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Canada tweet seen to cross Riyadh red line

No apology … Ottawa seeks diplomatic help

OTTAWA/RIYADH/DUBAI, Aug 11, (Agencies): For years, Canadian pressure on human rights in Saudi Arabia had elicited no more than a standard rejection. But all that changed last week, when a Canadian complaint was translated into Arabic and set off a diplomatic row.

When Riyadh responded to a call from Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland to release civil society activists with an abrupt severing of diplomatic and trade ties, Canadian officials were left scrambling to understand what had happened.

What Ottawa did not anticipate was that in the eyes of the Saudis they had crossed a red line.

The reaction from Saudi Arabia was swift. Hours after an Arabic tweet, the Saudi government recalled its ambassador, barred Canada’s envoy from returning and placed a ban on new trade.

Two Gulf sources said it was the tweet from the embassy that upset Saudi officials the most.

“Matters were being handled through usual channels but the tweet was a break with diplomatic norms and protocol,” said one of the sources, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

The sources did not clarify exactly how the tweet broke with diplomacy, but regional experts said it was the step of sending it to a domestic audience that would have angered Saudi officials.

“The Saudi retaliation took some time to allow for political talks in closed doors,” Salman al-Ansari, founder of the Washington-based Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee, said.

“They thought the Canadians would take steps to back off, but all of a sudden they tweeted it in Arabic. This was a very provocative action by the Canadians to try to embarrass the Saudis in front of their people. The Saudis did not take this lightly at all.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Jubeir raised the issue of the Arabic tweet in a call with Freeland on Tuesday, and complained about interference, a person familiar with the matter who declined to be named said.

Canadian officials say there was nothing remarkable about the Arabic tweet, which merely repeated Ottawa’s stated position in a common practice for delegations abroad.

Canada has raised the issue of civil society activist detentions before. As recently as May, Canada’s Riyadh embassy tweeted in English its concern about activist arrests and said it was “crucial that the rule of law” be respected, with no public Saudi response.

The outsized reaction to the tweet underscores how the kingdom is taking a much harsher stance against what it perceives as Western interference in its internal affairs on issues like human rights, perhaps emboldened by Washington’s willingness under Donald Trump to de-emphasize rights issues when it comes to its allies.

Riyadh and Washington have been enjoying an exceptionally close relationship — tense during the administration of former US president Barack Obama — as both Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Trump share similar concerns about Iran. By contrast, Trump and Trudeau locked horns during the G7 summit in June in an unusually public manner.

The US State Department this week urged the two sides to use diplomacy to resolve the dispute.

“Canada is collateral damage,” said Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor and Middle East expert at the University of Ottawa. “This fundamentally is not about Canada. This is about Saudi Arabia wanting to send a broader message to its neighbours, to other democracies.”

Canadian foreign affairs officials including Freeland, who were gathered at a Vancouver hotel for a conference on Sunday, were taken aback by the Saudi reaction and left scrambling. Canada, government insiders said, was still unclear on what steps it can take to “fix its big mistake”, as a Saudi official called it.

“I don’t think we have a conclusive understanding as of right now,” said a Canadian government source. “There may be the need for another call (between Freeland and Jubeir). We’re also obviously talking to our partners about it. We do not wish to have bad relations with them (the Saudis).”

Inside Saudi Arabia, the measures were supported by a media campaign criticizing Canada’s human rights record and praising the Saudi ruler’s firmness in “protecting the kingdom’s sovereignty.”

Saudi state television channels aired reports on the struggle of indigenous people in Canada and said they had been historically subject to discrimination. Other reports listed “the worst Canadian prisons” and described harsh prison conditions.

Thousands of Twitter accounts bearing Saudi flags tweeted on the dispute, elevating the phrase “Saudi Arabia expels the Canadian ambassador” to one of the world’s most popular hashtags. Many of the tweets used suspiciously similar language, often a sign of a coordinated campaign by bots, or automated accounts.

Saud al-Qahtani, a senior royal court adviser, tweeted a link announcing the decision to ban new trade on Monday along with the hashtag “Saudi first” — echoing a phrase popularized by Trump.

Meanwhile, Canada is quietly nudging allies including Germany and Sweden for help with resolving its row with Saudi Arabia, a government source confirmed Thursday.

The senior official, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the diplomacy, said Freeland had spoken with her counterparts in the two European nations.

Germany and Sweden previously were targets of Saudi backlashes for calling out the kingdom over human rights abuses.

Freeland sought to understand how they resolved those disputes, and asked for their support, the official said. Ottawa also planned to reach out to regional heavyweight the United Arab Emirates and Britain, which has strong historical ties to Saudi Arabia.

Women’s rights advocates, charitable organizations, and civil rights groups, meanwhile, urged the international community “to join Canada in calling for the unequivocal respect of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.”

They also called for Riyadh to “immediately release” women activists in detention, and commended Freeland “for her uncompromising stand for human rights, and for her bold leadership in walking the talk on women’s rights globally.”

“We join Canada in urging Saudi Arabia to release women’s rights activists Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sada,” said the statement signed by 22 non-governmental groups and individuals, including the Nobel Women’s Initiatve, Oxfam, and Lawyers without Borders.

Tensions have been high since Monday, when Riyadh expelled Canada’s ambassador, recalled its own envoy and froze all new trade and investments after Ottawa denounced a crackdown on rights activists in Saudi Arabia.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood firm, saying: “Canada will always speak strongly and clearly in private and in public on questions of human rights … at home and abroad, wherever we see the need.”

“Canadians expect that, and indeed people around the world expect that leadership from Canada,” he said.

Trudeau noted that Freeland had “a long conversation” on Tuesday with her counterpart Adel al-Jubeir to try to resolve the dispute.

“Diplomatic talks continue,” he said.

Canada has been disappointed that Western powers including the United States — a key ally of Saudi Arabia — did not publicly support Ottawa.

“Both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together. We can’t do it for them. They need to resolve it together,” US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told a briefing on Wednesday.

In March 2015, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Stockholm over criticism by the Swedish foreign minister of Riyadh’s human rights record.

Earlier this year, Bloomberg News reported that Saudi Arabia was scaling back its dealings with some German companies amid a diplomatic spat with Berlin.

The move came after Germany’s foreign minister last November remarked that Lebanon was a “pawn” of Saudi Arabia after the surprise resignation of its Prime Minister Saad Hariri while in Riyadh.

When Saudi Arabia ordered its citizens studying in Canada to abruptly leave the country it left institutions like Techno Canada in the lurch, forcing the small Toronto business school to scramble for new students in the middle of the summer.

But that doesn’t mean the school’s director wants his government to abandon its advocacy of civil rights in Saudi Arabia, which prompted the worst diplomatic rift in history between the two countries.

“I am very much with my government to stand up for human rights,” the head of Techno Canada, Basu Mukherjee, said as he conceded the loss of Saudi students will hurt his bottom line. “It is going to be hard, but we will try our best to replace them.”

Similar sentiments have been expressed in recent days across Canada as schools, hospitals and even some businesses largely shrug at Saudi Arabia’s decision to punish the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau over tweets supporting two jailed dissident bloggers.

In a sign that the Saudis may not have as much leverage over Canada as they thought, many in the country say they are less concerned about the effects on Canada of the diplomatic spat than they are concerned for the well-being of the 15,000 students who were told they cannot resume studies for the fall semester and 800 doctors and medical residents who must leave by Sept 1.

“It’s very difficult for people who have families and leases,” said Dr Salvatore Spadafora who oversees 216 of Saudi doctors and medical residents in the Toronto Academic Health Sciences Network. “They are all working very, very hard and trying to study and then this happens.”

The Saudi government expelled Canada’s ambassador to the kingdom and withdrew its own ambassador on Sunday, days after two Canadian tweets in support of arrested activist Samar Badawi, whose writer brother Raif Badawi was arrested in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and later sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for insulting Islam. Then it halted flights by its national airline and ordered the students home, a decision that affects institutions as small as Techno Canada, which has just 40 people enrolled, to major institutions such as the University of Toronto.

Even though the Saudis are a significant presence in Canadian hospitals and in higher-education, contributing about Can$1 billion to Can$1.5 billion ($770 million to $1.1 billion) to the Canadian economy last year, the overall effect is minimal since other foreign students can easily replace them.

Spadafora said other medical students will pick up the shifts of the Saudi residents and physicians when they go home by Sept 1.

Brian Hodges, who oversees about 94 from Saudi Arabia including 58 or 59 trained specialists or fellows at Toronto’s University Health Network, said patient care won’t be affected. “The first priority really is figure how to support them,” he said. “Many have been with us for five or four years and are close to doing exams.”

Trudeau, a staunch defender of woman’s rights, is not backing down and has received only limited criticism from domestic opponents.

“Canadians have always expected our government to speak strongly, firmly, clearly and politely about the need to respect human rights at home and around the world,” he said.

Financial markets did not appear hurt by the dispute amid reports that the Saudis intended to unload Canadian assets. There were rumors that Kingdom Holding Co intended to sell its 47.5 percent stake in the Toronto-based luxury hotel chain Four Seasons. A company spokeswoman, Sarah Tuite, would only say that “day to day operations” have not changed. “It is business as usual,” she said.

Bilateral trade between the two nations is just $3 billion a year. Canada does get 10 percent of its imported crude oil from Saudi Arabia, but even if the dispute escalates further Saudi oil could potentially be replaced with US shale oil or oil from Canada’s oil sands region — the third largest oil reserves in the world.

Saudi Arabia’s energy minister said oil sales to Canada will not be affected.

The worst potential impact on Canada would be if Saudi Arabia canceled Canada’s largest arms deal, a $15 billion deal with Saudi Arabia in 2014 to export its light-armored vehicles to the kingdom. Jim Reid, a union leader who represents 500 workers at the General Dynamics facility in London, said that could lead to job losses.

The Canadian foreign ministry says they have heard nothing about the contract.

“The Saudi’s are shooting themselves in the foot,” Reid said. “Yes, it’s going to cause some economic hardship for some universities and colleges and hospitals but this is disrupting their own citizens’ lives whether they are doctors in hospitals or students. It boggles the mind.”

Robert Bothwell, a professor at the University of Toronto, said anything Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman does to harm Canada will also harm a range of Saudi interests including their investments and students.

“The Saudi monarchy is playing around with thousands of Saudi subjects, slaves. Their interests are not being regarded. They are just pawns and that’s very much to be regretted,” Bothwell said.

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