Ottawa is deeply concerned by Saudi Arabia’s decision to expel the Canadian ambassador in response to Canadian statements in defence of human rights activists detained in the kingdom, Foreign Affairs Minister, Chrystia Freeland, said on Monday.
Saudi Arabia expelled Canada’s ambassador in Riyadh on Sunday over what officials called “blatant interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs.”
The Canadian ambassador was declared a persona non grata and was given 24 hours to leave the country, the Saudi Foreign Affairs Ministry said in a harshly-worded statement.
Saudi Arabia is also recalling its ambassador in Ottawa and halting all new investment and trade transactions with Canada, the ministry added.
But on Monday, Freeland was unapologetic.
“Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights and freedom of expression around the world,” Freeland said.
The Embassy of Canada to Saudi Arabia, in Riyadh, continues its regular operations, including consular services, she added.
Saudi state television Al-Arabiya has reported the kingdom’s education ministry has suspended all training, scholarships and fellowships to Canada and is working on the transfer over 15,000 Saudi students from Canada to other countries.
And Saudi Arabian Airlines announced Monday that they will be suspending all flights to and from Toronto as of Monday, Aug. 13.
The moves came after Freeland tweeted Thursday that Canada was “very alarmed” to learn Saudi authorities have arrested Samar Badawi, the sister of jailed Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, along with prominent activist Nassima al-Sada.
“Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi,” she tweeted.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry said Freeland’s call for their release was “unfortunate, reprehensible, and unacceptable in relations between states.”
“We have been briefed by what the Canadian foreign minister and the Canadian embassy to the Kingdom released on what they named ‘civil society rights activists,’ and we affirm that this negative and surprising attitude is an incorrect claim,” the Saudi Foreign Affairs Ministry tweeted Sunday.
On Monday, Riyadh received diplomatic support from regional allies the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and the Palestinian Authority, as well as the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
In a statement released Monday, Amnesty International called on the broader international community, especially countries with influence on Saudi Arabia such as the US, France and the UK to follow Canada’s lead and push Riyadh “to end this draconian crackdown and targeted repression of human rights defenders in the country.”
“The world cannot continue to look the other way as this relentless persecution of human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia continues,” said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International’s Middle East director of campaigns.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government has faced domestic pressure to stop selling weapons to Saudi Arabia over concerns that the armaments would be used in human rights abuses in the kingdom and in Yemen.
According to Global Affairs, in 2016 bilateral trade between Canada and Saudi Arabia stood at nearly 3 billion Canadian dollars (2.3 billion US dollars.)
That same year, Canada’s defence industry exported over 142.2 million dollars worth of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia, making it the number one destination for Canadian defence exports outside the United States.
In 2016, the Trudeau government also approved a highly controversial deal – signed under the previous Conservative government – to sell 15 billion dollars worth of advanced light armoured vehicles to Saudi Arabia.