WASHINGTON ― Saudi Arabia's steadily escalating spat with Canada over a routine statement about human rights abuses shows that the kingdom, a longtime partner of the U.S. and other Western countries, wants to be more aggressive and less flexible in the face of the international criticism it has faced for years. That's not surprising under the hyper-nationalist and messaging-obsessed crown prince who now dominates the country ― but it's a big new dilemma for the governments that have spent years trying to balance the strategic relationship with their commitments to uphold fundamental rights internationally.
"The Saudis are clearly trying to shift the goal posts," said Ned Price, a former White House spokesman under President Barack Obama who spent over a decade at the CIA. "In prior years we would have been saying very much the same thing [about rights violations], and the Saudis would have grumbled under their breath.... A fairly mild statement is being met with a pretty outlandish response."
In prior years we would have been saying very much the same thing, and the Saudis would have grumbled under their breath.Ned Price, former White House spokesman
Managing the public perception of the decades-old partnership between Saudi Arabia and liberal democracies, such as the U.S. and Canada, has never been easy. Western citizens don't like what they hear about Saudi Arabia ― that women need a man's permission to travel or enrol in school, or that crimes are punished with amputations and beheadings. And international audiences question America's complaints about authoritarianism in other countries, including Saudi nemesis Iran, because its chumminess with Riyadh suggests a double standard, making it look like those complaints are not rooted in a genuine belief that rights must be universal.
For officials and experts trying to sustain the bond because of its value in trade, counterterrorism cooperation and projecting U.S. influence globally, the ability to at least say something about excesses is vital ― a tool that the kingdom has long understood the importance of and even sometimes reacted positively to. To lose even that option because the Saudis have now decided it violates their sovereignty makes justifying a Saudi-friendly foreign policy a lot harder. "These are rhetorical demands. This is not sending a team of special operators to free political prisoners," Price said.
Instead of minimal nudging, the Trump administration has now placed the U.S. in the position of explicitly blessing repression by mimicking the president's "very fine people on both sides" thinking. The administration is not choosing sides in the dispute and sees the countries as "both close allies," a State Department official told HuffPost. (Though, in response to a later question, the official noted that the U.S. would "encourage the government of Saudi Arabia to respect due process.")
The substance of the dispute shows the extent of the change the Saudis feel empowered to seek.
On Aug. 2, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said she was "very alarmed" that Saudi authorities jailed award-winning human rights activist Samar Badawi, and the next day, her department said it was "gravely concerned" about Badawi and scores of other activists recently placed behind bars. Both statements called for the dissidents to be released. Since Sunday, Saudi authorities have expelled Canada's ambassador, frozen future trade with the country and said they will relocate thousands of government-funded Saudi students at Canadian universities.
"This behaviour is so unlike what we would have seen in Saudi Arabia before King Abdullah died ... there would have been no statement at all from the old Saudi Arabia," said Perry Cammack, an Obama-era State Department official, referring to the era before King Salman took the throne in 2016 and brought with him his son, now-Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman.
There are precedents for harsh Saudi reactions to Western government condemnation. In 2015, Riyadh got Sweden's business elite to successfully pressure its center-left government over a minister's complaint that the Saudi flogging of a blogger was "medieval," and the kingdom slashed business with Germany earlier this year over a German official saying it treated neighbouring Lebanon as "a pawn."
It's an insane, epic overreaction.Daniel Shapiro, former U.S. ambassador to Israel
Saudi columnist Mohammed Alsulami argued to HuffPost that his country had particular reasons to react to the Canadian comments because they demanded an action (releasing the activists) and addressed a domestic issue (rather than a regional one, such as President Donald Trump's December 2017 demand for Saudi humanitarian relief in Yemen).
But former U.S. officials are united in skepticism of the claim that this level of squabble was merited over Canada's use of the word "concerned," a classic Western favourite to signal attention without major condemnation.
"There's nothing different or unique about the Canadian statements," Price told HuffPost. "It's an insane, epic overreaction," former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro wrote on Twitter.
To Price, what's different is the signaling from Washington under Trump, who's praised crackdowns and personally bashed Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The former Obama aide is involved in a progressive advocacy group ― he's got a perspective. Some Canadian analysts, however, publicly agree, particularly after the State Department remarks.
That sense of impunity suggests ramifications far beyond a dispute between two countries that don't have a huge amount to do with each other anyway. While the U.S. could easily adopt a tougher line under future administrations, per Price, the Saudi government will for the foreseeable future likely seek fresh ways to flex its muscles ― continuing a trend of failing to learn from foreign policy misses that is worrying experts and investors.
"There is a much deeper question about what this means for Saudi Arabia's trajectory," Cammack said. "This kind of impetuosity and overreaction in my mind doesn't necessarily bode well."
A pro-Saudi Twitter account shocked online observers of the fight on Monday by posting (and then soon deleting) a graphic that appeared to show a plane heading toward the Toronto skyline in a grim echo of the 9/11 attacks. Even more bizarre, and dramatic, consequences of the new attitude might lie ahead.