Saudi Arabia picks a pointless fight with Canada
QUEBEC’S proudly Francophone separatists may want to learn some Arabic. On August 5th, as Canadians enjoyed a long weekend, Saudi Arabia abruptly expelled their ambassador and froze bilateral trade and investment. Its state-run funds have reportedly been ordered to dump their Canadian assets, no matter how much it costs to do so. The kingdom is angry about tweets from Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, criticising the arrests of Saudi human-rights activists. For Saudi Arabia, this was unacceptable “foreign interference”.
If anyone is qualified to opine on meddling abroad, it is the Saudis. Since 2011 they have helped quash an uprising in Bahrain, backed a coup in Egypt and detained Lebanon’s prime minister. If Canada keeps up its criticism, “we are allowed to interfere in Canada’s internal affairs,” the Saudi foreign ministry warned. Canadian diplomats joked about the kingdom arming Québécois rebels.
A legion of Saudis took to Twitter to voice their (no doubt long-held) sympathy for indigenous Canadians. Others attacked Canada’s record on women’s rights. This was a co-ordinated effort, and a clumsy one. An account reportedly linked to the kingdom warned Canada not to “stick its nose where it doesn’t belong”. The message was superimposed on a photo of the Toronto skyline, with a plane flying ominously towards the CN Tower. Someone apparently realised this was a bad look for the country that produced most of the 9/11 hijackers. The account was quickly closed.
The damage to Canada will be slight. Its exports to Saudi Arabia were worth $1.1bn in 2017 (0.2% of the total value of Canadian exports), mostly from a $12bn multi-year arms deal. It imported $2bn of Saudi goods, mostly petroleum. The first to suffer will be nearly 10,000 Saudi students in Canada. The kingdom told them to study elsewhere. It also plans to pull Saudi patients from Canadian hospitals.
Absurd as it is, the spat is a warning to Saudi Arabia’s other allies: keep quiet about our policies or lose access to our market. Canada was an easy target. “We are always going to speak up for human rights,” says Ms Freeland. But allies are not rushing to speak up for Canada, least of all America. Donald Trump is close to the Saudis and mired in a trade war with Canada.
The spat also serves a domestic purpose for the Saudi crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, who wants to refashion Saudi society. In mere months he has lifted the ban on women driving, opened cinemas and allowed public concerts. This risks a backlash from conservative clerics, so he is keen to fashion a new Saudi nationalism. Aggressive foreign policies, from the blockade of Qatar to the war in Yemen, help do that. However, they also reinforce his image as a rash and reckless leader. The crown prince needs foreign investment to wean the Saudi economy off oil. A feud with the cuddly Canucks will not help attract it.