Canada’s foreign ministry has said it is “seriously concerned” and “seeking greater clarity” from Saudi Arabia after the conservative kingdom’s decision to expel the Canadian ambassador and freeze all new trade between the two countries.
The statement on Monday from spokesperson Marie-Pier Baril also reiterated Ottawa’s commitment to international human rights after Canada’s initial comments on the detention of Saudi women’s rights activists, which sparked the escalating diplomatic row.
Riyadh’s diplomatic community was left reeling on Sunday night after a royal statement carried by the Saudi state news agency announced the expulsion of Canadian ambassador Dennis Horak and a suspension of business ties.
Both Mr Horak and the Saudi ambassador to Canada, who was also recalled, are believed to be on holiday.
The extreme measures come after Canada’s diplomatic department tweeted criticism of the arrests of two Saudi civil society activists last week, the latest detentions in a crackdown that began in May.
“Any other attempt to interfere with our internal affairs from Canada means that we are allowed to interfere in Canada’s internal affairs,” a Saudi foreign ministry statement said.
Saudi news outlets reported on Monday that the country had also halted joint academic exchange programmes and scholarship agreements with Canada, and would transfer Saudi students currently in the country elsewhere. Saudia, the state airline, announced late on Monday it had suspended flights to Toronto.
On social media networks, pro-Saudi accounts believed to be automated bots have begun tweeting support for Quebec’s secession from Canada and criticism of Canada’s high rates of domestic violence.
A tweet from an official government account did not mention Canada, but scolded those who “stick one’s nose where it doesn’t belong”. The tweet, accompanied by a picture of what appeared to be an Air Canada passenger plane flying towards a city skyline, was widely criticised for its echoes of the 9/11 terror attacks. It was later deleted.
The muted Canadian response so far may be calculated to try and calm the situation, Professor Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa and former department of national defence official, told The Independent.
“This is an excessive reaction on Saudi Arabia’s part to what were really quite standard comments from a Western ally,” he said.
“Generally speaking, the kingdom’s foreign policy has been much more aggressive and impulsive under new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman. We have seen this in Saudi’s role in Yemen, in Lebanon and across the region.”
Canada said last week it was “gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi”.
Ms Badawi is a lawyer and sister to blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison in 2012 for criticising the country’s clerical establishment. His wife Ensaf Haidar and three children now live in Quebec.
The whereabouts of Ms Badawi along with Nassima al-Sadah, arrested on the same day, are currently unknown. Several other prominent female activists remain in prison near Jeddah, where no charges have been brought against them.
If convicted under counterterrorism legislation they could face up to 20 years in prison.
Since the powerful Mohammed bin Salman was appointed crown prince by his father last June the kingdom has ushered in dozens of social and economic reforms designed to wean the country off dependence on oil.
Among the most high profile moves was the lifting of the long-standing driving ban for women, although critics noted it was accompanied by a spate of arrests targeting the country’s tiny activist community. Analysts say the crackdown was intended as a signal that only the royal family can decide the pace of Saudi modernisation.
The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, neighbours and allies of the kingdom, have both supported Riyadh’s decision to “defend its sovereignty” in the row with Canada, but the rest of the international community has remained notably silent.
Saudi Arabia may be trying to “establish a new precedent with western states”, Dr Hisham A Hellyer, senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute in London, told The Independent.
“If such states wish to have a fully normalised relationship with Riyadh, they should remain silent on domestic abuses in Saudi Arabia. And if western capitals so much as think twice before they issue such comments in the future, Riyadh would have gained something,” he said.
“For all the media frenzy about Saudi ‘reforms’, these relationships internationally are far more about trade than anything else.”
Samah Hadid, Middle East director of campaigns at Amnesty International, called on Riyadh to “end its crackdown” rather than “lash out with punitive diplomatic and trade sanctions”.
“Now is the time for other governments like the UK and US to join Canada in increasing the pressure for genuine, lasting human rights reforms in Saudi Arabia,” she added.
Relations between Ottawa and Riyadh have deteriorated since Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau was sworn into office in 2015.
The new premier decided to leave a controversial arms deal worth $13bn (£10bn) in place, but then “chose to stop talking about Saudi Arabia completely, much to the Saudis’ frustration”, said Prof Juneau.
It is not clear where the dispute is going next, but Sunday’s decision could be “difficult to walk back, at least in the short term”, he added.
“This spat is nowhere near as costly as, say, Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the war in Yemen. But so far what we’ve seen from Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia is impulsiveness, and he doesn’t like to back down.”