A dispute between Canada and Saudi Arabia that started with a tweet has escalated to an all-out slanging match that has all but severed relations between the two countries entirely.
Saudi Arabia has cancelled flights to Canada, recalled students studying there, cut investment and issued lurid threats.
Meanwhile Canada has pledged to hold its ground, leaving the temperature nowhere to go but up. News on Tuesday that Saudi Arabia is to execute a female activist for the first time has brought the county’s conflict into the spotlight once again.
Scroll down for a full timeline explaining how the dispute has snowballed into a full-blown crisis.
August 1: Human rights organisation Amnesty International announced that the Saudi government had arrested several female activists. Lynn Maalouf, its Middle East research director, said it was a “draconian crackdown.”
Maalouf said in the statement that both women had been “repeatedly targeted, harassed, and placed under travel bans for their human rights activism.”
One of these women was Saudi activist Samar Badawi, the sister of Raif Badawi, who has been detained since 2012 for “insulting Islam.” Raif Bawadi’s wife and children were made Canadian citizens this year.
Badawi received an International Women of Courage Award in 2012 from Michelle Obama and Hilary Clinton.
August 2: Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister, tweeted that she was “very alarmed” to learn of the arrest and that Canada “stands together with the Badawi family.”
Very alarmed to learn that Samar Badawi, Raif Badawi’s sister, has been imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. 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.
— Chrystia Freeland (@cafreeland) August 2, 2018
August 3: Canada’s foreign ministry weighed in, writing on Twitter that Saudi Arabia should “immediately release” Badawi and “all other peaceful #humanrights activists.”
Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.
— Foreign Policy CAN (@CanadaFP) August 3, 2018
The Canadian Embassy in Saudi Arabia also shared the tweet on its Twitter account, stoking tensions. But the Saudis waited two days to respond.
August 5: Saudi Arabia’s foreign ministry hit back, saying that Canada had a “negative and surprising attitude” and was making an “entirely false claim.”
— Foreign Ministry ???????? (@KSAmofaEN) August 5, 2018
In a string of 10 tweets, Saudi Arabia accused Canada of “an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom” and said its tweet broke the “most basic international norms” of diplomacy.
The most dramatic was this one, in which Saudi Arabia demanded that the Canadian ambassador leave within 24 hours.
#Statement | We consider the Canadian ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia persona non grata and order him to leave within the next 24 hours.
— Foreign Ministry ???????? (@KSAmofaEN) August 5, 2018
The same day, Saudi Arabia also announced that it was suspending “all new trade and investment transactions” with Canada.
Canada seemed taken aback by the reaction, and said in a statement they were seeking clarification from the Saudis. But Freeland said their position was non-negotiable: “We are always going to speak up for human rights, we are always going to speak up for women’s rights and that is not going to change.”
August 6: Tensions rocketed when a Saudi account, @Infographic_ksa, posted an image which seemed to be threatening Canada with a 9/11-style attack.
Now deleted, here a screenshot of the threatening Saudi "infographic" featuring an airliner headed for the Toronto skyline. pic.twitter.com/LrkCLxxjFk
— Tobias Schneider (@tobiaschneider) August 6, 2018
The majority of the 9/11 hijackers were Saudi citizens.
After a backlash online, the account pulled the tweet, which it said had been misunderstood. @ksa_infographic appears to have a close relationship with the Saudi government’s media ministry, though the specifics are not clear.
August 7: Saudi Arabia’s state airline, Saudia, said on Twitter that it was suspending all flights inbound and outbound flights to Toronto from August 13.
— SAUDIA | السعودية (@Saudi_Airlines) August 7, 2018
Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail said Saudi Arabia was planning to withdraw all Saudi students it has been sponsoring at Canadian universities, colleges, and schools — more than 15,000 people.
Source: The Globe and Mail.
Also on August 7, the Reuters news agency reported that Canada was about to ask allies including the UAE and UK for help. Neither country has done much to support the Canadians.
The US refused to back Canada in the dispute, saying both sides needed to “diplomatically resolve this together.”
US State Department Spokeswoman Heather Nauert urged the two countries to use diplomacy and said the department had raised the issue with Saudi Arabia.
“Both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together. We can’t do it for them, they need to resolve it together,” Nauert said.
August 8: Al Arabiya, the Saudi-owned state media outlet, published a series of videos questioning Canada’s human-rights record and blasting Canada’s prison system.
تقارير لناشطين تطالب كندا بتحسين وضع السجناء بما يوافق حقوق الانسان pic.twitter.com/VX1owQmDWd
— العربية (@AlArabiya) August 6, 2018
One of the videos listed information about incarceration rates and violence in an apparent challenge to Canada’s reputation.
August 7: A media blitz on the topic in Saudi Arabia attacked Canada’s reputation, with TV guests blasting its treatment of indigenous people and a major-general accusing Canada of supporting terrorism.
Guy on Saudi TV: "Canada treats its native population like [Myanmar treats] the Rohingya". Other guy agrees and says "Yes it also has the highest suicide rate". https://t.co/gWDRVvxrog
— İyad el-Baghdadi | إياد البغدادي (@iyad_elbaghdadi) August 7, 2018
August 8: Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir warned of increased measures against Canada. “There is nothing to mediate. A mistake has been made and a mistake should be corrected,” he said at a press conference.
He said the onus was on Canada to “fix” its action.
Hours later, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau refused to back down, promising to continue to defend human rights. “We will continue to stand up for Canadian values and indeed for universal values and human rights at any occasion,” he told journalists.
Also on August 8, Saudi Arabia said it was stopping all medical treatment programs in Canada and was transferring all Saudi patients to other hospitals outside of Canada.
August 9: Thursday brought the first sign of a limit to the dispute: according to the Saudi energy minister, the dispute will not affect oil exports to Canada. Khalid Al-Falih cited a long-standing policy that the oil trade isn’t affected by political concerns.
August 13: Saudi media used the week to launch a bizarre campaign against Canada, targeting Canada’s treatment of women and claiming that the country is one of the worst oppressors for women.
The campaign highlighted things like the disappearance of 1,000 indigenous women over the past hundred years in Canada, but it did not address steps taken in recent years to mitigate the problem.
August 21: Following a few weeks of relative calm, when both countries grappled with the fallout, human rights groups said that Saudi Arabia was on the cusp of executing a female political activist for the first time.
Two human-rights groups have told Business Insider that the kingdom gave Israa al-Ghomgham the death sentence earlier in August – around the same time that Saudi Arabia began its smear campaign on Canada.
Al-Ghomgham is most likely facing execution with a sword, Saudi Arabia’s preferred method for administering the death penalty. Her campaigning focuses on calls to end discrimination against Shia Muslims and a release of political prisoners.
Canada responded to news of the planned beheading by reiterating its previous comments about its commitments to human rights. A spokesperson for Freeland said Canada was “concerned.”
“As Minister Freeland has previously stated, Canada is extremely concerned by the arrests of women’s rights activists,” a foreign affairs spokesman said in a statement, according to the Globe and Mail.
“These concerns have been raised with the Saudi government. Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights and freedom of expression around the world.”
August 23: Trudeau said that he is continuing to “engage diplomatically” with Saudi Arabia but that he remains “concerned” over the impending execution.
“We continue to engage diplomatically with Saudi Arabia, I think it’s important to have positive relationships with countries around the world,” Trudeau told reporters in British Columbia.
“At the same time we have expressed our concern with the sentence handed down by Saudi Arabia,” Trudeau said. “Our concern for defending human rights and our shared values all around the world.”
It isn’t clear when, if at all, either nation expects to climb down from the dispute and go back to regular diplomatic relations.
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