Canada and Saudi Arabia are in the middle of a diplomatic spat that is threatening the relationship between both countries including in the area of trade. How did we get to this point?
Whilst Saudi Arabia was praised in 2018 for giving women the right to drive, there is still a lot to do to bring the country up-to-speed on women’s rights policy. From the time they are born, women are forced to live under male guardianship. The first guardian is her father, even her brother, her uncle, or her son, then if she marries it’s her husband. It’s her guardian’s role at any given point in her life to grant her permission to do things like go to school, travel, work or get married. Although the guardianship rule is not a written law, it’s has been customary practice in the country for hundreds of years. Those in favour of the system state that guardianship offers women protection and love and see it as a form of duty, those against it state that guardianship is plain slavery. Over the last few years, a movement started that has resulted in the signing of a petition by thousands of people to end male guardianship.
Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who came to power in June 2017, by giving women the right to drive, positioned himself as a young modernizer. The whole world applauded the change, seeing it as a sign of a new policy direction. However, besides that, he has shown no intention to improve women’s rights and general human rights policy; in fact, he is proving to be just as cruel and intolerant as his predecessors through repression of religious minorities and public floggings.
The woman at the centre of the current political storm with Canada, is Samar Badawi, a young woman who has devoted her life to improving women’s rights in her country. Her fight started when her father wanted to stop her from marrying the man she loved which resulted in her arrest. Samar was at the forefront in the driving campaign which earned women the right to drive early 2018. Following winning the International Women of Courage Award in 2012, given by the U.S. State Department, for championing women’s rights, she was first banned from leaving the country in 2014, then arrested in 2016. Her brother is blogger Raif Badawi who was arrested in 2012 for condemning the government of Saudi. His wife and children live in Quebec and became Canadian citizens.
Samar’s activism continued and when she and her fellow activist Nassima al-Sadah were arrested again, Canada’s response led to the current spat. Canada’s Foreign Affairs Ministry tweeted “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.” As a reaction or as some would call it an overreaction, the Saudis withdrew their ambassador, removed the Canadian ambassador, suspended flights to and from Canada, recalled Saudi students studying in Canada, barred the import of Canadian wheat, and suspended all new trade deals. The message from the Saudi’s is loud and clear and when it comes to human rights, they don’t want to be told off. Relationships with other countries are strictly business.
As the spat continued, in a statement this week Prime Minister Trudeau said “As the minister has said and as we will repeat, Canada will always speak strongly and clearly in private and in public on questions of human rights.” Thus, Canada has made its ethical position clear even though it has already come at some cost. Meanwhile other major trading partners of both Canada and Saudi Arabia have remained relatively quiet.