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Saudi Arabia’s response to Canadian criticism will rally regional support: analysts

Saudi Arabia’s decision to expel Canada’s ambassador and freeze new trade deals will resonate domestically and send a clear message to other countries, including those in the region, analysts said Monday.

Saudi Arabia announced the measures Sunday, days after Global Affairs Canada tweeted its concern about the arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in the country.

Bessma Momani, an analyst on Middle East affairs and professor at the University of Waterloo, said the move resonates positively among Saudis, but also among the country’s allies in the region.

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Momani called it “getting tough on Canada”, which she said other countries in the region might welcome if they view Canadian foreign policy to be led by human rights concerns.

There could be a sentiment among allies that, “Finally the Trudeau government is getting poked back in the eye by the Saudis.”

At the same time, it sends a strong message to European and Middle Eastern countries that they shouldn’t “mess” with Saudi Arabia, said Thomas Juneau, a professor at the University of Ottawa.

“There is a clear, uniquely Saudi dimension to this in the sense that in the last three years Saudi Arabia has been behaving very aggressively and assertively in the Middle East,” he said, noting the blockade of Qatar and the war in Yemen.

“For Saudi Arabia to punish Canada, it’s fairly easy because we’re not an important country for them, either are they for us,” he said, noting that it sends a message to others that it will not accept criticism.

Global Affairs Canada had tweeted, “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists.”

The Saudi foreign ministry ordered Canada’s ambassador, Dennis Horak, to leave the country and called the use of “immediately release” in Canada’s tweet “unfortunate, reprehensible, and unacceptable in relations between states.”

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It also said, “Any other attempt to interfere with our internal affairs from Canada, means that we are allowed to interfere in Canada’s internal affairs.”

Amnesty International has said Badawi, the sister of jailed blogger Raif Badawi, was recently detained along with Nassima al-Sada, another prominent female activist.

Regardless of how allies and others are perceiving the measure, it has rallied support among Saudis, said Momani, adding that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has a very young nationalistic base, many of whom have taken to Twitter to celebrate the decision and simultaneously criticize Canada.

Because the statement Sunday from Saudi Arabia said new trade deals will freeze, it is difficult to determine what the economic impact will be, said Juneau, adding that the fate of Canada’s arms deal, which includes providing armoured vehicles to the country, is still unknown.

On one hand, it would be a bad scenario to cancel the $15 billion arms deals, but on the other, many human rights groups have criticized Canada’s decision to sell armoured vehicles to a regime with a “horrible human rights record,” Juneau said.

Marie-Pier Baril, a spokeswoman for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Sunday that the department is concerned by media reports and is seeking clarity on the statement from Saudi Arabia.

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

Freeland was expected to address the issue later Monday.

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