Day 6

Et tu quoque, Trudeau? How Saudi trolls slammed Canada in a diplomatic spat

Saudi media levelled attacks on Canada as part of its diplomatic dispute. Human rights activist Iyad el-Bagdadhi says the Twitter attacks are not a new strategy.

'It was a really bizarre case of whataboutism, if you don't even know how to do whataboutism right'

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Canada have been heightened since a tweet posted by Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystie Freeland criticised the arrest of women's rights activists in Saudi last week. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Amid the ongoing diplomatic feud between between Canada and Saudi Arabia, Saudi Twitter accounts have used the opportunity to attack Canada and pull at national tensions.

They accuse Canada of, among other things, cultural genocide against Indigenous people and denying Quebec its independence.

"[It's] a really bizarre kind of propaganda," said Iyad el-Baghdadi, the president of the Oslo-based Kawaakibi Center, an NGO focused on the future of liberty in the Arab world.

"The way that I described it the other day is that the sewers have overflowed."

El-Baghdad spoke with Day 6 about how these social media attacks aren't an unusual tactic for Saudi Arabia and how trolls are seizing the opportunity.

Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland criticised Saudi's arrest of women's rights activists last week, and continues to stand by this stance despite a series of sanctions imposed by Saudi Arabia. (J. Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press)

Brent Bambury: What was your reaction when you heard about Saudi Arabia's response to the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister?

Iyad el-Baghdadi: Well, it did come as a shock. In a sense, it's kind of something, which is shocking but not surprising, given Saudi Arabia's kind of erratic foreign policy over the past two or three years. I don't want to minimize it by calling it a tantrum, but that's kind of what it's come across as. This kind of behaviour from Saudi Arabia has been routine within the region — it's the first time that we see this behaviour toward a Western country.

Every time he is criticized he doubles down. This is his modus operandi.- Iyad el-Baghdadi

BB: You said that you don't want to minimize it but there are a lot of apparent Saudi accounts on Twitter that are trolling Canada in the most bizarre way. How common is this strategy?

IB: Well, that's the whole thing about this not being surprising. This has been a reality, unfortunately, for like three years now. Saudi Twitter used to be one of the most dynamic public spheres, probably in the world. Of course, dictatorships generally do not like it when their citizens are empowered to speak out.

Fake news, kind of really spammy behaviour, a really bizarre kind of propaganda — we've seen it since 2015, but it was kind of restricted to the Arabic language sphere. The way that I described it the other day is that the sewers have overflowed.

BB: It was shocking to see what was apparently an official response tied up in so much misinformation, and, as I said, in actual trolling. So that's the Twittersphere. But what about local media in Saudi Arabia? How are they covering this dispute?

IB: I did cover some of it on my Twitter account, just to translate some of the stuff that's being said in Arabic into English. It was a really bizarre case of whataboutism, if you don't even know how to do whataboutism right.

BB: Give me an example.

IB: For example, they're calling out Canada's human rights violations. So, the guy is like saying something about how Canada has the worst levels of persecution of women and that Canada supports terrorism against Saudi Arabia and globally.

Al Arabiya is a Arab station and they had reportage about Canada's prisoners of conscience, and apparently they think that [University of Toronto political-correctness critic] Jordan Peterson is a prisoner of conscience.

BB: So there is this enthusiastic pile-on from the Saudi establishment but the blowback is emanating from Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman who's tried to fashion himself as a reformist for the country. How does this reaction fit into this image that he's trying to craft for himself?

IB: Well, that's the bizarre part over here because Mohammed bin Salman has spent the better part of three years and literally billions of dollars to polish this image of a sleek reformer. All of this is happening because he's trying to shut down the Saudi feminism scene, and this is coming right after he comes back from the United States. He had at this tour, he met a lot of celebrities, he even met Oprah.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is presenting himself as the one who will reform Saudi Arabia, but el-Baghdadi says that the international legitimacy he's feeling hasn't stopped him from doubling down on women's rights activists. (Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

He's feeling all of this international legitimacy that he's a guy who's going to make this happen, reform Saudi Arabia. And immediately, within weeks, he's already issued a directive to arrest Saudi Arabia's women's rights activists — and he did that right before lifting the driving ban.

He doesn't want the lesson to be that women's rights activism works and creates change.

BB: You clearly think this is a poor policy that's been badly implemented, but what will the effect of all of this have on women's rights activists, the ones who are imprisoned in Saudi Arabia? Is it possible that Canada might be inadvertently making their situation worse?

IB: This is a big question, because the real question here is: how is it possible to actually influence someone who is just so hell-bent on persecuting these women? Every time he is criticized, he doubles down. This is his modus operandi. 

So I wouldn't be blaming Canada so much over here, but it does worry me that he seems so adamant about persecuting these women.

BB: It's hard to predict the future here, but how do you think this might end?

IB: Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, Mohammad bin Salman has a tendency to start large actions that end up as quagmires, and I think unfortunately this is going to last for a while.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Iyad el-Baghdadi, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.