Wednesday, August 15News That Matters

Saudi Arabia Assails Canada Over Rights Criticism, Sending Message to West


Saudi Arabia Assails Canada Over Rights Criticism, Sending Message to West

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Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland of Canada called for Saudi Arabia to release two rights activists from prison. The Saudi response was uncharacteristically harsh.CreditPedro Pardo/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Saudi Arabia lashed out at Canada on Monday for criticizing the recent arrests of Saudi rights activists, and threatened to break off trade with other Western countries if they too spoke out about political repression in the kingdom.

The unusually harsh response by the Saudi government was the latest evidence that while Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is promoting himself as a reformer, championing the loosening of conservative social norms and opening the economy, he is also prepared to punish any perceived challenge to his authority at home or abroad.

Faced with economic troubles at home, and a restless, young population, the crown prince has carried out a crackdown that is extraordinary even by the standards of an absolute monarchy that has never allowed much room for free speech.

After what once would have passed as a pro forma complaint from Canada, Saudi Arabia expelled the Canadian ambassador, withdrew its ambassador from Canada and froze new business deals and investment with Canada.

“On one hand, you have this initiative to open Saudi Arabia up to the world, and on the other, you have this harder line approach to making all business with Saudi Arabia on Saudi terms,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University who studies Persian Gulf politics. “It is unclear if these two tendencies will clash later on.”

Since beginning his ascent to power in 2015 when his father, King Salman, assumed the throne, Prince Mohammed, 32, has sought to overhaul the kingdom’s ways of doing business.

He has won plaudits at home and abroad for weakening the once-feared religious police, granting women the right to drive and expanding entertainment options by opening movie theaters and allowing concerts. He has vowed to diversify the economy away from oil while expanding job opportunities for Saudis.

But at the same time, the kingdom locked up clerics and activists without trial or due process, and imprisoned prominent businessmen and princes in the Riyadh Ritz-Carlton on accusations of corruption.

Even as the kingdom granted women the right to drive, it has detained more than a dozen prominent women and men who had campaigned for the right. Others were told not to speak about it in the media or face consequences.

In foreign affairs, officials in Western and other Arab capitals say, Prince Mohammed has exacerbated tensions in an unstable region. He launched a military intervention in Yemen that has become a quagmire, led a campaign to isolate and blockade neighboring Qatar, and took a more confrontational stance toward Iran.

In interviews, Prince Mohammed and other Saudi officials have stood up for the new approach, saying that the kingdom needs to play a more assertive role in shaping its region. The Ritz crackdown was needed to send a strong message against corruption, they said, and Iran’s revolutionary ambitions had to be stopped, a view that has found support with the leaders of the United States and Israel.

For decades, Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Western countries rested on trade, with the kingdom selling huge amounts of oil while buying billions of dollars in weapons.

The kingdom, an absolute monarchy whose legal system is based on the strict enforcement of Sharia, or Islamic law, has long faced complaints over its draconian judicial practices, including beheading criminals and imprisoning people who criticize the government.

The United States, a major Saudi trading partner, has occasionally criticized the Saudis on human rights but without jeopardizing its economic interests. Even such toothless criticism has largely dried up under the Trump administration.

Such complaints were historically handled quietly, and the Saudis usually ignored them.

The dispute with Canada broke that pattern.

After the arrest of two women’s rights activists last week, Chrystia Freeland, the foreign minister of Canada, called for the release of one of them, Samar Badawi, as well as the release of her brother, Raif Badawi, a blogger who was already serving a long prison term for administering a website that criticized the country’s religious establishment.

“Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time,” she wrote on Twitter on Friday, “and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi.”

The ministry issued a broader statement, saying it was “gravely concerned” about the arrests of human rights activists and calling for their immediate release.

Responding with a series of uncharacteristically aggressive statements on its Twitter feed, the Saudi Foreign Ministry called the Canadian statements “blatant interference in the kingdom’s domestic affairs” and declared the Canadian ambassador, Dennis Horak, persona non grata, giving him 24 hours to leave the kingdom. Saudi state media later reported that the kingdom was planning to withdraw thousands of Saudi students and their families from Canadian schools and universities and place them elsewhere.

The ministry threatened an unspecified, tit-for-tat response to further criticism, saying that “any further step from the Canadian side in that direction will be considered as acknowledgment of our right to interfere in the Canadian domestic affairs.”

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Samar Badawi has a long history of campaigning against Saudi laws.CreditAnders Wiklund/EPA, via Shutterstock

It also warned that if other nations made similar criticisms, they could face similar consequences.

“The kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not interfere in the internal affairs of other states and it won’t accept any attempt to interfere in our internal affairs,” Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said on Twitter. “We deal with that with all firmness.”

In a statement on Monday, the Trump administration said it had asked 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,” Jessica Eldosoky, a State Department spokeswoman, wrote in an email. “We address these broad concerns in our annual Human Rights Report.”

In Canada, how to deal with the Saudi government’s human rights record has been hotly debated since 2016, when the Canadian government signed an $11.5 billion deal to export Canadian-made armored vehicles to the kingdom.

Canadian criticism the deal increased after videos emerged showing Saudi security services using the vehicles in a restive enclave of Saudi Arabia’s minority Shiite population, where residents sometimes clashed with government forces.

A Canadian government probe found no credible information that Saudi forces “committed serious human rights violations” there and that the ministry “made efforts to minimize civilian casualties during the operation.”

But the incident further soured Canadian public opinion on the deal.

“Politically, it’s a win-win for Minister Freeland in terms of domestic opinion,” Randall Hansen, the interim director of the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto, said of the foreign minister’s standing up for anti-Saudi activists.

Ms. Freeland, in a statement on Monday, said Canada was “deeply concerned” about the ambassador’s expulsion.

“Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights and freedom of expression around the world,” she said. “We will never hesitate to promote these values and we believe that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy.”

Saudi Arabia does not play a major role Canada’s economy, making the move largely symbolic.

Bilateral merchandise trade between the two countries exceeded $3 billion in 2017, making Saudi Arabia Canada’s 20th largest importer. Canada imports only about 9 percent of its crude oil from the kingdom.

Those trade numbers may have given the Saudis more room to act, said Mr. Ulrichsen, the scholar of Gulf politics.

“The Saudis may be using the Canadian example as a way to warn other governments that they will not accept criticism any longer of their management of their internal affairs, and Canada may be a relatively low-cost example,” he said.

But it was not the first time that Prince Mohammed has sought to exact an economic cost for Western criticism.

Saudi Arabia suspended deals with German firms and recalled its ambassador from Germany last year after the German foreign minister appeared to criticize Saudi foreign policy. The kingdom also recalled its ambassador to Sweden and stopped issuing business visas to Swedes in 2015 after human rights criticisms. Sweden, in turn, canceled an arms deal.

Saudi officials say the waves of arrests under Prince Mohammed are in accordance with Saudi law, but the government has not made it clear who is it holding, whether they have been charged with any crimes or when their trials will take place.

“The repression has intensified since he came to power,” said Hiba Zayadin, a Saudi researcher for Human Rights Watch. “The Saudi government has never been this adamant about shutting down every space for dissent.”

Canada has a connection with the Badawis. Raif Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, and their three children received political asylum in Canada. She became a Canadian citizen last month. She often posts harsh criticisms of the kingdom on Twitter.

But it was unclear why Samar Badawi, who received the State Department’s Women of Courage Award in 2012 in a ceremony with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Michelle Obama, was arrested last week. Ms. Badawi has a long history of campaigning against the kingdom’s so-called guardianship laws, which prevent women from traveling abroad or obtaining certain medical procedures without the consent of a male relative.

But since the last time she was arrested, in 2016, she had kept a low profile and mostly stayed off social media.

Her brother, Raif, was sentenced in 2013 to 1,000 blows with a cane, 10 years in prison and a large fine for running the website. He received his first installment of 50 blows in front of a mosque in Jidda in 2015, but a video of the caning caused so much international outcry that it was stopped.

Ms. Badawi’s former husband, an activist lawyer, is also in prison.

Catherine Porter contributed reporting from Georgian Bay, Ontario, and Gardiner Harris from Washington.

Follow Ben Hubbard on Twitter: @NYTBen.

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