Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

In this file photo taken on May 29, 2018, U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert speaks in Washington, DC.MANDEL NGAN/Getty Images

The U.S. government has declined to come to Canada’s defence in the growing diplomatic crisis over its criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human-rights' record.

On Tuesday, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, speaking at a media briefing in Washington, would not publicly condemn Riyadh’s arrest of civil-rights activists in the Mideast kingdom, as the Canadian government did last week. Heather Nauert said it is up to Canada and Saudi Arabia to resolve their differences. “We can’t do it for them,” she said.

Reuters reported today that Saudi Arabia is stopping all medical treatment programs in Canada and is working on the transfer of all Saudi patients from hospitals there.

Saudi Arabia on Sunday expelled the Canadian ambassador, froze new trade and investment dealings with Canada in retaliation for what it called “blatant interference” in its domestic affairs. It is also suspending Saudi Arabian Airline flights to and from Toronto and withdrawing an estimated 16,000 Saudi students from universities, colleges and other schools in Canada as part of what Saudi Arabia’s Education Minister described on Tuesday as an effort to “cut its dealings with the Canadian government.”

The Saudi monarchy is angry over statements on Twitter last week from Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and her department that called for the immediate release of civil-rights activists, including women’s-rights advocate Samar Badawi. They also signalled concern over Riyadh’s new crackdown on dissidents.

Related: Canadian teaching hospitals facing withdrawal as Saudi Arabia recalls sponsored students

Opinion: Canada is right to stand up for Samar Badawi

Saudi Arabia-Canada spat: What we know so far

In Washington on Tuesday, Ms. Nauert balked when asked during a media briefing whether the U.S. government would publicly decry the recent arrest of activists in Saudi Arabia.

“I am not going to get into this,” Ms. Nauert said. “Some of these issues we choose to discuss privately with our friends, our partners, our allies,” she added.

Asked why the United States would not publicly side with Canada, a neighbour and NATO ally, the spokeswoman said the dispute is a “diplomatic issue” and Washington would encourage Riyadh to respect due process and make public more information about some of its legal cases. Ms. Nauert noted the Americans have a “regular dialogue with the government of Saudi Arabia on human rights and other issues.”

She declined to say whether Washington thinks Saudi Arabia overreacted. “I am not going to characterize this. I am just going to tell you we have discussed [this matter] with the government of Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi Arabia has found support for its position among allies, including Jordan, which, in 2009, signed a free-trade deal with Canada and has accepted military training from Ottawa. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Palestinian Authority also voiced support for Saudi Arabia, as did Comoros, Djibouti and Mauritania.

Britain, another long-time Canadian military ally, was somewhat circumspect on Tuesday, urging restraint in the Saudi-Canada row and saying Britain has privately raised concerns with Riyadh about the “recent arrests of human rights defenders.”

Inquiries to the European Union’s Ottawa offices on Tuesday about whether the 28-member bloc would publicly condemn Saudi Arabia over the arrests – and support Canada in this dispute – were not immediately answered.

Ms. Freeland has been unapologetic about the statements she and her department made on Twitter, one of which was also tweeted in Arabic by the Canadian embassy in Riyadh.

Former Conservative foreign affairs minister John Baird said he thinks Canada shares blame for what has happened. He said the Trudeau government let the Saudi-Canada relationship wither in recent years because of public outcry over a $15-billion deal to sell Canadian armoured vehicles to Riyadh.

“I give Chrystia Freeland high marks as foreign minister, but the government needs to pick up its game on this issue,” Mr. Baird said. “They have allowed this relationship to deteriorate and it’s in the interests of the government of Canada and the people of Canada to immediately seek to resolve this fight.”

He said he is concerned the full economic toll of the dispute could be billions of dollars. “This is going to be bad news for Canadian jobs and the Canadian economy. My best advice for this government would be for the Prime Minister to get on a plane to Riyadh and try to resolve this issue.”

Also, Tuesday, news broke that Saudi Arabia is halting purchases of wheat and barley from Canada. Cam Dahl with Cereals Canada, an industry association, said the Mideast country has given notice it will no longer buy from Canada. He said barley sales to Saudi Arabia make up a significant share of Canadian exports and this market will be difficult to replace because of agricultural protectionism around the world. According to Statistics Canada, Canada sold more than $44-million worth of barley to Saudi Arabia in 2017.

There is anxiety in London, Ont., where General Dynamics Land Systems is building the combat vehicles for Saudi Arabia. Unifor Local 27 president Jim Reid, whose union represents hundreds of General Dynamics factory workers, noted the Saudis warned only “new business and investment” deals would be frozen, not existing transactions. But, he added, “Given the volatility of the actors over there, it’s anybody’s guess what happens."

Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, said the Saudis appear to be going “full Qatar” on Canada, referring to the punishment Riyadh inflicted on its tiny Arab neighbour after a falling-out.

Dr. Juneau said the Canadian government’s tweets were only the catalyst for this row. He said the Saudi reaction is driven by frustration that has accumulated over several years. The Saudis had awarded Canada the $15-billion armoured-vehicle deal to cement a deeper friendship, but when the Liberal government took power in 2015, it backed away from Riyadh owing to public outcry over the military sale and did not respond to invitations for high-level visits to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, he said, began to feel “ripped off.”

With a report from Reuters

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe