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Canada refuses to budge after Saudi Arabia cuts ties over rights criticism

Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland says NAFTA talks are making progress
Ronaldo SCHEMIDT (AFP)

Canada refused to back down Monday after a furious backlash from Saudi Arabia over its criticism of that country's crackdown on women's rights activists, as as authorities in the Islamist kingdom said moves were afoot to uproot thousands of its students studying in Canada.

Riyadh announced earlier Monday it had declared the Canadian ambassador persona non grata and given him 24 hours to leave the country following Ottawa's vigorous demands for the release of jailed activists.

Ottawa did not give any ground over the shock expulsion, with Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland saying Canada would continue to defend human rights at home and "around the world."

"Let me be very clear with everyone here and with the Canadians who may be watching and listening: Canada will always stand up for human rights, in Canada and around the world, and women's rights are human rights," Freeland told an audience in Vancouver.

The Saudi decision, which underscores a newly aggressive foreign policy led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, comes after Canada demanded the immediate release of human rights campaigners swept up in a recent crackdown.

"The Canadian position is an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," the Islamist kingdom's foreign ministry tweeted.

"The kingdom announces that it is recalling its ambassador to Canada for consultation. We consider the Canadian ambassador to the kingdom persona non grata and order him to leave within the next 24 hours."

JEWEL SAMAD (AFP/File)

The ministry also announced "the freezing of all new trade and investment transactions with Canada while retaining its right to take further action".

The move came after the Canadian embassy in Riyadh said it was "gravely concerned" over a new wave of arrests of human rights campaigners in the kingdom, including award-winning gender rights activist Samar Badawi.

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

Samar was arrested along with fellow campaigner Nassima al-Sadah last week, the latest victims of what Human Rights Watch called an "unprecedented government crackdown on the women's rights movement".

Samar's brother, blogger Raif Badawi, was arrested in 2012 and sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in jail for "insulting Islam" in a case that sparked an international outcry.

The latest arrests come weeks after more than a dozen women's rights campaigners were detained and accused of undermining national security and collaborating with enemies of the state. Some have since been released.

Prince Mohammed, heir to the region's most powerful throne, has introduced a string of reforms such as lifting a decades-long ban on women drivers in a bid to overhaul the kingdom's austere image as it prepares for a post-oil era.

But the 32-year-old has simultaneously pursued a combative foreign policy -- including leading a blockade of neighboring Qatar and a bombing campaign against Iran-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen -- while cracking down on dissent at home.

The United Arab Emirates, a strong ally, supported the Saudi response to Canada.

"We stand with Saudi Arabia," the UAE state minister for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, wrote on Twitter. "Some countries believe that their experience (history) allows them to intervene in the affairs of others. This is unacceptable."

Goodbye Canada

HO (AFP)

In April, Trudeau -- Canada's prime minister -- expressed his "serious concern" over the continued jailing of Raif Badawi to Saudi King Salman.

Badawi's wife Ensaf Haidar has been granted asylum by Canada, where she is raising their three children.

"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," said Samah Hadid, Amnesty International's Middle East campaigns director.

But Riyadh's singling out of Canada is aimed at strongly discouraging other critical Western governments from speaking out, observers say.

"Canada is easier to cut ties with than the rest," Bessma Momani, a professor at Canada's University of Waterloo, told AFP.

"There isn't a strong bilateral trade relationship and poking the Trudeau government likely resonates with Saudi's hawkish regional allies. At jeopardy are the tens of thousands of Saudi students in Canada."

Saudi Arabia suspended scholarships for students in Canada on Monday and will relocate those already there to other countries including the United States, state media said, citing an education ministry official.

Bilateral trade amounts to CAN $3-4 billion (US $2.3-3.1 billion) a year, according to Thomas Juneau, an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa and a former analyst in Canada's defence ministry.

But the damage could be more significant if a $15 billion deal agreed in 2014 for Canada to sell Riyadh light armored vehicles is scrapped, as thousands of jobs in Canada could be lost, Juneau said.

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