Dissent & diplomacy: on the Saudi-Canada spat

The Saudi-Canada spat calls into doubt Riyadh’s seriousness on social reform

Saudi Arabia’s furious response to Canada’s criticism of the arrest of rights activists in the Kingdom once again calls into question Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s professed commitment to reform. Having ascended last June to be second in line to the throne, he had promised progressive economic and political change. Since then, Saudi Arabia has allowed women to drive, cracked down on hardliners among the clergy and projected itself as a moderate Islamic country that respects people’s rights, compared to “extremist Iran”. But when Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland called for the release of Samar Badawi, a Saudi women’s rights activist who was detained last week, and her brother Raif Badawi, Riyadh took a series of unilateral steps. Terming Ms. Freeland’s appeal as interference in its domestic affairs, it expelled the Canadian Ambassador, called back its envoy from Ottawa, froze trade with Canada and said it would transfer out some 12,000 Saudi citizens studying in Canadian universities. Ms. Badawi has long campaigned against Saudi Arabia’s guardianship laws that require all Saudi women to have a male guardian. Riyadh is yet to give reasons for the arrest. Her brother, who ran a website critical of the Saudi religious establishment, was sentenced to 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes in 2014.

On overseas visits, Prince Mohammed has dwelt on his plan to improve women’s rights and strengthen the economy. He is also obliquely critical of the guardianship laws, saying they did not exist in Saudi Arabia before 1979 — the year of the Iranian revolution and the siege of the Grand Mosque at Mecca. But despite this rhetoric on rights, the palace has shown little tolerance of political criticism at home. Since May, many women’s rights activists have been detained. In addition, dozens of lawyers, human rights defenders and intellectuals have been arrested since September 2017. Interestingly, while most Western governments refrain from commenting on the crackdown against dissent in Saudi Arabia, Canada has given refuge to Mr. Badawi’s wife and children. For Canada, the spat could prove costly. Saudi Arabia is its second largest export destination in West Asia. The two countries have signed a $12 billion arms deal, which is still in the works. But despite the aggressive Saudi response, Ottawa had stood by its Foreign Minister, saying it will continue to back “the protection of human rights, including women’s rights”. For Prince Mohammed, the diplomatic crisis is an opportunity to rethink the Kingdom’s approach towards dissent and diplomacy. If he is indeed serious about reform, Riyadh should be lenient towards its advocates. Taking vengeful action against those who stand by rights activists will neither help Saudi Arabia’s image nor attract investment into the country.

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