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Saudi-Canadian relations take an unnecessary turn

Editorial

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/8/2018 (784 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The foreign ministers of Canada and Saudi Arabia should be more adroit than that. Because of amateur mistakes by Canada’s Chrystia Freeland and Saudi Arabia’s Adel al-Jubeir, the two countries now have to dig themselves out from the damage done by a weekend of unnecessary mutual abuse.

Ms. Freeland’s Thursday tweet calling for the release of two prisoners in Saudi Arabia was followed on Friday by a tweet from her Global Affairs department urging the Saudi authorities to release Samar Badawi and all other peaceful human-rights activists. These messages, while no doubt reflective of many Canadians’ feelings on the issue, were empty gestures, not exercises of governmental power. They may have given Ms. Freeland the warm inner feeling of standing up for justice, but they neither brought nor promised any benefit to human-rights activists.

Nathan Denette / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES</p><p>Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland</p>

Nathan Denette / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland

The Saudi reaction was immediate and ferocious. Samar and her brother Raif Badawi had been detained for crimes they had committed and they are enjoying the rights guaranteed by Saudi law, the Saudi government announced. Therefore, the kingdom was expelling Canada’s ambassador and recalling its ambassador from Ottawa. In quick succession, Saudia Airlines suspended its service to Toronto and Saudi exchange students were told not to attend Canadian universities.

These were not empty gestures. These were blunt exercises of state power to impair diplomatic, travel and cultural contact between the two countries. They showed the world that Saudi Arabia intends to keep persecuting human-rights campaigners as it has always done, even if it has to punish its overseas students, its travellers and its diplomatic corps to make that point.

Ms. Freeland should have known enough to find out in advance how the Saudis would react to her personal and departmental tweets. She should not have blithely assumed that, just because her gestures were purely symbolic, they would provoke no response.

Mr. al-Jubeir should have known enough to dispute Ms. Freeland’s opinions verbally without hurting innocent bystanders. The net effect of his action is to show the world that his government is extremely intolerant of critical comment and is willing to use state power to silence critics. His response to the Canadian tweets was absurdly excessive and turned an ephemeral digital whisper into an expanding international conflict.

RCMP question a man on a bike in front of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and then searched the area with flashlights in Ottawa on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Kawai

CP

RCMP question a man on a bike in front of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and then searched the area with flashlights in Ottawa on Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/David Kawai

In this age of tweeting presidents, public figures need to understand how to tweet and when to ignore unwelcome tweets. Ms. Freeland might have done better to line up a group of allies and then put out a message jointly with them in support of Saudi human-rights campaigners. Her solo gesture set this country up as a target for retaliation. She might also have done well to express her opinions privately to the Saudis first and find out how they would respond to a public expression.

The Saudi authorities, for their part, had better get used to governments in the democratic West urging them toward reform. The more prominent Saudi Arabia becomes as an Islamic champion in its region, the more attention will be paid to its treatment of women and minorities, its respect for international norms, the quality of its courts and its prisons and the conduct of its police forces.

Canadians are well used to receiving unwanted advice from foreigners and public officials about the way we run our country. It can be helpful to face such challenges when they force us to explain why we treat Indigenous people this way and why we pollute our environment so recklessly. The Saudis, likewise, should appreciate criticism, not silence it.

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