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The U.S. Needs to Stand Up for Canada in Its Feud With Saudi Arabia

An unexpected feud with Saudi Arabia could provide a test of how far Justin Trudeau’s government is willing to go to defend its principles—and whether Donald Trump’s government has any.

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In response to the Canadian foreign ministry’s criticism of the arrest of two prominent Saudi women’s rights activists, Saudi Arabia has given the Canadian ambassador 24 hours to leave the country, recalled its own ambassador from Ottawa, and has frozen all new trade and investment between the two countries. The Financial Times’ Ahmed Al Omran also reports that scholarships for Saudi students to study in Canada have been suspended and that Saudi airlines will suspend flights to Canada starting Aug. 13. Rolling out the measures, the Saudi government accused Canada of “blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs.”

As Human Rights Watch reported last week, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah are the latest victims of the Saudi government’s crackdown on opposition activists. Badawi won a 2012 International Women of Courage Award from the U.S. government for campaigning against the Kingdom’s discriminatory male guardianship system—under which women require the permission of a male relative to travel, marry, or work in certain jobs—as well as prohibitions against women driving and voting. She is also the sister of Raif Badawi, the blogger who was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes in 2015 for writings deemed insulting to Islam, and she has been advocating for his release. Al-Sadah has campaigned against the guardianship system and the driving ban in the Eastern Province city of Qatif. She attempted to run for local office in the 2015 elections—the first time women were permitted to do so—but her name was removed from the ballot.

Last week, Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and her ministry’s official account tweeted out statements of concern:

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It’s not surprising that the Canadian government would speak out about the arrests. For one thing, the government is closely involved in the Badawi family’s case: Raif’s wife has been granted political asylum in Canada and is now a Canadian citizen. Under Trudeau and Freeland, Canada has also prided itself on its “feminist foreign policy,” which has included initiatives to emphasize women’s empowerment in foreign aid and trade deals and prioritized gender equality at this year’s G7 summit in Quebec. (Donald Trump memorably arrived late for a session on the topic.)

But foreign-policy feminism has limits: Trudeau has struggled to square the policy with his government’s support for an $11.6 billion deal, negotiated by the previous, conservative government, to sell armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia—arguably the world’s worst women’s rights offender. (Aside from women’s rights, there’s also growing criticism of Canada for selling weapons to the Saudi military bombing Yemen, even as it touts its humanitarian aid for victims of that same conflict.) This latest affair may blow over soon, but the bigger test for Canada will come the next time the Saudi government does something worthy of criticism. If “feminist foreign policy” is going to be anything more than a feel-good slogan, it’s going to have to mean occasionally risking business interests on principle.

Canada isn’t the first country to face this kind of diplomatic dudgeon from the Saudis. In 2015, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Sweden and refused to renew visas from the country’s citizens over criticism of the Raif Badawi case from Foreign Minister Margot Wallström—another prominent proponent of feminist foreign policy. The spat eventually ended when the Swedish king sent a letter to his fellow monarch. (He hasn’t revealed what the letter said.) German companies were also reportedly barred from bidding for Saudi contracts this year in response to German criticism of the sordid Saad Hariri resignation/kidnapping affair.

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Saudi Arabia’s dramatic overreactions to relatively mild criticism in these cases may be primarily for domestic consumption. Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammad Bin Salman has been working, effectively, to portray himself to the world as a bold reformer, dragging his conservative country’s economy into the 21st century and its laws into, well, the early 20th at least. Most notably, this included lifting the infamous driving ban in June. But at the same time, his government has worked to demonstrate to conservatives at home that he’s doing these things of his own volition, not because of pressure from activists or foreign governments, which are often portrayed as the same thing. These efforts have included the recent crackdown on civil society activists, including many of the same feminists who were bravely advocating for overturning the driving ban years before the prince wanted a pat on the back for it. It also includes taking grave umbrage when a foreign government deigns to criticize them for it.

It may not be a coincidence that Saudi Arabia has chosen to pick a fight with two countries that have outspoken feminist foreign ministers and another led by the world’s most powerful female head of state. But Canada, Sweden, and Germany may also just be considered relatively safe countries to temporarily cut off. In contrast, when the U.S. State Department’s annual human rights report noted a wide variety of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia last year, there was nowhere near this level of uproar from Riyadh. Which is why, as the most important ally of both Canada and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has a role to play here.

Ideally, one would hope the U.S. government would stand up for a democracy’s right to criticize the human rights practices of an absolute dictatorship. This particular U.S. president, though, has gone out of his way to embrace Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and tout him as an anti-extremist reformer, while his relationship with Trudeau has been steadily declining. At a time when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has rightly, if cynically, spoken up for protesters in Iran, including women who’ve broken the law by publicly removing their hijabs, the contrast with Saudi Arabia has become hard to overlook. The State Department has not yet issued a statement on the Canada–Saudi Arabia controversy and did not respond to a request for comment.

Update, 5:36 p.m.: The State Department has finally responded, in less than inspiring fashion. Via Akbar Shahid Ahmed of Huffpost:

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Update, 9:00 p.m.: Full statement from a State Department spokesperson:


We are aware of Government of Saudi Arabia’s statement recalling the Saudi ambassador to Canada and expelling Canada’s Ambassador.

Canada and Saudi Arabia are both close partners of the United States. I refer you to the Canadian and Saudi Ministries of Foreign Affairs for further information.

The United States supports respect for internationally recognized freedoms and individual liberties including dissent and due process.

We have asked the Government of Saudi Arabia for additional information on the detention of several activists.

We continue to encourage the Government of Saudi Arabia to respect due process and to publicize information on the status of legal cases.

We address these broad concerns in our annual Human Rights Report.

We continue to encourage the Government of Saudi Arabia to ensure all are afforded due process and to provide information on the charges and case status of legal actions against activists.