RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — The storm started with a tweet by Canada’s foreign minister last week expressing alarm at the recent arrest of a women’s rights activist in Saudi Arabia who had relatives living in Canada, and calling for her release.
It was hardly the first time the kingdom, an absolute monarchy, had been chided for human rights abuses, or even the first time Canada had criticized the Saudi government since it started arresting the female activists in May. But under Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince, a kingdom once known for its go-slow approach to foreign affairs has frequently reacted to perceived challenges from abroad with haste, spit and fire, analysts said.
Canada’s criticism had highlighted Saudi Arabia’s ongoing crackdown on perceived dissidents, including a group of prominent female activists who campaigned for the lifting of a driving ban on women and other rights.
Prosecutors have accused some of the women of suspicious contact with unnamed foreign parties but kept silent on the reasons for other arrests. Human rights groups have speculated that the sweep is intended to send a message that the Saudi leadership will not tolerate any hint of political activism. A State Department official said Monday that the United States had “asked the Government of Saudi Arabia for additional information on the detention of several activists” and encouraged the Saudis to “respect due process and to publicize information on the status of legal cases,” according to Reuters.
In a statement early Monday, the Saudi Foreign 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 an “unacceptable affront to the Kingdom’s laws and judicial process.”
The statement expressed particular anger at Canada’s call for the release of the activists, calling it “reprehensible.”
Beyond the feud, the lightning escalation highlighted Saudi Arabia’s increasingly assertive foreign policy under Crown Prince Mohammed. While he has won praise for shaking up the hidebound kingdom, trying to diversify its economy and easing some social restrictions, he has also helped entangle Saudi Arabia in foreign conflicts — including a civil war in Yemen and a feud with neighboring Qatar — that the kingdom has struggled to exit.
In a strange episode in November, Saudi authorities detained Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and forced him to resign his post. (He later reclaimed the position.) When Germany’s foreign minister appeared to criticize the Hariri episode, Saudi Arabia summoned the German ambassador and complained of “shameful and unjustified remarks.”
Saudi Arabia has said its intervention in Yemen was necessary after a rebel group allied with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival, ousted the Yemeni government.
“It’s becoming a pattern. Over the last three years, the leadership is becoming more unpredictable, more volatile,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a Middle East fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute. “It’s injecting a lot of uncertainty at a time when they need people to enter Saudi Arabia and engage with it.”
But the Saudi decision to confront Canada was not without its logic, Ulrichsen added. “It sends a message to others who would think of criticizing Saudi policy, as several European countries have been doing over Yemen,” he said. And it was “cost-free, in their analysis — l ess costly in terms of their political, strategic and economic relationships than taking a stand against the U.S. or the U.K., for example.”
Two more activists were arrested last week, according to Human Rights Watch. One of the women, Nassima al-Sadah, had run for local elections and campaigned for abolishing so-called guardianship laws, which require women to seek approval from a male relative to travel or to marry. The other, Samar Badawi, received the U.S. secretary of state’s International Women of Courage Award and is the sister of dissident blogger Raif Badawi. Raif Badawi had been 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.
Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign affairs minister, said in a 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.” Three days later, the Canadian Embassy in Saudi Arabia posted the Foreign Ministry’s statement calling for the release of the women’s rights advocates on its Twitter account, in Arabic, ensuring it would be more widely read by Saudis.
“That could have been what triggered this response and made it so visceral in nature,” Ulrichsen said.
In a statement on Monday, Freeland said, “Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights, and freedom of expression around the world.”
Saudi Arabia is Canada’s second-largest export market in the Persian Gulf region; Canadian exports to the kingdom exceeded $1.4 billion Canadian in 2017, according to Statistics Canada data
The overwhelming majority of the exports to Saudi Arabia are vehicles and equipment, which included a $11.5 billion deal to sell more than 900 light armored vehicles to the Saudis.
That agreement, struck in 2014 by the Conservative government of then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was heavily criticized by civil rights groups, who said it was opaque and raised concerns 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.
At a news conference Monday in Vancouver, Freeland said that Canada’s diplomats have asked “procedural questions” of their Saudi counterparts and are “waiting for answers on how Saudi Arabia intends to go forward with the relationship.”
She said her message to Saudi students is that they are welcome in Canada and that “it would be a shame if they were deprived of the opportunity.”
Coletta reported from Ottawa.