World

Saudi Arabia escalates feud with Canada over rights criticism

BEIRUT — Saudi Arabia took concrete steps to disengage economically from Canada on Wednesday, escalating the feud over Canada’s criticism of Saudi Arabia and demonstrating that its expulsion of the Canadian ambassador this week was more than a symbolic protest.

The kingdom announced Wednesday it would no longer send its citizens to Canadian hospitals and would withdraw resident physicians from Canadian hospitals.

It has also said that it would suspend flights by Saudia, the national carrier, to Canadian airports starting Monday and informed traders that it would not buy Canadian barley or wheat.

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The measures came in response to two tweets by Canada’s Foreign Ministry last week calling on Saudi Arabia to immediately release imprisoned rights activists, including two who have family in Canada.

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The Saudi government responded Monday by expelling the Canadian ambassador to Riyadh, Dennis Horak, recalling the Saudi ambassador to Ottawa, and freezing all new trade and investment deals with Canada. It also said it would transfer thousands of Saudi students who were studying in Canada to schools in other countries.

The unusually strong reaction shows that Saudi Arabia, under the day-to-day leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 32, is willing to wield its wealth to deter Western countries from criticizing how its absolute monarchy is run.

Mohammed, who has emerged as the kingdom’s most dynamic official since his father, King Salman, assumed the throne in 2015, has made similar moves against Sweden and Germany in response to criticism.

The United States, which has strong diplomatic and economic ties with both countries, has taken a neutral posture on the dispute.

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“Both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together,” the State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday. “We can’t do it for them.”

She encouraged Saudi Arabia to “respect due process and publicize information on some of its legal cases.”

The State Department, in its annual Human Rights Report, has frequently criticized Saudi Arabia on similar grounds to those stated by Canada. The latest edition accuses the kingdom of holding political prisoners, conducting executions without due process, and practicing the “arbitrary arrest and detention” of lawyers, human rights activists, and government critics.

The Canadian government referred specifically to the case of Samar Badawi, a longtime women’s rights activist who was jailed last week at the same time as a colleague, Nassima al-Sadah. A tweet by Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland also referred to Badawi’s brother, Raif, a blogger who was imprisoned and publicly caned for running a liberal website.

The Saudi government has locked up dozens of clerics, businessmen, and activists since last year. It has rarely provided any information on why they were arrested or whether they have been charged with any crimes.

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For now, both sides appear to be sticking to their positions.

‘There is nothing to mediate. A mistake has been made and a mistake should be corrected.’

“We are going to lead with our values,” Canada’s finance minister, Bill Morneau, said Tuesday. “It’s important that we bring Canadian values around the world, and we are going to continue to enunciate what we believe are the appropriate ways of dealing with citizens.”

Saudi Arabia has continued to call the Canadian criticism an unjustified intervention in its internal affairs, and Saudi-owned television stations have aired content aimed at tarnishing the image of Canada.

In Riyadh, Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told reporters Wednesday that mediation in the dispute was not possible and that Canada needed to “fix its big mistake.”

“There is nothing to mediate,” he said. “A mistake has been made and a mistake should be corrected.”

The dispute will affect approximately 800 Saudi students working as residents or fellows in hospitals around the country, including about 200 at the University of Toronto.

They have been told they have until the end of the month to leave the country, according to Dr. Salvatore Spadafora, a vice dean at the University of Toronto’s faculty of medicine. “We are hopeful the situation can be resolved,” he said.

Tuesday, Saudi Arabia informed grain traders in Europe that it would no longer accept “milling wheat or feed barley of Canadian origin,” according to Reuters news agency.

In 2017, Canada sold 66,000 tons of wheat, excluding durum, and 132,000 tons of barley to Saudi Arabia, according to Canada. While the sanctions may touch individual sectors, they will not have a great impact on the overall Canadian economy, analysts say.