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Saudi Arabia over-reacts after Canada hits where it hurts the most

WASHINGTON, USA - JUNE 16: Saudi defence minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seen during a meeting with United States Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter in Washington, United States on June 16, 2016. (Photo by Pool/Bandar Algaloud /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia these days is extremely touchy. Any country that dares to point out the ruthless policies of Mohammed bin Salman regime stands the risk of being unfriended by the Kingdom. The severing of ties generally has crippling effect on the economy of the victim nations.

Canada has become the latest country to face the Saudi wrath after a Global Affairs Canada tweet criticized the inhuman arrests of activists in the kingdom.

The tweet read: “Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists.”

That is all that was said. But it was enough to infuriate Mohammed bin Salman, who hit back by inflicting sanctions. How could a woman, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, tell the Saudis what to do?

It was blasphemous. Canada had to pay.

Saudi Arabia targets Canada
Saudi Arabia targets Canada

First, it asked the Canadian ambassador to get out. Then, it sacrificed the education of over 15,000 Saudi students in Canadian universities just to appease its ego. The country’s quasi-ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in a single stroke, has put in jeopardy the future of his country’s most prized asset – human capital.

It also blocked imports of Canadian grain, and ended state-backed educational and medical programs in Canada.

But Canada is only echoing the world view. By virtue of being an extremely oppressive regime, Saudi Arabia has been criticised by a majority of world leaders and activists. The United States, European Union, The United Nations, Human Rights Watch and multiple other entities have regularly cautioned Saudi Arabia on its terrible human rights record.

Oil money and the American promise to protect the Kingdom from external threat has made Mohammed bin Salman very aggressive, assertive and confrontational.

Saudi Media must be joking

The media in Saudi Arabia reacted to the Canadian allegations by naturally standing up in defence of the Kingdom. Al-Arabiya TV, ever since the bilateral relations strained, has been condemning Canada’s own human rights record. It dug deep and unearthed a BC Civil Liberties Association report, which highlighted poor conditions in Canadian prisons.

Yes, there are concerns. Canada’s poor record against the Indigenous people over the years has found proper mention in the media. There is no doubt Canada needs to address these concerns.

The Saudi media’s allegations may have elements of truth in it, but it pales in comparison. One of the guiding principles of journalism is avoiding selective reporting. Media organisations like the MBC group and Al-Arabiya, which are private on paper but state-controlled, conveniently ignored Saudi’s own miserable record and only targeted Canada.

The Saudi regime murders its own people for slightest of mistakes. It beheads those who don’t fall in line. It arrests people on its whims and fancies. A non-Muslim is at grave risk of facing persecution. If someone has a mind of his own, he is punished. It is an authoritarian regime where people have no say.

According to Amnesty, Saudi Arabia has dozens of outspoken activists, human rights defenders, writers and lawyers remain behind bars for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks at a press conference in Vancouver, B.C. on Monday, August 6, 2018 as MP Randy Boissonnault looks on. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jimmy Jeong
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland speaks at a press conference in Vancouver, B.C. on Monday, August 6, 2018 as MP Randy Boissonnault looks on. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jimmy Jeong

It is spearheading a controversial blockade of Qatar for allegedly harbouring terrorists. It has cut the most basic supplies to the tiny Gulf nation, making it difficult for the local population.

There is no comparison. And if Canada has human rights issues, why has the Saudi media not spoken till now?

UAE on Saudi footsteps

The United Arab Emirates, which has reportedly been acting like a big brother to the Saudis by inciting them to be more aggressive, even if unreasonable, is doing its bit to fan the flame. And it is no different from the Saudis.

There are reports of forced disappearances in the UAE, many foreign nationals and Emirati citizens have been abducted by the UAE government and illegally detained and tortured in undisclosed locations. Flogging and stoning are legal forms of judicial punishment in the UAE due to Sharia courts. Despite being elected to the UN Council, the UAE has not signed most international human-rights and labour-rights treaties.

In fact, a group of British lawyers are working on a campaign to help remove Saudi Arabia from UN Human Rights Council because of its continuing role in Yemen war, where US weapons are being used to kill and maim civilians. It is ironical. Its seat on the council expires in 2019.

Selling a pipe dream

Amidst all its unsolicited interventions, the 32-year-old Mohammed bin Salman is attempting to give Saudi Arabia a facelift. Ambitiously audacious, he is trying to usher in change.

But real reforms happen in the head. Simply allowing women to drive a car or go to a movie theatre does not even qualify as a true reform. It is more of a policy change.

Women are still effectively disempowered. They cannot go anywhere or do anything without the consent of a male guardian. The religious police continues to be a dreaded lot. There is no freedom of expression. Every person is a subject of the state and belongs to the Saud family.

Saudi Arabia’s decision to freeze relations with Canada has the potential to dissolve the $15-billion arms deal, which includes providing armoured vehicles to the country. It will be a good thing. Canada has been facing heat for intending to sell weapons to a country which uses imported weapons for mass destruction. The Saudi-led Arab bloc has so far killed over 10, 000 civilians.

Saudi Arabia is at cross roads. It must choose its path with caution. Any country that manifests arrogance and false sense of pride will not have many friends when it matters most.

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