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Riyadh expels Canadian envoy, recalls its own over interference

Saudi Arabia freezes new trade with Ottawa, to relocate students

Samar Badawi

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has suspended scholarships to Canada and will relocate students already there, state media said yesterday, after the kingdom abruptly cut ties with Ottawa over criticism of its jailing of rights activists. Riyadh, which suspended diplomatic relations with Canada yesterday, will “stop training, scholarship and fellowship programs” there, state-run Al-Ekhbariya television reported. Plans to relocate 7,000 students and their families in Canada to other countries, primarily the United States and Britain, were already underway, education ministry official Jassem Al-Harbash said.
The kingdom early yesterday gave Canada’s envoy Dennis Horak 24 hours to leave the country, in an abrupt rupture of relations over what Riyadh slammed as “interference” in its internal affairs. “The Canadian position is an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” the Saudi foreign ministry tweeted. “The kingdom announces that it is recalling its ambassador to Canada for consultation. We consider the Canadian ambassador to the kingdom persona non grata and order him to leave within the next 24 hours.” The ministry also announced “the freezing of all new trade and investment transactions with Canada while retaining its right to take further action”.

The decision came after Canada demanded the immediate release of human rights activists detained in a new crackdown, including Samar Badawi, the sister of jailed blogger Raif Badawi. Ottawa said it was “seriously concerned” and was seeking “greater clarity” on Riyadh’s move. “We are seriously concerned by these media reports and are seeking greater clarity on the recent statement from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” said Marie-Pier Baril, a Canadian foreign ministry spokeswoman. “Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, very much including women’s rights, and freedom of expression around the world. Our government will never hesitate to promote these values and believes that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy.”

Samar was arrested along with fellow campaigner Nassima Al-Sadah last week. Samar’s brother Raif was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail for “insulting Islam” in a case that sparked an international outcry. The latest arrests come weeks after more than a dozen women’s right campaigners were detained and accused of undermining national security and collaborating with enemies of the state. Some have since been released.

The Saudi foreign ministry slammed the Canadian statement, signalling its growing annoyance over Western criticism of its human rights record. “Using the phrase ‘immediately release’ in the Canadian statement is very unfortunate, reprehensible, and unacceptable in relations between states,” the ministry tweeted.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed, heir to the region’s most powerful throne, has introduced a string of reforms such as lifting a decades-long ban on women drivers in a bid to overhaul the kingdom’s austere image as it prepares for a post-oil era. But the 32-year-old has simultaneously pursued a hawkish foreign policy. In April, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed his “serious concern” over the continued jailing of Raif Badawi to Saudi King Salman. Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haidar has been granted asylum by Canada, where she is raising their three children now aged 14, 13 and 10 as a single mother.
Riyadh’s singling out of Canada is aimed at strongly discouraging other critical Western governments from speaking out, observers say. “Canada is easier to cut ties with than the rest,” Bessma Momani, a professor at Canada’s University of Waterloo, told AFP. “There isn’t a strong bilateral trade relationship and poking the Trudeau government likely resonates with Saudi’s hawkish regional allies. At jeopardy are the tens of thousands of Saudi students in Canada.”

More than 7,000 students from Saudi Arabia are enrolled in university programs in Canada, according to Harbash, head of the education ministry’s scholarship program. These students, 2,000 of whom are enrolled in graduate or medical school, are accompanied by more than 5,000 dependents. “The US and UK will get the lion’s share, given their size and the education opportunities there, and we’ve begun coordinating with the missions there”, Harbash told Al Ekhbariya TV. Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Singapore are also on the list of potential destination countries, Harbash said.

The Saudi announcement, carried on the official Saudi Press Agency, caught diplomats in Riyadh off guard. Both the Saudi and Canadian ambassadors were away on leave when it was made. Neighbors and allies Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates said they stood with Riyadh, although they did not announce similar measures.

It was not immediately clear what effect, if any, the ban on new trade would have on existing annual Saudi-Canadian trade of nearly $4 billion and on a $13 billion defense contract. Saudi-Canadian trade consists largely of Saudi exports of petrochemicals, plastics and other products. In 2014, the Canadian unit of US weapons maker General Dynamics Corp won a contract worth up to $13 billion to build light-armored vehicles for Saudi Arabia, in what Ottawa said was the largest advanced manufacturing export win in Canadian history. – Agencies

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