Saudi Arabia brings gun to knife fight with Canada over Samar Badawi. Déjà vu, China?
Riyadh’s over-the-top reaction to Ottawa’s request that it free a women’s rights activist is a familiar one to countries that have challenged Beijing’s human rights record
There is the oft-remarked Chinese model of economic development. What is less mentioned may be China’s so-called model of diplomacy. A major aspect of this is to bring a high-calibre gun to a knife fight, that is: to overact to criticism, especially when it comes to allegations of human rights violations.
That’s an overreaction if ever there was one. Ottawa, after all, is not doing just another one of those “holier-than-thou” Western critiques of authoritarian governments. Badawi has family members in Canada, who have been appealing to Ottawa to act.
In a widely circulated tweet, Iyad Madani, a former Saudi information minister, wrote that Canada was interfering in his country’s domestic affairs: “Canada blundered because it seems to have ignored and forgotten that civil society and political social development are best left to the dynamics of each society.”
Sound familiar, doesn’t it?
The countries have been here before. Since the jailing of blogger Raif Badawi – Samar’s brother – for apostasy and sentencing with hundreds of lashes in 2013 and 2014, Canada has been vocal in its criticism and repeatedly called for his release. His wife took refuge in Canada and has since fought tirelessly for his safe return.
But in Raif’s case, Riyadh chose to ignore, rather than retaliate against, Canada. What has changed?
Clearly, MbS won’t tolerate criticism from a woman Canadian minister conducting microphone diplomacy – or any Western critics for that matter. He has been especially irked by the Germans for rounding on the Saudis’ devastating proxy war in Yemen.
Human rights cases are negotiable with Beijing, but you always need to give face to the Chinese. Also, Germany has some leverage, with its cutting-edge hi-tech industry, whose companies and technologies are coveted by Chinese firms with close ties to the state.
Between Canada and Saudi Arabia, though, there is no love lost. Bilateral trade amounts to no more than C$3.9 billion (US$3 billion). And resource-rich Canada doesn’t depend on Saudi oil.
Before the latest row, the Trudeau government had faced domestic criticism for refusing to cancel a deal made by the previous government to sell hundreds of armoured vehicles, some with assault capabilities, to the Saudis. Now, the sale is up in the air. If it is cancelled, it’s one less problem for the administration. But then Riyadh is the world’s biggest arms buyer; it loves weapons so much it might still insist on going ahead with the sale, despite the diplomatic stand-off.
Riyadh can be tough on Canada because it can. It would be unimaginable for it to react the same way to the US, its most important ally, or Britain, where its most powerful princes and businessmen have some of their most prized investments. Just think of their luxury homes in Mayfair, Kensington and Chelsea. One imagines some of those prized homes have been transferred to the official Saudi coffers. In a move comparable with Xi’s crackdown on corruption, MbS locked up some 200 of the country’s richest people, in gilded hotel suites, and forced them to cough up large chunks of their assets back to the state.
Canada is not important enough that Riyadh can pick on it while sending an unmistakable signal to other Western countries that the time for self-righteous lecture is over. China, Russia, Turkey, Israel, and others have been sending the same message, with varying success.
So far, the Canadian public is solidly behind Trudeau and Freeland. But that doesn’t mean the row hasn’t exposed something fundamentally problematic about Canadian foreign policy. Because of the built-in humanitarianism in its immigration policy, the country is admirably among the most generous when it comes to accepting refugees.
But once they have landed or become citizens, some become vocal and sometimes demand a tough Canadian diplomatic response to the countries from which they have fled. To what extent does Canada want its diplomacy dictated by the misfortune of foreign individuals and their families? ■
Alex Lo is a columnist with the South China Morning Post