August 7, 2018 4:42 pm

Is Canada a ‘whipping boy’ for Saudi Arabia? Why the kingdom picked a fight over a tweet

Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said Monday that Canada had posed questions to Saudi Arabia with regards to its relationship after the Arab country expelled Canada's diplomat, but said their embassy remains to provide services if needed.

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Tensions between Canada and Saudi Arabia show few signs of easing as both countries double down in reaction to what one former Canadian ambassador called a “brash” move by the Middle Eastern kingdom to freeze business ties, scholarships to students, and airline flights over a tweet.

Posted last week, the tweet in question from the accounts of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and Global Affairs Canada criticized the recent slew of arrests and detention of women’s rights activists by Saudi Arabia.

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In response, Saudi Arabia on Sunday evening expelled the Canadian ambassador, recalled its own and said all new trade and investment was on hold.

In the two days since, the kingdom has moved to further limit ties while Canadian ministers defended their criticism of the arrests, all the while leaving lingering questions about why Saudi Arabia, no stranger to criticism over human rights, picked a fight over a tweet.

READ MORE: As Saudi-Canada feud escalates, here’s how axing armoured vehicle deal could hurt Trudeau in 2019

“This was not a strategic move. It was a very brash move,” said David Chatterson, who was named Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia in 2009 and said the reaction by the Saudis is aimed at sending a message to other countries not to criticize the kingdom.

“Canada’s a fairly easy whipping boy, much more so than France, the U.K. or U.S., which have in the past also made some comments on human rights.”

WATCH BELOW: Freeland says Canada is comfortable with position on Saudi arrest of women’s rights activists

One of the activists in question, Samar Badawi, is the sister of imprisoned dissident blogger Raif Badawi, whose wife lives in Quebec and is a Canadian citizen.

But Chatterson said he doubts the particulars of which arrests were being criticized played any significant role in the outburst.

READ MORE: Raif Badawi’s sister arrested in Saudi Arabia — Amnesty International

“I don’t think it has anything to do with the Badawis at all,” he added.

“I think they were already kind of testy, kind of frustrated, and they saw this as an opportunity to send a broader message not just to us but to others.”

Saudi Arabia has consistently been flagged as one of the worst violators of human rights by groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Its treatment of women and critics, among numerous issues, have been prominent subjects of criticism from Western democracies.

WATCH BELOW: Canada’s diplomatic spat with Saudi Arabia over human rights

Domestic politics in Saudi Arabia also might have made the option of attacking an easy target an appealing one for the new Crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who is looking to shore up support amid a campaign of social reforms that has left many conservatives in the kingdom uneasy.

“This was far excessive to what the tweet could possibly warrant. I think it suggests strongly that Mohammed bin Salman is someone who continues to pursue a very aggressive foreign policy but acts somewhat impetuously,” he said.

“I think it was also an attempt by Mohammed bin Salman to bolster his domestic base.”

Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in Middle East relations, also called the reaction “harsh.”

“They’ve been acting very unpredictably and very aggressively,” he said.

READ MORE: Saudi non-profit deletes Twitter image depicting Air Canada plane flying towards CN Tower

If the goal is to deter international criticism, it’s not clear yet whether the Saudi move will work.

Freeland, speaking on Monday, said that the attack by the Saudis would not stop Canada from speaking up for women’s rights.

Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, Finance Minister Bill Morneau also echoed her sentiments.

“We have been clear with our dealings around the world and specifically with Saudi Arabia we know it is important to bring Canadian values around the world and we are going to continue to enunciate the appropriate ways of dealings with citizens,” Morneau said.

READ MORE: Arab states back Saudi Arabia in expelling Canadian ambassador over human rights dispute

It remains to be seen whether Saudi Arabia will be able to land economic blows which could shift the political calculation for the Liberals.

In particular, the case of a $15-billion armoured vehicles deal between the kingdom and a London, Ont., company has raised questions, but Morneau refused to speculate when questioned by reporters.

“We are going to stand with the values that we know are important to Canadians and Saudi Arabia will take the decisions that they will take.”

WATCH BELOW: Spat? Dispute? What’s going on between Saudi Arabia and Canada?

The future of that deal, one of the largest in Canadian history, is uncertain as Saudi Arabia continues to announce new restrictions each day on Canadian ties.

Signed by the former Conservative government, it was upheld by the Liberals once they came into power and it was former foreign affairs minister Stephane Dion who actually signed the export permits needed for General Dynamics Land Systems to ship the weaponized vehicles.

However, almost all details of the deal remain under wraps because of a confidentiality clause demanded by the Saudis.

READ MORE: Saudi Arabia cancels educational exchange programs after spat with Canada

If axed, the loss of jobs could have political repercussions for the Liberals.

The party flipped two seats from the Conservatives in London, where the plant building the vehicles is located, in the 2015 election.

Jobs and specifically, the collapse of manufacturing in the city, has been a major source of economic concern in recent years.

WATCH BELOW: Freeland says questions on armoured vehicle deal are for Saudi Arabia

With both sides sticking to their positions, where the rift goes next is unknown.

One thing that is clear is that neither side seems likely to back down any time soon.

“I don’t think the Saudis left a lot of room to put this back together. It’s very difficult to dial this back. Politically, I think it’s very difficult for the minister to take a step back as well,” Chatterson said.

“They’ve got to this point and it’s difficult for anyone to step back or for calmer heads to prevail. I think it would be extremely unfortunate but most importantly for the students, for our academic institutions and for our ability to affect change in Saudi Arabia going forward.”

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