Saudi Arabia-Canada spat: Here’s everything to know about the feud

Click to play video: 'Spat? Dispute? What’s going on between Saudi Arabia and Canada?'
Spat? Dispute? What’s going on between Saudi Arabia and Canada?
ABOVE: Spat? Dispute? What's going on between Saudi Arabia and Canada? – Aug 7, 2018

It started with a tweet over human rights and now the feud between Saudi Arabia and Canada has escalated into one of the biggest diplomatic rifts in years between the two nations.

Saudi Arabia has kicked out the Canadian ambassador, plans to pull out thousands of students and medical patients from Canada and is suspending Saudi state airline flights to Toronto.

And Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not backing down.

“It’s very harsh diplomatic measures,” said Aurel Braun, a professor of political science and international relations at the University of Toronto. “This is an all-out confrontation short of a military conflict because it’s breaking a link in the diplomatic embassy.”

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As the feud continues to balloon, here’s everything you need to know about it.

WATCH: No apology from Trudeau on Canada’s dispute with Saudi Arabia

Click to play video: 'No apology from Trudeau on Canada’s dispute with Saudi Arabia'
No apology from Trudeau on Canada’s dispute with Saudi Arabia

How did it start?

The diplomatic dispute began last week after Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted concerns about the news that several social activists had been arrested in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi, a women’s rights activist who is the sister of imprisoned dissident blogger Raif Badawi, whose wife is a Canadian citizen and lives in Quebec.

On Aug. 2, Freeland called for the release of the prisoners, and a day later, her department tweeted further criticism and called for the “immediate release” of Badawi.

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

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How did Saudi Arabia react?

The ultraconservative kingdom did not take the tweet lightly.

In a series of angry tweets on Sunday, the Saudi foreign ministry criticized Canada’s “negative and surprising attitude” and called the country’s position “an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of #SaudiArabia.”

“Canada has made a mistake and needs to fix it,” Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said Wednesday. “The ball is in Canada’s court.”

In a steady string of retaliatory measures, Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry expelled Canada’s ambassador and suspended all business and trade between the two countries.

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The nation is also ending thousands of Saudi scholarship programs in Canada, arranging for all Saudi patients in Canadian hospitals to be transferred out of the country, 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.”

WATCH: Saudi Arabia restricts Canada trade, recalls ambassador

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Saudi Arabia restricts Canada trade, recalls ambassador

Why the quick, harsh reaction?

Saudi Arabia has always been hypersensitive to criticism of human rights, according to Braun. For example, in 2015 Sweden criticized the kingdom’s human rights record, and as a result, Saudi Arabia took harsh diplomatic measures and expelled Sweden’s ambassador.

But Braun said the kingdom’s reaction to Canada seems to be more severe.

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“Maybe the ruling family wants to make an example of Canada and send a message internationally, that Saudi Armada will extract a high cost for those who interfere in domestic affairs,” he said.

The nation also has a young new crown prince in power, Mohammed bin Salman, who is taking steps forward to modernize the country.

“By contrast to the old regime, the country believes it is modernizing, such as allowing women to drive, although this may seem minute to us,” Braun explained. “They see themselves as trying to engage in reform, but they are not being rewarded for it, instead Canada is shaming them. So it’s not only anger, it’s a lack of recognition.”

WATCH: Diplomatic feud intensifies between Canada and Saudi Arabia

Click to play video: 'Diplomatic feud intensifies between Canada and Saudi Arabia'
Diplomatic feud intensifies between Canada and Saudi Arabia

Controversial tweet removed

On Monday, a Saudi youth organization shared and then deleted an image on Twitter that appeared to show an Air Canada plane heading toward the CN Tower in Toronto, evoking images of the 9/11 attacks in the U.S.

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“As the Arabic saying goes: ‘He who interferes with what doesn’t concern him finds what doesn’t please him,’” read a message superimposed over the image from the Twitter account @infographic_KSA. It also accused Canada of “sticking one’s nose where it doesn’t belong.”

Screen grab of a tweet posted by the account @Infographic_KSA, which has since been shut down.
Screen grab of a tweet posted by the account @Infographic_KSA, which has since been shut down. @Infographic_KSA / Twitter

Infographic KSA later tweeted another image with the plane removed, before apologizing for its original tweet.

Oil will not be impacted

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia’s energy minister assured Canada that the kingdom’s diplomatic dispute with Ottawa won’t affect oil sales. Around 10 per cent of Canada’s oil imports come from Saudi Arabia. Bilateral trade between the two nations is around $3 billion a year.

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Was this a wise move for Canada?

Canada has had a long history of standing up for human rights internationally.

“For Canadian leaders to criticize the human rights in other countries is not surprising,” Braun said. But he added it may have been the public platform that Canada used in order to shame Saudi Arabia that left the kingdom so angry.

“Was this a wise decision to public shame rather than quiet diplomacy? So far it did not have the desired results,” he said. “We have not seen the release of these people.”

What are Canada’s allies saying?

None of Canada’s allies has spoken out publicly in defence out of what experts describe as fear of being cut out from doing business deals in the lucrative Saudi economy.

What are the next steps?

Braun believes that in order for the two nations to mend ties, Canada will have to pull off some intricate diplomatic choreography and find a “face-saving message.”

But Trudeau and Freeland made it clear that Canada will not apologize for standing up for women’s rights.

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“We will continue to stand up for Canadian values and universal values and human rights,” Trudeau said at a press conference on Wednesday. “Canada will always speak strongly and clearly in private and in public on questions of human rights,” he said.

With both sides sticking to their position, it’s unknown how the next steps forward will unfold. However, Braun said it’s unlikely Saudi Arabia will reverse all its retaliatory steps without getting something back.

— With files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly and the Canadian Press

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