The absence of a ‘strong US voice on human rights’ is fueling Saudi Arabia’s deepening rift with Canada, Middle East expert says

  • Saudi Arabia and Canada are currently locked in a deepening feud over human rights.
  • "Absent a strong U.S. voice on human rights and democratic values, Arab leaders have become less willing to tolerate Western advice on either political reform of governance," Ayham Kamel, head of Eurasia Group's Middle East and North Africa practice, said in a research note published Monday.
  • In a statement released Monday, Amnesty International called on the broader international community to follow Canada's lead and speak out against human rights abuses.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) meets with US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House on March 20, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (L) meets with US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House on March 20, 2018 in Washington, DC.

President Donald Trump's administration is exacerbating an intensifying diplomatic row between Saudi Arabia and Canada by choosing not to stand up for democratic values around the world, according to a Middle East expert.

Saudi Arabia and Canada are currently locked in a deepening feud over human rights. The war of words between the two countries stems back to a series of tweets from Canada's Foreign Ministry last week, when Ottawa expressed concern over arrested civil society activists in Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh called the move a violation of its sovereignty and announced punitive measures against Ottawa, including the expulsion of the Canadian ambassador.

"The broad contours of U.S. foreign policy, especially under President Donald Trump's administration, clearly signal decreased appetite to engage on foreign issues or support democratization efforts," Ayham Kamel, head of Eurasia Group's Middle East and North Africa practice, said in a research note published Monday.

"Absent a strong U.S. voice on human rights and democratic values, Arab leaders have become less willing to tolerate Western advice on either political reform of governance," he added.

Diplomatic row

Canada has since doubled down over its push for the Middle Eastern country to "immediately release" arrested campaigners and activists.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has frozen all trade between the two countries, postponed all direct flights to Toronto via its state airliner and suspended scholarships for approximately 16,000 students studying in Canada.

Trade between the two countries was worth around $3 billion in 2016.

Chrystia Freeland, Canada's minister of foreign affairs, speaks during a briefing on North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Thursday, June 14, 2018. After a particularly tense week for Canada-U.S. relations, Chrystia Freeland said North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations will continue. Photographer: 
Cole Burston | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Chrystia Freeland, Canada's minister of foreign affairs, speaks during a briefing on North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on Thursday, June 14, 2018. After a particularly tense week for Canada-U.S. relations, Chrystia Freeland said North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations will continue. Photographer: 

In response to Ottawa and Riyadh's ongoing spat, the Trump administration issued its first statement on the matter on Monday — opting not to endorse Canada.

"We have asked the government of Saudi Arabia for additional information on the detention of several activists," a State Department official said in a statement Monday, calling both Riyadh and Ottawa "close allies" of the U.S.

In fact, Saudi Arabia is not a treaty ally of the U.S., while Canada — a member of NATO — is.

'Speaking up' for human rights

"An aggressive response to Canada's criticism is designed to send a broader message to all Western partners that the old structure in which Riyadh would quietly ignore Western demands for political liberalization is long gone," Eurasia Group's Kamel said.

Leading women's rights campaigner Manal-al-Sharif thanked Canada for "speaking up," before questioning when other Western powers would also be prepared to follow suit.

In a statement released Monday, Amnesty International also called on the broader international community to follow Canada's lead and speak out against human rights abuses.

The campaign group specifically urged Western powers with influence over Saudi Arabia — such as the U.S., U.K. and France — to stand up for civil society activists.

"The world cannot continue to look the other way as this relentless persecution of human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia continues. It is now time for other governments to join Canada in increasing the pressure on Saudi Arabia to release all prisoners of conscience immediately and unconditionally, and end the crackdown on freedom of expression in the country," Samah Hadid, Amnesty International's Middle East director of campaigns, said Monday.