The heated exchange between Canada and Saudi Arabia will have consequences as the kingdom says it will freeze trade and investment deals. What prompted the sudden imbroglio? Canada very rarely expresses the harsh diplomatic language of “grave concern” that it did with Riyadh. In the last four years, it has only tweeted the term several times in relation to Syria, South Sudan, Sudan and Russian involvement in Ukraine. It has also used the term “deeply troubled” only several times over the years in relation to Russia, Cambodia, the Maldives, Venezuela, Iran and Cambodia.
The larger context of Canada’s critique is that Saudi Arabia has lost some of the luster it once had in chanceries in the West. When King Abdullah died in 2015, he was lauded as one of the greatest leaders in the world. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper had called him a “strong proponent of peace in the Middle East.” US President Barack Obama had canceled a trip to India to attend his funeral. US Secretary of State John Kerry called him a “man of wisdom” and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair called him a modernizer. Christine Lagarde of the IMF claimed he was a “great leader” who had implemented reforms and was a “strong advocate of women.” This was at a time when women couldn’t drive and required a permission of a male relative to travel.
The glowing reports of Saudi Arabia were part of a consensus in Western opinion in media and government circles. The New York Times editorial in 2009 said the kingdom was “a promise of reform.” Maureen Dowd wrote glowingly at Vanity Fair about the kingdom “flirting with tourism” in 2010.
But even as the kingdom loosened its rules in 2018 by permitting women to drive, it drew an even more critical response from the West. Media reports have attacked the Crown Prince for detaining influential and wealthy magnates, for imprisoning activists and for spending lavishly. US President Donald Trump’s meetings with the Saudis, including the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh in May, have caused critics of Trump to be more critical of Saudi Arabia.
Criticism of the kingdom is entering politics and media more.
In Canada Prime Minister Trudeau was hammered in the media in March 2018 for arms sales with Saudi Arabia. The Guardian and CBC in Canada both spotlighted a particular deal from 2014, which The Guardian reported was worth $15 billlion with General Dynamics Land Systems, and called the deal “opaque.” Trudeau insinuated blame for the arms deal lay with Harper’s government and not with his own.
This lack of consensus is because of a re-alignment of politics in the Gulf and the West.
When Saudi Arabia and its allies in Bahrain, the UAE and Egypt broke relations with Qatar in June 2017, a cleavage formed in the Gulf. Most Gulf states are among the West’s closest allies. This is based on trade rather than values. But Qatar had spent lavishly in the US in an attempt to lobby Washington and encourage media sympathy.
At the same time, Saudi Arabia and its allies
were critical of Obama’s desire for a denuclearization deal with Iran. This had put the kingdom at odds with the EU and anti-Trump critics who sought to preserve the deal. For the first time the relationship with Riyadh had been politicized.
This almost happened after the 9/11 terror attacks in the US as well. The 9/11 Commission Report following the event found Saudis had comprised the largest portion of recruits in the al-Qaeda training camps. However, the kingdom proved too important an ally to ditch over terror concerns. Eventually its attempts at de-radicalization appeared to reduce Saudi recruits to near zero, after several years of attacks on Western targets in the kingdom.
Today the concern in Saudi Arabia is human rights
. This is interesting considering Riyadh’s enemies in Doha and Tehran do not have stellar human rights records either. The previous reluctance to criticize the kingdom was because Saudi Arabia is home to Islamic holy sites and the Hajj, so critiquing it would be tantamount to Islamophobia. But with Tehran and Ankara pushing themselves as representatives of piety today, there is more willingness to critique Riydah.
The kingdom wants to show there are limits to this criticism. This is in line with its changing character and more robust foreign policy that seek to speak out against Iran, Qatar, Turkey and other countries it views negatively.
Riyadh believes Iran’s influence in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria are a threat to the region. This is a very real threat in Yemen because ballistic missiles were fired at Riyadh. The kingdom also viewed attempts by Qatar and Turkey to meddle in Egypt’s affairs in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, and further afield in places like Libya and Sudan, as undermining the kingdom’s traditional role in the region.
For Western policymakers this sometimes results in pressure to choose sides. When it comes to human rights abuses, the kingdom has always had instances to critique. But any singling out of Riyadh for “grave concern” comes in the context of a larger agenda to shine what Saudi Arabia sees as a hypocritical spotlight on its internal affairs. The message to Ottawa and other Western states is that there are red lines on this criticism.
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