Since last weekend, Saudi Arabia has done its best to punish Canada for having the temerity to criticize its awful human-rights practices.
The Islamic Kingdom has ordered home the many Saudi students studying in this country, which stands to cost teaching hospitals nearly 800 doctors-in-training and force universities to do without high foreign tuition fees. It has vowed to freeze all new trade and reportedly ordered its asset managers to unload Canadian stocks and bonds. It has cancelled flights to and from here, ordered Canada’s ambassador to leave and recalled its ambassador to Ottawa.
No doubt this is more than Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and her department bargained for when they tweeted calls for recently-jailed women’s rights activists – including one with strong ties to Canada – to be released.
But that does not mean that Ms. Freeland, let alone Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, should go running to Riyadh to make amends – as former foreign minister John Baird, among others, has suggested.
The position Ms. Freeland took – that women should not be arrested for campaigning for basic freedoms, such as the ability to move unaccompanied by a male guardian – is uncontroversial from a Canadian perspective. To grovellingly retract it in the face of petulant pushback would send a terrible signal about this country’s values.
It would also display the sort of weakness that the Saudis are counting on. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman plainly sees Canada as an easy target, as he seeks to assert himself both domestically and internationally, at a time when the United States is led by a President unwilling to take our side. Meekly backing down would prove him right.
Attempting to maintain lines of communication through back channels is advisable; with time, the Saudis might calm down.
In the meanwhile, Canada should consider the nature of this relationship – and not just with regard to the continuing sale of armoured vehicles, allegedly used by the Saudis against civilians. Just how much do we want our hospitals and schools to depend on the largesse of one of the world’s most oppressive regimes, which can be withdrawn without notice if we refuse to ignore what happens within its borders?