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Saudi Arabia's explosion at a Canadian tweet shows how rules have changed

Analysis: The Saudi kingdom erupted in fury at criticism of its human rights record. Will the West resist Saudi pressure and back Canada?
Image: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Abd Rabbo Ammar / Ap file

Well, that escalated quickly.

Canada’s call last week for the immediate release of human rights activists who were detained in Saudi Arabia within days spiraled into a full-blown diplomatic crisis. The Saudi government erupted in fury at Canada's two-sentence tweet, recalling its ambassador to Ottawa and expelling Canada's envoy. Riyadh froze all new trade and investments between the two countries, canceled Saudi state airline flights to Canada, and forcibly withdrew its students studying in Canadian colleges.

At the same time, the Saudi twitterverse exploded with nationalistic fervor. One widely shared tweet carried a thinly veiled threat, showing an Air Canada plane flying toward Toronto’s skyline, reminding the world that it was mostly Saudi Arabians who were behind the 9/11 attacks. That image, by a widely followed pro-government account, was taken down and an apology issued, but it continues to be shared and draw commentary.

Image: Samar Badawi of Saudi Arabia
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama congratulate Samar Badawi of Saudi Arabia at the State Department's 2012 International Women of Courage Award event. The rights activist was detained by Saudi authorities last week.Gary Cameron / Reuters file

One man seems to be the force behind this outburst: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The prince, 32, has been praised for fighting to transform the kingdom’s economy, steering it away from religious zealotry and enacting reforms like lifting the ban on women driving. But bin Salman has also presided over an unprecedented crackdown on dissent — imprisoning women’s rights activists, journalists and clerics as well as billionaire princes and businessmen.

According to experts, the spat with Canada illustrates a different leadership style for the kingdom, and signals a seismic shift in the international order as Saudi Arabia and other governments no longer feel bound by rules long enforced by the U.S. and European democracies.

“The difference with him is that he is presenting absolute power as the eternal end of everything," said Abdullah Alaoudh, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding. "This clashes with liberal democracy, with the idea of sharing power at all, even if it is half-democracy or quarter-democracy.”

Alaoudh is intimately acquainted with how power is wielded in his homeland — his father, Salman al-Awda, a prominent cleric who called for democratic reforms, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia since September.

He added: “The message the crown prince is sending is, ‘We don't have to be a liberal democracy to be allies. And at the same time we are not going to be a liberal democracy at any point in the future so forget it. So let's talk about strategic interests and oil and things like that.’”

Bin Salman's approach can be seen across the board in Saudi Arabia and the region.

He championed a war in neighboring Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians and is widely considered a quagmire. Saudi Arabia has pressed the boycott of the neighboring Gulf kingdom of Qatar. The surprise resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri last November, which was broadcast during a visit to Saudi Arabia and later rescinded, is widely thought to have been forced by Riyadh.

The New York-based group Human Rights Watch on Wednesday warned that the worsening spat between Ottawa and Riyadh "should alarm Saudi Arabia’s allies and all rights respecting countries.”

"The state of liberty in the West is not what it once was under the impact of terrorism."

The question now is whether Europe and the U.S. will support Canada's call for improvement in the kingdom's human rights record, or will remain silent in the face of the country's economic muscle. So far, the official response from the European Union and the U.S. has been muted.

The European Commission said it was looking for clarification about the arrest of the Saudi rights defenders. But it was clear the E.U.’s executive was not eager to be drawn into the diplomatic dispute.

European Commission spokeswoman Maja Kocijancic said “we have been seeking clarification from Saudi authorities” over the arrests since May. “We don’t comment on bilateral relations,” she said.

The United Kingdom, meanwhile, has simply urged both countries to show “restraint.”

In Washington, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters that U.S. officials had “regular dialogue with Saudi Arabia” on human rights. “This particular case regarding Canada, we have raised this with Saudi Arabia. They are friends, they are partners, as is Canada as well.”

But Nauert made it clear the U.S. would not play an active role in helping to settle the dispute. “It is up to Saudi Arabia and Canada to work this out,” she said.

Canada is a NATO member and America’s third-most important trading partner after China and the E.U. The close economic and cultural affinity between Washington and Ottawa is longstanding, although the U.S. has also maintained close ties with Saudi Arabia’s rulers.

There are signals, however, of the Trump administration's preferences. President Donald Trump has publicly bashed Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, while Saudi Arabia was the site of the president’s first overseas trip.

And he has made it clear that human rights are not a priority for his administration, saying during a May 21, 2017, speech to Arab leaders that “we are not here to tell other people how to live.”

Bin Salman's actions have to be seen against a broader backdrop, according to Charles Freeman, the United States ambassador to Riyadh in the late 1980s and early ’90s.

Since the late 1970s and President Jimmy Carter’s explicit emphasis on human rights as part of American foreign policy, the U.S. and other Western nations have “felt emboldened to comment on internal conditions and political developments" in Saudi Arabia, Freeman said.

But the end of the Cold War after the collapse of the Soviet Union also dealt a blow to the global order that saw Western democracies freely lecture about human rights conditions in other countries.

“Unity within what used to be called the Western bloc has disappeared," Freeman said. "But you also have the devolution of authority to regional actors and powers among which is Saudi Arabia. There will very likely be more forceful reactions by third-world countries to Western pontificating on their lack of liberal institutions.”

Image: President Donald Trump holds a bouquet of flowers upon being welcomed by Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud
President Donald Trump holds a bouquet of flowers upon being welcomed by Saudi King Salman, right, during Trump's visit to Riyadh in May 2017.Bandar Al-Jaloud / AFP - Getty Images file

These days, Western nations — in particular the U.S. — have a harder time occupying the moral high ground, Freeman added.

“The state of liberty in the West is not what it once was under the impact of terrorism," he said, adding that examples of U.S. forces torturing detainees and officials engaging in extraordinary rendition undermined its claims to the moral high ground.

"There is a lot of hypocrisy, which is to say the moral standing of countries like the United States and Canada to preach to others about liberal values is not what it once was," he said.

This trend has only accelerated under Trump, Freeman and other analysts said.

As for bin Salman's forceful reaction to Canada's criticism, he said it is most likely aimed at sending a message to those tempted to weigh in on the kingdom's internal workings.

“To borrow the Chinese phrase, this is killing a chicken to scare the monkeys,” Freeman said. “The idea is that nobody else is going to mess with Saudi Arabia.”