Canadian officials had no idea what hit them.
As Saudi Arabia launched an unprecedented attack against Canadian interests in response to a tweet calling for the release of detained women’s rights activists including Samar Badawi, diplomats and foreign service officials were left scrambling and trying to confirm for themselves the media reports that the Canadian ambassador to the kingdom had been declared persona non grata.
Hundreds of pages of emails, diplomatic notes and memos released to Global News under access-to-information laws show exactly how the first 24 hours of the diplomatic crisis played out — and how a frantic wave of emails back and forth pulled in “the highest level of PCO/PMO” to the issue.
As Global News reported exclusively on Thursday, Canadian officials had spent months working diplomatic back channels trying to advocate for the release of civil and women’s rights activists arrested by Saudi authorities in a sweeping crackdown in May 2018.
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Those efforts included attempts to rally allies at the United Nations to pressure the Saudis into releasing the activists and one-on-one calls between Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and her Saudi counterpart.
As well, there were requests for a joint diplomatic meeting with senior Saudi foreign ministry officials from Canada and the ambassadors from Australia, Switzerland and Norway that appears to have gone unanswered by the Saudis.
Following a second wave of arrests in late July 2018, the Canadian embassy in Riyadh recommended the time had come to issue a tweet or public statement.
Other officials appeared to agree, noting “a tweet is warranted.”
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On Aug. 2, Freeland tweeted calling for the release of Samar Badawi, the women’s rights activist who has ties to Canada through her brother, Raif.
On Aug. 3, the Global Affairs Canada account followed suit.
But it was the tweet posted in Arabic from the Canadian embassy in Riyadh that sparked the backlash within a day.
Just over 12 hours after the tweet in Arabic was posted, an individual whose name is redacted sent an email at 6:10 p.m., saying they had received a phone call expressing “concerns” earlier that morning from Adel Al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister.
“I told him that while I was on holiday and hadn’t yet seen the specific tweet, our comments, statements and tweets on this subject in the recent past have reflected Canada’s escalating concerns,” the email reads.
“The tweet I said was not the Embassy acting on its own but in line with Canada’s views and concerns and any change was unlikely. I have now seen the tweet and don’t think it says anything either in language or tone that we haven’t said before.”
That characterization stands in contrast to comments made two months later by Canadian ex-envoy to Saudi Arabia, Dennis Horak, following his expulsion.
In an interview with Reuters in October, Horak, said the tweet was a “serious overreaction” and “went too far.”
“It was a situation that didn’t need to occur … to sort of yell from the sidelines I don’t think is effective,” Horak said in that interview.
Exclusive reporting by Global News last month revealed that officials at Global Affairs Canada believed Horak’s remarks were being interpreted inside Saudi Arabia as “an apology from the Canadian government.”
However, it was not possible to tell from the documents behind that reporting whether that was the intent.
Starting at around 6 p.m. on Aug. 5, roughly 14 hours after the embassy tweet, officials were scrambling.
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“It has escalated,” reads one in a flurry of back and forth notes as officials tried to make sense of whether reports emerging in the media that Saudi Arabia was expelling Horak were actually happening.
“The whole thing is surreal,” one email reads.
“It’s starting to look like this may be for real,” another wrote shortly after 7 p.m.
At 7:11 p.m., another email contained in the documents released this week said that based on the discussion in the phone call with the Saudi foreign minister on the morning of Aug. 5, “there was no suggestion at the time of further action forthcoming.”
One email from the Global Affairs emergency watch unit expressed confusion at how the crisis was beginning to play out.
No diplomatic note had been received notifying Canadian officials of the expulsion or the retaliation that was coming.
Hours later, in the early morning of Aug. 6, threats started rolling in.
“Will you be able to help us liaise with Twitter?” one email that appears to be from the embassy in Riyadh reads.
“It looks like we’re getting some threats – I’ll have one of our staff translate the ones we’re concerned about, but if you could flag those to Twitter (or let us know who can) we would appreciate it.”
Staff members waking up at the embassy were left “unsettled,” the documents suggest, and by the early afternoon on Aug. 6, questions were rolling in about how the ban on new investment promised by the kingdom would hit Canada.
Trade staff, it goes on to note, “are concerned.”
At the same time, Canadian officials in Riyadh were holding meetings with “likeminded” deputy heads of other missions to assess support.
But by that evening, it was a done deal: Horak was out, and he knew it.
“As you all now know our posting to Saudi Arabia has come to an unexpected early end,” he wrote in what is described in the subject line as a goodbye email.
No new Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia has yet been named to replace him.