09 AUG 2018: Saudi Arabia has announced that it is suspending future trade with Canada and severing diplomatic ties. It has recalled its envoy from Ottawa and gave Canadian Ambassador Dennis Horrak 24 hours to leave the country. It cancelled scholarships for more than 15,000 Saudi students attending universities in Canada and has now cancelled all Saudia flights from and to Toronto, effective 13 August. Did Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland’s tweet last week really initiate such an extraordinary reaction? Well, she is a woman and Saudis cannot like a female, foreign minister or otherwise, telling them who they can toss into their jails or flog. But is that all? Of course not.

The Globe and Mail suggested that “Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is using Canada to send a strong signal to Western governments to scale back criticism of his country and that certainly seems to be the message.

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia  directed asset managers to sell off Canadian equities as part of the escalating response to Canada's criticism according to a report by the Financial Times.

The Saudi central bank and state pension funds have sent instructions to overseas asset managers to dispose of Canadian equities, bond, and cash holdings at any cost, the newspaper said, citing unnamed sources.

Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said, “The main purpose for Saudi Arabia here is not to penalize Canada per se. ... This is a message to Western countries: stop criticizing us on human rights or else we will retaliate.”

The fact of the matter is that Saudi Arabia has an abysmal record on Human Rights – it’s pretty well a fixture on every ‘worst human rights’ list you can find and has been criticized by other governments, so why the sudden overreaction?

Well, to begin with, Canada and Saudi Arabia are not major trading partners, they can afford to offend us and in doing so send a not-so-subtle message to other countries that they will strike back if criticized … maybe…

While relatively mild criticism from Canada results in a histrionic ‘take my ball and go home’ reaction, disapproval from the UK, on the other hand, can be ignored. Britain – London, especially, is full Saudi Princes and millionaires and their entourages and both Kingdoms have significant economic and business ties, consequently when the UK has criticized Saudi Arabia, it can be ignored. And of course, straining, let alone breaking ties with the US would be unthinkable on both sides.
So, what did Freeland say that was so offensive. Here’s the tweet:

“Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women's rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists.”

This is not particularly unusual and would usually not engender any reaction – certainly not the dramatic hissy-fit it did. Supposedly the Saudi Foreign Ministry took exception to the use of the term “immediately release,” calling it “unfortunate, reprehensible, and unacceptable in relations between states.”

“Any other attempt to interfere with our internal affairs from Canada, means that we are allowed to interfere in Canada's internal affairs,” the Saudi government said, rather fancying itself as a Middle Eastern Putin.

Amnesty International has said Badawi, the sister of jailed blogger Raif Badawi, was recently detained along with Nassima al-Sada, another prominent female activist.

And yes, there is a Canadian component to this story. Samar Badawi has long campaigned on behalf of her brother Raif, a blogger sentenced in 2014 to 10 years and 1,000 lashes for apostasy and "insulting Islam through electronic channels."

Apostasy which is the renunciation of a political or religious belief, is illegal in Saudi Arabia and a Muslim changing his religion or renouncing Islam, is defined as apostasy and punishable by death.

After Raif Badawi's arrest in 2012, his wife and Samar's sister-in-law Ensaf Haidar, fled to Canada with their three children. On Canada Day this year, they were granted Canadian citizenship.

During her time in Canada, Haidar has assiduously campaigned for the release of her husband.

Freeland stood by Canada's position on Monday, saying Canadians expect their government's foreign policy to be guided by their values.

“We are always going to speak up for human rights, we are always going to speak up for women's rights and that is not going to change.”

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