Saudi Arabia has suspended an educational exchange program with Canada, according to foreign media reports.
The news comes after Canada’s ambassador to the kingdom was expelled Sunday after Foreign Affairs minister Chrystia Freeland called for the release of Samar Badawi, the sister of jailed dissident blogger Raif Badawi, and Nassima al-Sada, another prominent female activist. Badawi’s husband lives in Canada.
The Saudi ambassador to Ottawa was summoned back on Sunday, and it was announced that the kingdom will also freeze all new trade and investment transactions with Canada.
The Saudi foreign ministry said it wouldn’t stand for outside intervention and called the arrests lawful.
Saudi-owned Al Arabiya reported that the kingdom suspended the “training, scholarships and fellowships to Canada” and said all its students in Canada would be transferred to other countries.
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This could affect over 16,000 students, explained University of Waterloo professor Bessma Momani, Senior Fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation.
She told Global News the timing of the announcement is particularly troubling for students because universities start in September.
“Saudis claim they’ll find new spots for them, but it is not easy to admit students as transfer students weeks before classes start,” she said. “Tens of thousands of students will likely lose a term if not year of their studies.”
Colleges and universities are now trying to figure out how many of their students will be affected.
“I can only imagine how stressful it must be given only three or four weeks to find another university somewhere else in the world,” Ray Darling the registrar at the University of Guelph said.
“To move their belongings to try and transfer to that institution to wrap up things that they are doing here.”
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Thomas Juneau, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in Middle East relations, said calling back students was a “serious” issue.
“That will be a key indicator” of how things are going to escalate, he explained.
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Global Affairs Canada hasn’t responded to a request for comment about the students, and it’s unclear whether Canadian students are affected.
In a previous statement, a spokesperson for the ministry of Global Affairs told Global News in an email they were “seriously concerned” about the issue.
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“We are seriously concerned by these media reports and are seeking greater clarity on the recent statement from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” deputy press secretary Marie-Pier Baril said.
“Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, very much including women’s rights, and freedom of expression around the world. Our government will never hesitate to promote these values and believes that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy.”
*With files from Katherine Ward