Here’s why Canadian allies are keeping their mouths shut in dispute with Saudi Arabia
As Saudi Arabia continues to volley fresh restrictions against Canada, there’s notable silence from one key group of voices — Canada’s allies.
Since the Middle Eastern kingdom launched the dispute on Sunday evening over tweets sent the week prior, Saudi Arabia has recalled its ambassador, expelled Canada’s ambassador, frozen new business and trade, ordered Saudi students studying in Canada to go somewhere else, ordered Saudi citizens seeking medical care in Canada to go somewhere else, blacklisted Canadian wheat and barley, and ordered the asset managers of their central bank and pension funds to dump Canadian assets “no matter the cost.”
And among it all, the only response from Canada’s two closest allies — the U.S. and U.K. — has been to call both sides close partners and urge restraint.
So why the silence?
Like so many things in politics, it all boils down to the money, said one expert.
WATCH BELOW: Diplomatic feud intensifies between Canada and Saudi Arabia
“There is an attempt by the Saudis to create some fear and rattle some of those Western governments into not supporting Canada because they may be cut out or shut out from some potential Saudi economic deals and the big boom that it’s undertaking,” said Bessma Momani, a professor at the University of Waterloo specializing in Saudi relations and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation.
“Saudi Arabia is the largest weapons purchaser in the world, so any company or country in the world that sells arms, as does Canada, is likely to be looking into how this is going to affect bilateral trade ties.”
The dispute stems from what Momani called the “brash” decision by Saudi Arabia to respond to criticism of its arrest of women’s rights activists with a campaign of retaliation meant to send a warning to more powerful Western countries.
And it has not gone unnoticed that the same countries Canada has fought with and died alongside over the last century are keeping their mouths shut rather than speak out against the attacks.
There have been no tweets posted from the U.K. Foreign Office account about the spat.
In its statement to reporters, the office offered just three lines that urged restraint and described both Canada and Saudi Arabia as “close partners.”
The U.S. has also refused to get involved and called both countries close allies.
“Both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together. We can’t do it for them; they need to resolve it together,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday.
“Maybe we’re both allies but we’re supposed to be your closest ally,” Momani said.
“Putting us both on the same standing is something a lot of people are scratching their heads about, but perhaps not uncommon with the Trump administration and his disdain for our prime minister.”
Relations between U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have been testy since Trump went on a Twitter rant bashing the prime minister for contradicting him during the closing press conferences of the G7 Summit in Charlevoix, Que., in June.
Those kinds of attacks on traditional allies may have had a role in empowering Saudi Arabia to believe it can carry out such actions freely.
“Trumpism has consequences: a license for the reckless to act recklessly,” wrote Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in Middle East relations.
The European Union also refused to get involved.
A spokesperson was quoted by the New York Times as saying, “We don’t comment on bilateral relations” and that “we are in favor of a dialogue.”
So far, the only high profile foreign official to come to Canada’s defence has been U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders.
He posted a tweet on Monday calling Saudi Arabia’s reaction “outrageous” and defending Canada’s criticism of the arrest of women’s rights activists.
One of those, Samar Badawi, is the sister of imprisoned dissident blogger Raif Badawi, whose wife lives in Quebec and is a Canadian citizen.
The question now will be whether the Canadian government can contain the situation and stop things from escalating further.
Neither Canada nor Saudi Arabia has room to back down, said David Chatterson, former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
“I don’t think the Saudis left a lot of room to put this back together,” he said.
“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.”
So far, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has shown few signs of doing so.
Speaking with reporters on Tuesday, she said Canada was “comfortable” with its position and would continue to speak out on human rights and women’s rights.
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