Threats Fly And Flights Are Grounded Amid Dust-Up Between Canada And Saudi Arabia

Aug 6, 2018
Originally published on August 6, 2018 11:24 pm

In the past several days a dust-up between two unusual antagonists has derailed the work of ambassadors, caused the suspension of "all new business" between the two countries — even the posting (and subsequent deletion) of a tweet that drew international outrage.

But what in the world could have caused such a dispute between Canada and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and how could things have escalated this quickly? The origins of this story can be found with a couple of recent arrests, as well as the tweets they drew in response.

Late last week Canadian diplomats called out Saudi Arabia's decision to arrest several prominent human rights activists, pushing for the release of one in particular: Samar Badawi, women's rights advocate and sister of a dissident writer who himself was previously sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, for one, tweeted Thursday that she was "very alarmed" to learn of Badawi's imprisonment. "Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time," she said, "and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi."

The next day Global Affairs Canada lent its voice to the effort, saying "Canada is gravely concerned."

"We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists," it tweeted.

Saudi Arabia's ministry of foreign affairs did not take kindly to the push, viewing it as an unacceptable encroachment on Saudi domestic government — and by Sunday the ministry had retaliated with a tweet of its own, this one considerably lengthier.

"Throughout its long history, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has never accepted any interference in its domestic affairs by, or orders from any country," the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in part, decrying Canada's "negative and surprising attitude" and taking particular umbrage with the phrase "immediate release" — which sounded too close to an order for Saudi tastes. "The Kingdom views the Canadian position as an affront to the Kingdom that requires a sharp response to prevent any party from attempting to meddle with Saudi sovereignty."

And the Saudis' "sharp response" was not couched simply in words.

The country called its ambassador back to Riyadh, at the same time declaring the Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Dennis Horak, persona non grata and expelling him from the kingdom. What's more, the foreign ministry announced "the freezing of all new trade and investment transactions between the KSA and Canada," reserving the "right to take further action."

Then, there was still another tweet — though this one did not last long, snowed under as it was by a wave of indignation.

Ostensibly meant as a warning, the tweet by a reportedly government-linked account featured an image of Toronto's skyline in black-and-white with a statement overlaid: "Sticking one's nose where it doesn't belong! As the Arabic saying goes: 'He who interferes with what doesn't concern him finds what doesn't please him.' "

But that wasn't what drew ire from Western viewers.

Rather, onlookers' gazes couldn't help but be attracted to a plane superimposed above the skyline — and directed right for the city's iconic CN Tower.

The apparent allusion was not lost on viewers, who noticed striking visual similarities to the planes that flew into another set of iconic towers, the World Trade Center, on Sept. 11, 2001. It did not help that of the 19 men who flew those planes and hijacked two more airliners on that date, the preponderance hailed from Saudi Arabia.

It was not long before the image was taken down and replaced with one without a plane, which in turn was taken down, too — this time with the entire account that posted it, @infographic_ksa. The Washington Post notes that the account, which boasted more than 350,000 followers, had been self-identified as a "voluntary non-profit project ... managed by a group of Saudi youth" and had been described in state-run media as "an official government account."

Now, it's no more — suspended while authorities investigate what happened.

The Saudi Ministry of Media announced that it had received a complaint about the post and subsequently "ordered the owner of the account to shut it down until investigations are completed, according to electronic broadcasting laws in KSA" — but not before the account's owners "clarified and later apologized," according to a spokesperson for the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C.

"The aircraft was intended to symbolize the return of the ambassador," read the group's apology before it went down with the rest of the account, according to the CBC. "We realize this was not clear and any other meaning was unintentional."

Saudi officials' hasty walkback of the image had little effect on the broader dispute between the two countries, however.

The state-owned Saudi Arabian Airlines announced later in the day it would be halting all flights to and from Toronto beginning next Monday, and several of the country's allies in the Persian Gulf region — including the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — have issued statements backing Saudi Arabia in its retaliation.

"Whilst the Kingdom of Bahrain regrets Canada's position, based on totally erroneous information that have nothing to do with reality on the ground," said Bahrain, "it absolutely rejects its unacceptable intervention in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Freeland, for her part, expressed defiance in a statement Monday.

"Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women's rights and freedom of expression around the world," she said. "We will never hesitate to promote these values and we believe that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.