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In this Sunday, Dec. 20, 2015 file photo, a man rides a camel through the desert oil field and winter camping area of Sakhir, Bahrain. An energy economist says Canada can easily replace the oil it imports from Saudi Arabia should relations with the Middle Eastern kingdom deteriorate to the point that trade in crude is halted. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Hasan Jamali

Hasan Jamali/The Canadian Press

Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister says the diplomatic rift with Canada won’t disrupt the kingdom’s oil sales to Canadian customers, an announcement that demonstrates there are limits to the retaliation Riyadh is willing to mete out in the dispute over Canada’s criticism of the kingdom’s human-rights practices.

Khalid al-Falih said Thursday that his country does not think politics should interfere with oil sales. A statement issued by the official Saudi Press Agency said Riyadh believes “the kingdom’s petroleum supplies to countries around the world are not to be impacted by political considerations" and the “diplomatic crisis” between Canada and his country will not affect state oil firm Saudi Aramco’s "relations with its customers in Canada.”

Canada’s consumption of Saudi oil is relatively small. It brought in 15 per cent of its oil imports from the kingdom in 2017, according to Statistics Canada. For the first six months of 2018, Canada imported an average of 121,415 barrels a day from Saudi Arabia, the National Energy Board said. Most of these imports go to the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John.

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The Saudi assurances on oil come in the wake of four days of retaliatory announcements from Riyadh after Canada’s public call last week for the “immediate release” of women’s rights activists jailed by the kingdom.

Naif Alsudairy, Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Canada, said in an interview the Canadian government’s decision to publicly call for the “immediate release” of jailed activists in his country was particularly galling for Riyadh because it implies that Canada is judging the kingdom’s legal system.

Mr. Alsudairy said that Canadians are arrested every day in Canada and the Saudi government never issues public statements on these matters. “We never make any comment in Canada. Because we have to respect your legal system and your court decision. We can’t just give people orders about the way we think. We have to respect other people’s systems.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has signalled he is not backing down in the escalating Canada-Saudi rift, but also acknowledged earlier this week he doesn’t seek conflict with the kingdom.

“We don’t want to have poor relations with Saudi Arabia,” Mr. Trudeau told journalists Wednesday. “It is a country that has great significance in the world, that is making progress in the area of human rights.”

Mr. Alsudairy said it’s nice to hear that, but it’s not enough.

“We are still waiting for more,” the ambassador said.

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Explainer: Saudi Arabia-Canada spat: What we know so far

He predicted Saudi Arabia will continue taking actions to scale back the relationship if the kingdom doesn’t get a better response.

So far, Saudi Arabia has expelled Canada’s ambassador; frozen new trade and investment in this country; begun the withdrawal of 16,000 Riyadh-funded students, as well as medical patients; announced a suspension of Saudi Arabian Airlines flights to Toronto; and stopped buying barley and wheat from Canada. The Saudis have also reportedly instructed their central bank and state pension funds to sell off Canadian assets.

Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said the Saudi Energy Minister’s announcement guaranteeing the continuation of oil sales demonstrates “the Saudis will only take this so far." A suspension of these exports would have been significant for both countries even if the total value of shipments is relatively low.

He said this reinforces the view that the Saudis are making an example of Canada to signal to Western governments they should stop criticizing Riyadh’s human-rights practices. “Canada is an easy and convenient target … to send a broader message to the world and Saudi Arabia is balancing the actual costs that it is willing to incur.”

Finance Minister Bill Morneau said Thursday that Ottawa has no plans to retaliate against Saudi Arabia in the dispute. “We’re not considering any responses," he said.

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Opinion: The Saudi attack on Canada is a political gift to the Liberals

Mr. Morneau said he “can’t yet fully quantify” the effects in Canada of the Saudi actions, since Ottawa is still trying to collect information on their full scope, adding the challenges created by the dispute are “unprecedented” and “a bit surprising." But he stressed that Canada’s in a very good economic situation.

University of Waterloo political science professor Bessma Momani said she believes the Saudi retaliation against Canada is being conducted with the tacit consent of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. It’s hard to believe Riyadh would take a run at a major U.S. ally without the approval of the United States, she said. Mr. Trump, who has developed a close relationship with Riyadh, has locked horns with Mr. Trudeau in North American free-trade agreement negotiations and strongly criticized the Canadian Prime Minister as “dishonest and weak” in June.

“In my opinion, the Saudi move was likely cleared by Washington D.C. and at minimum the Trump administration was given a heads-up of Saudi actions,” Ms. Momani said. “Keep in mind, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has a budding relationship with Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son in-law and adviser.”

Separately, Saudi Arabia came under fresh criticism on Thursday over its conduct of the war in neighbouring Yemen. Saudi-led coalition air strikes on Thursday killed dozens of people in Yemen, including children travelling on a bus through a market, in the country’s Saada province, a Yemeni health official and the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

The U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iranian-aligned Houthi group in Yemen said in a statement that the air strikes targeted missile launchers used to attack the southern Saudi city of Jizan on Wednesday, killing a Yemeni civilian there. It accused the Houthis of using children as human shields and said the strikes were carried out in accordance with international humanitarian law. Critics disagreed. “Grotesque, shameful, indignant. Blatant disregard for rules of war when bus carrying innocent school children is fair game for attack,” Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a Twitter post.

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With reports from Shawn McCarthy in Ottawa, Canadian Press and Reuters

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