Saudi Arabia is really, really upset that Canada criticized its treatment of human rights activists.
Last Friday, the Canadian Foreign Ministry said it was “gravely concerned” about the arrests of several prominent activists, including Saudi-American women’s rights activist Samar Badawi.
On Monday, the Saudi Foreign Ministry ordered the expulsion of Canadian Ambassador Dennis Horak — giving him just 24 hours to leave the country — and announced that it would recall its own ambassador to the country. The ministry also halted all new trade with Canada and said that it reserved the “right to take further action.”
“Throughout its long history, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has never accepted any interference in its domestic affairs by, or orders from any country,” the Foreign Ministry said. “The Kingdom views the Canadian position as an affront to the Kingdom that requires a sharp response to prevent any party from attempting to meddle with Saudi sovereignty.”
Hours later, the Saudi government announced that government-funded scholarships for all Saudi students studying in Canada will be rescinded. Training programs and fellowships to Canada are also suspended.
Jasser bin Sulaiman Al Harbash, Saudi Arabia’s deputy minister for education for scholarship, told state run-television that 12,000 Saudi students are currently studying in Canada, about 7,000 of whom have received a scholarship from the government. He said that those students will be transferred to schools in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.
It’s a huge escalation over the human rights criticism.
Last fall, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS, announced that women would get the right to drive in June. But before the law officially went into effect, the government began detaining prominent women’s rights activists, many of whom specifically fought for women’s right to drive.
“Activists say the detentions are intended to prevent anyone from stealing credit for the decision from the government,” the Wall Street Journal reported in June.
Activists like Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef, and Eman al-Nafjan remained behind bars as the law officially went into effect. The U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that at least 15 human rights activists have been arrested or arbitrarily detained since mid-May.
Last week, two women’s rights activists were arrested: Nassima al-Sadah and Samar Badawi, who is the sister of Raif Badawi, an activist who was arrested in 2012 for “insulting Islam through electronic channels.” He was later sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. Raif’s wife and three children became Canadian citizens last month.
Badawi, who received the U.S. International Women of Courage Award in 2012, has fought against Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system that puts men in charge of aspects of women’s lives like getting work, leaving the country, or getting a passport. Sadah had similarly fought against the male guardianship system and campaigned for the right to drive.
Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland said Thursday that she was “very alarmed” to learn of the imprisonment of Samar Badawi. “Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi,” Freeland wrote on Twitter.
It doesn’t seem like tensions between the two countries will be easing any time soon.
Also on Monday morning, a pro-Saudi Twitter account shared an image of a plane flying into a building in Toronto. The caption of the photo read “As the Arabic saying goes: ‘He who interferes with what doesn’t concern him finds what doesn’t please him.'”
Now deleted, here a screenshot of the threatening Saudi "infographic" featuring an airliner headed for the Toronto skyline. pic.twitter.com/LrkCLxxjFk
— Tobias Schneider (@tobiaschneider) August 6, 2018
The tweet seems to invoke the September 11, 2001 attacks, during which planes were flown into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center buildings in New York City. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals.
The tweet has since been deleted. The account, which is verified and followed by a number of Saudi diplomats, apologized for circulating the image and said it was “intended to symbolize the return of the Ambassador.” The account’s relationship to the Saudi government is not clear, but as the Washington Post noted, it has been referred to as “an official government” account in Saudi-owned state media in the past.