Amid Spat With Saudis, Trudeau Vows That Canada ‘Will Always Speak Strongly’

It hasn't been that long since Canada's top diplomat criticized Saudi Arabia for arresting a pair of prominent women's rights activists — less than a week, in fact. Which makes the amount and scope of the Saudis' furious retaliations all the more astonishing.

Consider: Since Sunday, when the Saudi Foreign Ministry first responded by calling the criticism "blatant interference" in Saudi affairs, Riyadh has ...

  • announced it is suspending "all new business and investment" with Canada
  • expelled the Canadian ambassador to the country
  • recalled its own ambassador from Canada
  • grounded Saudi Arabian Airlines flights to and from Toronto starting next week
  • pulled the scholarships of Saudi students in Canada — about 16,000 people, the Toronto Star reports — and instructed them to transfer to other countries

Saudi Arabia may even be building on its decision to suspend new business with Canada. Citing unnamed sources, The Financial Times reported the country has also begun the process of selling off the Canadian assets owned by the kingdom's central bank and sovereign wealth fund.

"There is nothing to mediate," Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told a news conference Wednesday, according to The Associated Press. He asserted that Riyadh would not tolerate another country's encroachment on its sovereignty. "A mistake has been made and a mistake should be corrected."

"Canada knows what it needs to do," he added.

Canada respectfully disagrees.

In Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's first public comments on the spat since it erupted, reporters presented him with the opportunity to recant his government's criticism Wednesday. He declined.

"Canada will always speak strongly and clearly in private and public on questions of human rights," he said at a news conference held in Montreal by CAE, an aviation electronics manufacturer.

He noted that Jubeir and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland — whose tweet last week opened the row — had a lengthy conversation over the phone Tuesday, and Trudeau said he expects those conversations to continue.

At the same time, the prime minister added, they had no plans to stop bringing up rights issues.

"We will do so in a constructive and polite way, but we will also remain firm on standing up for human rights everywhere around the world," he said.

The trans-Atlantic dust-up marks something of a new milestone for Saudi Arabia's 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has charted an aggressive course since his ascension. During that time the Persian Gulf country embarked on a coalition airstrike campaign in neighboring war-torn Yemen, led a blockade of Qatar, and has waged a war of words with regional Shiite rival Iran.

His domestic human rights record in the ultraconservative Sunni kingdom represents a mixed bag — swiftly embarking on progressive social reforms, such as lifting long-running bans on women drivers and public cinemas, while at the same time conducting a huge purge of current and former ministers in an apparent bid to consolidate power.

Lately, the crown prince's reputation has taken a bit of a hit at home, however. Bessma Momani, a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Canada, points to his father King Salman's decision to publicly overturn bin Salman's stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"And I can't help but feel this is sort of a distraction away from an embarrassing week," she told NPR's Jackie Northam. "So why not rile up the nationalistic by starting this diplomatic dispute?"

At the heart of the recent dispute between the two countries is the arrest of Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah, two prominent Saudi activists.

A recipient of the U.S. State Department's International Woman of Courage award, Badawi had been a vocal advocate for the repeal of the women's driving ban that bin Salman ultimately implemented. She also happens to be the sister of a dissident writer, Raif Badawi, whose own arrest and severe sentence several years ago has drawn international outrage.

It remains unclear what prompted their arrests.

Just days before Freeland's tweet, the United Nations also expressed its concerns about the "apparently arbitrary detentions of human rights defenders and activists in Saudi Arabia, including women's rights activists" — noting that at least 15 such government critics had been detained since mid-May.

But amid the swiftly escalating controversy, at least one country has remained noticeably quiet: the U.S., a perennial ally of Canada that has grown increasingly friendly with Saudi Arabia since President Trump took office.

"Both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert told reporters at a briefing Tuesday. "We can't do it for them; they need to resolve it together."

Asked about that hands-off approach on Wednesday, Trudeau took it in stride.

"I don't think it's a big surprise for anyone that Canada stands up firmly and respectfully in defense of human rights at any given moment," he said. "But I am never going to impose on another country what their reactions should be or what their responses should be. I respect the rights of individual countries to make the right decisions and speak for themselves."

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