Peter Jones is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.
The diplomatic spat in which Canada finds itself embroiled with Saudi Arabia has many aspects and nuances.
For the Saudis, it is a (seemingly) low-cost way for the government to hit back at foreign critics of its human-rights record. Canada is a minor partner. Trade relations are minimal, outside of a single military contract (which has not been without headaches for both sides). Ejecting the Canadian ambassador, stopping direct air flights to and from Toronto and pulling students are not very significant in the greater scheme of things – although a big headache for the students, especially those who are already in the midst of their studies.
Against those minor costs, Riyadh gets to hit back publicly at a critic of its human-rights policies. This will play well with conservative factions in the kingdom who are worried that the young Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is moving too fast and in too many directions to change things at home and has embroiled the kingdom in an increasingly costly and unwinnable war in Yemen.
The Saudis will be hoping that other Western countries get the message and stand on the sidelines, as the Donald Trump administration in the United States appears to have done, thereby tacitly approving Riyadh’s actions.
For Canada, which will presumably be looking for ways to quiet the situation, without backing down on its broader point regarding human rights, much will depend on what the Europeans do. If major Saudi partners, such as Britain, France, Germany and the European Union itself, stand up on the issue it will be much harder for Riyadh to take the kind of actions against them that it has taken with Canada. The Saudis will be placed in the uncomfortable position of chastising Canada for saying something, but accepting similar criticism from the major European powers.
Not for the first time, the young Crown Prince will have jumped too far, too fast and come up looking foolish.
Lost in all of this high political analysis, however, is the possibility that the key problem for the Saudis may not be so much what Canada said, as how it said it. “We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.” read part of the tweet by Global Affairs Canada. It’s not as if Canada has not criticized Saudi human rights before, but in this case, the inclusion of the words “immediately release” may have set this all into motion.
While seemingly innocuous, this may have been too much for a Saudi regime already highly sensitive to criticism and looking to make an example of someone. The importance of these two words for the Saudi authorities could well be the insinuation that they do not have a real legal system with checks and balances and a due process. Like most autocratic regimes, the Saudis are often at pains to make the point, and have it accepted by outsiders, that theirs is a real system as one might find in any other country, and that a strongman cannot just order an arrested person released.
Certainly, since the spat blew up, the Saudis have repeatedly made the point that the arrested individuals will go through due process, including the opportunity to make a robust defence in front of a duly constituted court. They appear particularly offended that the Canadian position publicly makes the point that none of this matters, and that senior officials could simply release the detained if they picked up the phone.
The reality of Saudi justice is well documented by a plethora of Western governments and respected human-rights organizations, of course. But by calling attention to it, Canada may well have crossed a line Riyadh simply cannot accept.
Apart from reinforcing, yet again, the fact that words actually matter in diplomacy, this situation creates a confrontation that will be difficult to back away from.
If the major European powers stand up for their position on human rights by backing Canada, it could yet create a situation where the costs will be much higher for the Saudis than those who took this step reckoned on. Don’t count on this, of course, as there would be costs for the Europeans as well, and they have a long history of looking the other way and profiting from their relations with Riyadh. But they will be under vocal pressure from their own human-rights campaigners not to let Canada make this stand alone.
It could also be yet another case where Europe and Mr. Trump’s United States will be on opposite sides of a foreign policy issue.
It would be something indeed if all of this was because of two little words.