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Samar Badawi, 37, is an extraordinary woman with the courage of a lion. She fights for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, perhaps the most repressive regime in the world. She took her own father to court for refusing to allow her to marry the man she chose. He took her to court for disobedience – and she was detained as a result. She helped to lead a driving campaign by driving a car herself, in defiance of the law. In 2012, she was one of the winners of the International Women of Courage Award, given by the U.S. State Department, for her pioneering work for women’s rights.

That honour didn’t do her any good back home. In 2014, she was banned from leaving the country. In 2016, she was briefly arrested again. Her former husband is in prison, serving a 15-year term for his human-rights activism.

Now, Ms. Badawi is at the centre of a diplomatic dust-up between Canada and Saudi Arabia. On July 30, she and another activist, Nassima al-Sadah, were arrested yet again by the Saudi government, eliciting some Twitter rebukes from Global Affairs Canada and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. Routine stuff. But the Saudis went inexplicably berserk. They withdrew their ambassador, kicked out ours, suspended flights to and from Toronto and declared they would withdraw all their foreign students here, who are a lucrative source of tuition for universities.

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What the heck did we say to offend them?

Here’s what we said. (This is the tweet from Global Affairs Canada.)

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

Sounds fair to me. But the Saudis didn’t think so. “Using the phrase [immediately release] in the Canadian statement is very unfortunate, reprehensible, and unacceptable in relations between States,” they fumed in a series of tweets that was almost comical. Maybe they’ll cancel their arms deal with us too, I thought. That might not be so bad. Of all the unsavoury regimes with which we do business, Saudi Arabia is just about the worst.

So why are the Saudis kicking us around the block? They’re using us to send a message. They want other countries with which they do business to sit up and take notice. They don’t want to hear any whining about human rights. They want those countries to shut up and cash the cheques and mind their own business. Canada is a good vehicle for this message because we are relatively small and powerless enough to pick on.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Last year, when Mohammed bin Salman abruptly became first in line to the Saudi throne, people were giddy with excitement. He was a young modernizer who seemed bent on reform. He might even allow women to drive! New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a gushing piece entitled Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, At Last.

But signs of spring were premature. MBS (as he is known) has proved to be a ruthless autocrat with a low tolerance for dissent. He rounded up dozens of wealthy princes and held them hostage in the Ritz until they coughed up large chunks of their fortunes. He has pursued a nasty, brutish war with Yemen. Although he is determined to modernize the economy, modernizing human rights is not among his plans. Prisoners are flogged in public and held in detention without charges. Religious minorities are repressed. It’s true that women are slowly winning the right to drive – but MBS has also been busy rounding up women’s rights activists, including Ms. Badawi and Ms. al-Sadah. Their arrests, Human Rights Watch says, “signal that the Saudi authorities see any peaceful dissent, whether past or present, as a threat to their autocratic rule.”

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Ms. Badawi, as it happens, has a Canadian connection. Her brother is Raif Badawi, a progressive blogger who has been in a Saudi prison since 2012 for apostasy and “insulting Islam through electronic channels.” Raif’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, has settled in Quebec with their three children and often speaks out on Saudi human-rights issues; she and her children became Canadian citizens this July 1.

My guess is that most nations will toe the Saudi line – and few will come to our or Ms. Badawi’s side. Saudi Arabia just has too many arms contracts to hand out. But I know what Canada can do. We can stand our ground. Up against a thug like MBS, she and the brave women and men at her side need all the help they can get.

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