Saudi Arabia on Wednesday pulled the plug on medical care for its citizens in Canada, the latest move in a crisis analysts say has less to do with Ottawa and more to do with Riyadh’s desire to project power.
The sudden deterioration in ties started with a Tweet.
Canada’s foreign ministry raised alarm over the arrest of a number of Saudi activists, including Samar Badawi, the sister of the jailed blogger Raif Badawi. Raif’s wife and children reside in Canada.
Most irksome to the Saudi authorities, Canada labeled those arrested as “peaceful human rights activists” and called for their “immediate release.”
The Saudi foreign ministry snapped back with a barrage of Tweets, calling the Canadian appeal an attack on its sovereignty, announcing a freeze on new trade deals, and declaring the Canadian ambassador a “persona non grata.”
Riyadh quickly cancelled all academic scholarships for its students in Canada, who number in the thousands. A $15 billion sale of Canadian combat vehicles, inked under the previous administration, hangs in the balance.
It was a shock response, but one that analysts say was calibrated to send a big message with minimal cost.
Canada, with which Saudi Arabia has relatively insignificant trade ties – around $3 billion per year (compared to over $45 billion with the US) – presented an opportune foil.
“Criticism like this is always taking place. Just look at the number of people from the US who’ve criticized Saudi Arabia in one way or another over the years,” said analyst Kamran Bokhari of the Center for Global Policy in Washington, DC.
“But this is coming from Canada.”
Canada, despite its weight as a G7 member, has less geopolitical influence around the world than Europe or its US neighbor.
For Saudi Arabia, the Canadian criticism offered a “relatively low-cost opportunity” to fire back.
“This is a way to showcase that Saudi Arabia is willing to confront even Western allies,” Bokhari told the Asia Times.
Projecting power at home
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the past year has driven home a warning to his constituents and detractors: change comes only from the top.
As he turned the taps of social change, allowing women to drive, he quashed the possibility of independent change outside his timetable or control.
In May, one month before women began driving, a group of women’s rights advocates were thrown in prison over accusations of working on behalf of foreign powers. Several have been freed but the arrests have continued.
Canada’s call for the release of Saudi human rights activists gave the Crown Prince a new opportunity to tell Saudi Arabia’s allies around the world – and his constituents at home – that the kingdom will not be told what to do.
That nationalist message has an appeal at home for young Saudis, says Bessma Momani, a professor of political science at Canada’s University of Waterloo.
“I’ve spoken to many Saudis who reflect on the 1970s oil boom, and how this all went into the US Treasury. Washington said open the taps and they’d open, close the taps, and they’d close. There is this looking down on Saudis … and all of a sudden there’s this leader who says, ‘No, we can do. We’re a world leader. We’re G20.’ It’s understandably intoxicating to go from being this weak party to throwing their weight around for their own benefit.
“Finally a visionary leader who’s going to get us there. It’s sexy to be powerful and fast and moving your society, but in international affairs, it can be very damaging,” she said.
Looking to Russia and China
Riyadh may have succeeded in making governments like Germany think twice before critiquing its human rights record.
But on the economic front, the crown prince – who has prioritized his relationship with the Trump administration – may be warding off new relationships with the West.
The Saudis “need foreign investment. They may have overplayed their hand and spooked some who may have wanted to come,” a Western diplomat told the Asia Times on condition of anonymity.
The $3 billion Saudi-Canadian trade relationship “isn’t huge but it means there’s always a few deals being explored.”
“Maybe they feel China and Russia will fill the space left by skittish Westerners. But China and Russia are being counted on by an awful lot of economies shunned by the West,” including Iran and Syria, the diplomat said.
Under normal circumstances, the Saudi-Canadian flap could be resolved by a high-level meeting.
Discussions on human rights would be held privately, while publicly, both sides would pledge to move forward through dialogue and mutual respect.
Then, the ambassadors could return to their posts and trade and investment would resume.
“But is that what the KSA wants?” the diplomat questioned. “Are they looking to get out of this?”
“Or do they wear this as a badge of pride.”