Putting the spat between Saudi Arabia and Canada in context

The unexpected diplomatic feud between Canada and Saudi Arabia exposes the fragility of the latter’s reform agenda.

Saudi Crown Prince Reuters
As with most other foreign affairs adventures conducted by Mohammed bin Salman, this latest one has all the hallmarks of a rash, impatient and arrogant young man, writes Law [Reuters]

“Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.”

As tweets go, this expression of concern from Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland at the arrest of women activists in Saudi Arabia didnt seem particularly offensive.

It is the sort of thing that Western governments do from time to time when their consciences are mildly pricked by the actions of authoritarian regimes. The response of those regimes is usually to ignore the criticism, and life, trade deals and human rights abuses carry on until the next time democratic consciences are somewhat troubled. It has become a bit of a game, a diplomatic set piece with little consequence for either side.

In this case, however, the Saudis saw red. They accused Canada of “blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs, against basic international norms and all international protocols.” Freeland’s tweet was a “major, unacceptable affront to the Kingdom’s laws and judicial process, as well as a violation of the Kingdom’s sovereignty.” That’s quite a charge sheet.

WATCH: Saudi state airline suspends Toronto flights (2:05)

The Saudis added, with an attempt at menace, that should the Canadians not cease and desist forthwith then “any further step from the Canadian side in that direction will be considered as acknowledgment of our right to interfere in the Canadian domestic affairs.”  What, support the moribund separatist Parti Quebecois against the federal government? Call for an end to the Egg Marketing Board? Attack the relevance of the Canadian Football League?

In their righteous fury, the Saudis recalled their ambassador, gave the Canadian ambassador 24 hours to get out and froze all new business and investment deals. It was, by any measure, an extraordinary response, one that has left the government of Canada and most Canadians perplexed.

But there is a Canadian connection to the story and that is Samar Badawi. She has long campaigned on behalf of her brother Raif, a blogger sentenced in 2014 to 10 years and 1000 lashes for apostasy and “insulting Islam through electronic channels.” After Raif Badawi’s arrest in 2012, his wife and Samar’s sister-in-law Ensaf Haidar fled to Canada with their three children. On July 1 of this year, Canada Day, they were granted Canadian citizenship.

From her vantage point in Canada Ensaf Haidar has campaigned tirelessly and publicly for the release of her husband, a situation that without a doubt deeply annoys the Saudis. That may be one reason for their over the top response.

Another may be the ongoing Canadian media scrutiny of a $15bn arms deal arranged under Canada’s former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. The deal involves the sale of light armoured vehicles (LAVs) that may be used either against Saudi citizens in the restive Eastern Province or in the ongoing war in Yemen. In what was deemed a good faith gesture, Justin Trudeau’s incoming Liberal government decided to go ahead with the sale despite that concern. But the media criticism and attacks from human rights groups have not died down, if anything they have intensified.

Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince and de facto ruler of the kingdom did not appreciate the extent to which the deal was harpooned in the Canadian press. The view from Riyadh was that the sale was a gesture of friendship and solidarity, a gift if you will that the Saudis chose to bestow on Canada when they could have gone elsewhere to purchase the hardware. And Canadian media was behaving most ungraciously in attacking it.

Ah, the trouble a free press can cause! That’s one thing that the crown prince doesn’t need to worry about: in Saudi Arabia, a tame media showers praise and a constant barrage of photo opportunities on his every move.

As with most other foreign affairs adventures conducted by Mohammed bin Salman, this latest one has all the hallmarks of a rash, impatient and arrogant young man. The war in Yemen was going to be over in a matter of weeks. It is now in its fourth year and the consequences for the Yemeni people have been utterly disastrous. The economic and diplomatic blockade of Qatar, launched by the Saudis and the Emiratis, would end with the Qataris’ quick capitulation and acceptance of a long list of demands. That one is now more than a year old and Qatar is proving resilient in defending its sovereignty (what’s this about a tweet from Canada “violating the  (Saudi) kingdom’s sovereignty”?). And sitting down with Jared Kushner to cook up the Middle East peace deal of the century and trying to ram it down the throats of the Palestinians is another disaster waiting to happen.

Picking on Canada, a country with a  generally positive global image and doing so in language that is almost baroque in its claims while at the same time threatening to meddle in Canada’s domestic affairs unless the criticism stops is an odd thing to do when you are attempting to rebrand your country as moderate and open for business. But when you are a young man in a hurry with enormous power to wield, busy jailing anyone who dares to criticise with no one to gainsay you, then this is what happens.

Compared with his other foreign fiascos, the attack on Canada is a mild, risible faux pas. But it is one that reinforces a growing consensus that Mohammed bin Salman is increasingly out of his depth, struggling at home to impose his grandiose transformation of the Saudi economy, Vision 2030, and on the international stage tripping over his feet and beginning to look the fool.

True to form, the Canadians are playing a polite, patient game while resolutely holding their ground. As a spokeswoman for the foreign minister put it:

“Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights, and freedom of expression around the world. Our government will never hesitate to promote these values and believes that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy.”

So will Canada manage this diplomatic and economic war with Saudi Arabia?  Well, Canadians are, after all, becoming adept at handling tyrannical bullying, dire economic threats and reality TV bluster from a source much closer to home. So my hunch is that the answer is yes.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.