The unusually heated dispute between the two governments was the latest international fallout from Saudi Arabia’s domestic crackdown on perceived dissenters, including the arrests of its most prominent women’s rights activists.
Since May, Saudi authorities have detained more than a dozen of the activists, accusing some of illegal contact with foreign entities while branding them as traitors in the local press. Some of the activists had campaigned for decades to allow Saudi women the right to drive — and were rounded up in the weeks before the Saudi government lifted the driving ban.
Two more activists were arrested last week, according to human rights advocates, including Samar Badawi, the sister of dissident blogger Raif Badawi who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail in Saudi Arabia for “insulting Islam through electronic channels.” His wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children became Canadian citizens on Canada Day last month and live in Quebec.
The Saudi ministry described Canada’s criticism of the arrests as “blatant interference in the kingdom’s domestic affairs, against basic international norms and all international protocols” and a “major, unacceptable affront to the kingdom’s laws and judicial process, as well as a violation of the kingdom’s sovereignty.”
In an email, Marie-Pier Baril, a spokeswoman for Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said that “Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, very much including women’s rights, and freedom of expression around the world” and was seeking “greater clarity” from the Saudi government.
Freeland said in tweet Aug. 2 that she was “very alarmed” to learn of Samar’s arrest and that the government would “continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.”
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has led a drive to reform his country by diversifying its economy, lifting some social restrictions while curbing the influence of the once-powerful “religious police” who enforced austere moral codes. The changes, though, have been accompanied by a steady drumbeat of repression, including the arrest of popular clerics, prominent business executives and the women’s rights advocates — sending a message, analysts said, that the reforms do not include a sliver of tolerance for political expression.
Saudi Arabia is Canada’s second largest export market in the Gulf region and Canadian exports to the kingdom exceeded 1.4 billion Canadian dollars in 2017, according to Statistics Canada data.
The overwhelming majority of its exports to Saudi Arabia are in vehicles and equipment, which included a controversial $11.5 billion deal to sell more than 900 light armored vehicles to the Saudis.
The agreement, struck in 2014 by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was heavily criticized by civil rights groups who said that it was opaque and feared that the weapons would be used to carry out human rights abuses.
Justin Trudeau, Harper’s successor, approved the deal in the spring of 2016 when his government began issuing export permits, arguing that he had little choice but to respect contracts signed by the previous government.
Freeland said in February that her department’s investigation into reports that Saudi Arabia was using Canadian-made arms to perpetrate human rights violations turned up “no conclusive evidence” to support those claims.
In a sign of possible further diplomatic tensions, a top official from the United Arab Emirates — a close Saudi ally — said the country stands with Riyadh. A tweet by the UAE’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, expressed support for Saudi Arabia “in defending its sovereignty,” but did not indicate any moves by the UAE against Canada.
Fahim reported from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Brian Murphy in Washington contributed to this report.