Sat, Aug 11, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Canada learns nobody wins a Twitter fight after Saudi backlash

By Bobby Ghosh  /  Bloomberg

In an age when foreign policy is conducted increasingly by social media, Saudi Arabia’s reaction to a pair of Canadian tweets is a reminder that diplomacy by Twitter comes with a few risks.

The tweets, from Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland via her ministry’s main Twitter account, expressed concern over the latest arrests of social activists in Riyadh.

In response, Saudi Arabia suspended diplomatic ties and new trade dealings with Canada, ordered the expulsion of Canada’s ambassador to Riyadh and recalled its own envoy from Ottawa.

The Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ explanation for these measures is that the Canadian criticism was “an affront to the kingdom that requires a sharp response to prevent any party from attempting to meddle with Saudi sovereignty.”

This is hard to credit. Riyadh’s human rights record routinely attracts criticism — which the authorities brush off just as routinely.

Only last week, the UN Human Rights Council said it was alarmed about the “seemingly arbitrary detentions” of activists and called for their unconditional release. This was not met with anything like the fury evoked by the Canadian tweets.

One explanation for the selective Saudi outrage is Freeland’s high profile.

Another is the prominence of the female activist named in the two tweets: Samar Badawi, one of the kingdom’s best-known activists and winner of the US Department of State’s 2012 International Women of Courage award.

She is also the sister of Saudi Arabia’s most famous political dissident, Raif Badawi, who has been in jail since 2012.

Freeland herself has appealed for Raif Badawi’s release — his wife and three children are Canadian citizens — only to be told that Canada should mind its own business.

So the minister can hardly have expected a different answer this time, nor could she have been unmindful of the fact that in 2015, Saudi Arabia briefly recalled its ambassador to Stockholm when Sweden’s minister for foreign affairs cited Raif Badawi’s treatment in a broader criticism of Riyadh’s human rights record. Freeland’s tweet was bound to get a strong reaction.

Then there are the personalities and political concerns of the two young leaders in Ottawa and Riyadh: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

“Both sides are playing politics here,” said Ali Shihabi, founder of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington think tank.

Trudeau is “grandstanding and posturing on women’s rights” to compensate for an unpopular decision to persist with a US$12 billion deal to sell Saudi Arabia armored personnel carriers, he said.

The Canadian criticism — unnecessarily public — certainly smacks a little of virtue-signaling.

For his part, the prince “sees himself as managing an unprecedented and delicate reform process and doesn’t want outside criticism making it more difficult, let alone from allies who are beneficiaries of Saudi business, so he’s very upset with the Canadians,” Shihabi said.

This charitable view — that the crown prince needs his critics to be silent while he pursues reforms — was first offered up by his admirers last year, when he detained a number of rich and powerful princes as part of an anti-corruption campaign.

However, the arrest of female activists is harder to defend with that argument. An aspiring social reformer might have better luck seeking the cooperation of activists, not their incarceration.

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