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Canada to discuss rift with Saudi Arabia

Ministers from Canada and Saudi Arabia are hoping to meet this week to discuss the rift between the two countries.

This headline making announcement came from Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who on Tuesday announced her plans to meet and discuss the diplomatic dispute with her Saudi counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir on the sidelines of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in New York.

The goal of this meeting is to begin mending fences between the two powerhouse countries following Canadian criticism of the kingdom’s arrests of human activists, which lead to an explosive dispute over the summer.

The global headline making rift between the two countries began when Ottawa called for the release of activists who were detained for urging more rights for women in the kingdom, including women’s rights campaigner Samar Badawi on August 2nd.

Samar Badawi is the sister of well known detainee Raif Badawi who is serving a 10 year prison sentence. His wife and children however are Canadian, thus making Samar the sister-in-law of a Canadian citizen.

“We feel a particular obligation to women who are fighting for their rights around the world, women’s rights are human rights,” said Freeland.

“And we feel a particular obligation to people who have a personal connection to Canada. A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”

To this Saudi Arabia responded by freezing new trade with Canada; blocked grain imports; ordered thousands of Saudi students on government scholarships to leave Canadian universities and relocate to other countries or return home; placed a ban on Saudi flights to Canada, along with orders to brokers and bankers to suspend transactions with Canadian entities and finally, expelled Canada’s ambassador from the kingdom.

At the height of the dispute, it was al-Jubeir who appeared to lecture Canada on its responsibility to defuse tensions, saying at a news conference, “Canada knows what it needs to do. Canada started this, and it’s up to Canada to find a way out of it.”

However, Canada has not back down and Freeland has made it clear, prior to the hoped for meeting that the country would not be changing its fundamental position of standing up for human rights.

The Saudi side has relented to some extent, and has quietly dropped at least one of their more extreme measures, where the medical students and interns who were ordered to leave Canada by August 31st, were allowed to continue at their posts for the time being.

However, at least 7,000 non medical Saudi students were forced to interrupt their studies and some have chosen to file asylum claims in Canada instead of returning home.

Leading up to the hoped for meeting, Freeland disclosed that she was in regular touch with al Jubeir who she disclosed was working very hard to also soothe the rift between the countries.

“He is very engaged on the issue … we are hoping to meet in New York this week and I think that’s a good thing,” she told an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Both Canada and Saudi Arabia have chosen to allow their foreign ministers, rather than heads of state or heads of government, to deliver their country’s addresses to the General Assembly.

That means under UN protocol they must wait until later in the week to speak as Freeland will speak on Saturday morning, and  Jubeir will be the final speaker to give his presentation on Saturday afternoon.