong way is being funded by other people outside of Saudi Arabia and criticizing —  just like what Canada is doing. Be part of the positive. Do not be part of the negative.

The woman that was cited in the tweet by Chrystia Freeland, Samar Badawi, her brother Raif Badawi has been sentenced to a thousand lashes, remains in prison in Saudi Arabia, now she finds herself behind bars as well. What is it about this family that Saudi Arabia is so afraid of?

I do not believe that Saudi Arabia is afraid of this family. I believe that this family is carrying out a way of activism that is negative in a way.

Let's say someone who is a terrorist or trying to blow up stuff, that's a bad way to call attention. That's harmful of other people.

So it must have been that whatever this family is carrying out, they're carrying it out in a harmful way.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.