All Saudi medical treatment programmes in Canada have been cancelled and arrangements are already underway to move patients out of the country, a state-run Saudi news agency said on Wednesday, citing Fahd bin Ibrahim Al Tamimi, the Saudi health attaché to the US and Canada.
The move comes after Saudi Arabia took the stern step this week of expelling the Canadian ambassador and suspending all new trade and investment between the two countries – a retaliation for criticism of the arrests of Saudi civil rights activists.
“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 on Monday.
Since then, Riyadh has also halted academic exchange programmes, giving 15,000 Saudi students one month to transfer elsewhere, and Saudia, the state airline, has announced the suspension of flights to Toronto.
Legions of automated social media bots have begun calling for the secession of Quebec, and Saudi-owned media have also launched a wave of attacks on Canada’s own human rights and prisons record.
Al Arabiya, the pan-Arab news channel, incorrectly told viewers on Wednesday that 75 per cent of prisoners in Canadian jails died before trial. Another Saudi channel aired an interview in which a pundit claimed Canada is the worst country in the world for the treatment of women.
Canada has offered a muted response to the extraordinary Saudi campaign in what is believed to be an attempt to calm the crisis.
Reports surfaced on Wednesday that Ottawa is seeking help from the UK along with Saudi neighbour and ally the United Arab Emirates to defuse the escalating spat.
The international community has remained notably quiet after Canada rebuked Saudi Arabia over the arrests of Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah, the latest detentions in a crackdown on women’s rights and civil society activists which began in May.
New Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has ushered in a wave of social and economic reforms since his appointment last June. Critics note, however, that the royal decrees do not go as far as addressing the kingdom’s strict laws on freedom of expression, assembly or liberal use of capital punishment.
While the US is traditionally Canada’s greatest foreign policy ally, Washington has made it clear it will not involve itself in the row.
“Both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together. We can’t do it for them; they need to resolve it together,” US state department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters on Tuesday.
A British government statement also issued on Tuesday urged both nations to show restraint.
Relations between Ottawa and Riyadh have soured since Canadian Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau entered office in 2015.
Since the election of Donald Trump, Washington and Riyadh have grown closer, and the US president and Mr Trudeau’s relationship has deteriorated over trade tariffs and Nato spending.