Saudi Arabia expels Canadian ambassador over criticism of arrests

Saudi Arabia expelled Canada’s ambassador over alleged interference in the kingdom’s domestic affairs after Ottawa’s foreign ministry rebuked Riyadh for jailing human rights activists.

Canadian Ambassador Dennis Horak was given 24 hours to leave the country, the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported on Monday.

The announcement came days after Canada called for the immediate release of rights campaigners detained during a recent wave of arrests in Saudi Arabia, including relatives of naturalised Canadian citizens.Saudi Arabia also suspended all new trade deals worth billions of dollars and recalled its envoy to Canada.

The ministry of foreign affairs said Canada’s actions were an “affront” that required a “sharp response”.”The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has never accepted any interference in its domestic affairs by — or orders from — any country,” SPA quoted the ministry as saying.

‘Business as usual’

A staff member at the Canadian embassy in Riyadh told news channel Al Jazeera by phone it “didn’t have enough information” to make a formal statement.

“[But] we are aware of this situation and for business and embassy work, we are continuing to operate as usual,” the staff member, who refused to be identified, said. 

Last week, Canada’s ministry of foreign affairs said in a tweet it was “gravely concerned” about the detention of rights activists in the kingdom, including Samar Badawi.

Samar is the sister of Raif Badawi, a prominent human rights campaigner sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2014 on charges of insulting Islam. His wife and children are naturalised Canadian citizens.

The ministry’s statement came a day after Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s minister of foreign affairs, called for both members of the Badawi family to be released.

“Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time,” Freeland said.

‘Unrelenting crackdown’

Saudi authorities arrested Samar Badawi and fellow activist Nassima al-Sadah last month.

Both campaigned for women’s right to drive, which was granted by the Saudi government when it ended a decades-old ban in June, as well as the abolishment of the male guardianship system.

More than a dozen female activists have been targeted by Saudi authorities since May, in what Human Rights Watch described as an “unrelenting crackdown on the women’s rights movement”.

Riyadh’s response to Ottawa’s criticism marked a “significant interruption” in relations between the two countries, Hassan Yari, a professor of international relations at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, told Al Jazeera.

“This [rift] is going to affect trade and exchange between Canada and Saudi Arabia,” Yari said.

Bilateral trade last year totalled about $4bn and more than 15,000 Saudi students attend Canadian universities.

A significant portion of two-way trade is based on Canada’s export of military vehicles armed with high-powered weaponry, a deal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has received much criticism for making because of Saudi’s human rights record. — Al Jazeera

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