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August 11, 2018

Saudi-Canadian tensions


August 11, 2018

The relationship between the West and Saudi Arabia has always been a hypocritical one. Even as Western countries arm the kingdom to the teeth, they regularly criticise the monarchy for its human rights abuses. The war in Yemen, where the Saudi-West combine is seen to be responsible for one of the greatest humanitarian crises in the world, is a perfect example of this transactional relationship. Now, however, Saudi Arabia seems to be changing the terms of the partnership. The statement by the Canadian foreign affairs ministry calling for the release of imprisoned human rights activists in Saudi Arabia has drawn a startlingly aggressive response from the Saudis. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has expelled the Canadian ambassador from Riyadh, recalled the Saudi own ambassador from Ottawa and is now withdrawing all Saudi patients who were receiving treatment in Canada as well as Saudi medical students studying in the country. Trade between Canada and Saudi Arabia is about $4 billion a year – a relative pittance for both countries. Prince Salman’s aim appears to be to send a warning signal to more important trading partners like the US and the European Union that he will no longer accept any criticism of his country’s human rights record. This is also a domestic power play as he tries to shore up support at home with his nationalist rhetoric and actions.

When King Salman chose the crown prince as his successor last year he was feted in the West as a reformer. His talk of liberalising the kingdom and the decision to lift the ban on women driving won him gushing praise. Even his so-called anti-corruption drive, where opponents to his rule were arrested, was lauded. The reality has turned out to be far different. Dissent is tolerated even less than his predecessors. Saudi Arabia’s issues with Canada mirror the actions taken against Qatar, against whom a blockade is still in place – a blockade cheered on by the US and other Western countries. For them to now complain that they are the targets of similar punitive measures underlines how sanctimonious they have always been when it comes to Saudi Arabia. There is every chance that Canada and the Saudis will eventually patch things up but the gauntlet has been thrown by the Saudi crown prince: either stay silent about the kingdom’s internal affairs or face the consequences.

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