If not for Saudi Arabia’s wild overreaction, the world would scarcely be aware of Canada’s criticism of the Islamic Kingdom’s recent crackdown on women’s rights activists.
A couple of tweets from Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and her department calling for the release of recently jailed dissidents – especially Samar Badawi, who has family in this country – could easily have been dismissed as rote and consequence-free criticism of a regime with which Canada continues to do business despite its well-documented history of human-rights abuses.
Instead, the Saudi government has turned heads around the globe by denouncing “blatant interference” in its domestic affairs and announcing retaliatory measures that include recalling its ambassador to Ottawa, expelling Canada’s ambassador to Riyadh, and withdrawing tuition for the thousands of Saudi students attending Canadian universities. Saudi Arabian Airlines flights to and from Toronto have been cancelled and, for good measure, an army of Saudi Twitter trolls taunted Canadians, including with a (since deleted) image appearing to show a plane flying into the CN Tower.
In the process, the Saudis have managed to cast Justin Trudeau’s Liberals as human-rights crusaders - a somewhat unlikely fit, when it comes to this particular relationship.
After taking office in 2015, the Liberals green-lit a $15-billion deal, brokered by the previous Conservative government, to sell armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia. Videos and photos have since shown Canadian-made vehicles being used against civilians in a minority-Shia area that the Saudi government says is a haven for terrorists. While Ottawa has since begun to introduce new restrictions on arms sales to rights-violating countries, there has been no indication of already-approved sales to the Saudis being revisited.
That’s defensible on a number of fronts, among them the risk of hurting Canada’s broader trade interests by showing a willingness to tear up existing deals, and the reality that the Saudis could easily procure similar equipment from elsewhere. But it does suggest that risking thousands of Canadian manufacturing jobs by avoiding any possible complicity in violence against civilians was a poorer fit for the Liberals’ domestic political interests than seemingly low-cost advocacy for Mr. Trudeau’s feminist foreign policy.
To their credit, the Liberals have not backed down on their call for Ms. Badawi and other activists to be freed, despite greater consequence – particularly for schools counting on foreign students’ tuition – than they expected.
That can reasonably be a source of pride for Canadians, and it qualifies as a relatively bold display of moral fortitude at a time when the United States is refusing to pick sides between our country and the Saudis.
Impulses toward chest-thumping, though, should be kept in check, considering Ottawa’s selective interest in what happens within Saudi Arabia’s borders.