The government of Saudi Arabia has suspended all flights to Canada and withdrawn all state-sponsored students at Canadian universities following a row over criticism of the country’s multiple human rights abuses.
The move is part of a number of punitive responses over comments made by Canada’s foreign ministry, who claimed they were “gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia, including Samar Badawi,” before “urging Saudi authorities to “immediately release them and all other peaceful human rights activists.”
Among those recently arrested is women’s rights activist Samar Badawi, whose brother Raif Badawi was detained back in 2012 and later sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for his criticism of Islamic clerics. His wife, Ensaf Haidar, currently lives in Canada.
Riyahd immediately hit back at the claims as “blatant interference” in the country’s internal affairs, and proceeded to expel the Canadian ambassador and suspend all new trade and investment before considering further action.
“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 country’s foreign ministry wrote on Twitter, accompanied by a bizarre and long-winded statement.
According to an anonymous official who spoke to Canada’s Globe and Mail, over 15,000 Saudis study in Canada on scholarships, grants, or in trainee programs funded by the government, while accompanying family members bring the figure to over 20,000 people.
“The Saudi students – and their tuition – will be placed in study programs in other countries with similar education systems, such as the United Kingdom or the United States,” according to the official.
Such efforts could bring a serious negative impact to Canada’s economy, although the move also raises questions over the reliability of Saudi Arabia’s foreign investment as it seeks to promote internal economic growth. Many students pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition fees alone, while also paying huge sums on accommodation and living expenses.
Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland later indicated that Canada was “seriously concerned” by Saudi Arabia’s actions.
“Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, very much including women’s rights, and freedom of expression around the world,” a spokeswoman for Freeland said in a statement. “Our government will never hesitate to promote these values and believes that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy.”