- By Ishaan Tharoor
A few months ago, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seemed the toast of every major Western capital. MBS — the ubiquitous shorthand for the ambitious 32-year-old royal — had embarked on an extensive global tour, calling on politicians, business elites and celebrities as part of a broader push to sell his vision of reforms for the oil-rich kingdom. At a March meeting with reporters and editors of The Washington Post, he said he wanted to pioneer an economic transformation that would make the Middle East “the next Europe.” His message brimmed with liberal optimism and prompted rosy columnsfrom leading American commentators.
But an explosive diplomatic spat this week shows how fragile the crown prince’s narrative may be. On Monday, Riyadh announced it would suspend trade with Canada and ordered the expulsion of the Canadian ambassador. It also withdrew its own envoy in Ottawa.
The reason for the dramatic move? Last week, Canada complained about the arrests of a number of Saudi civil-society figures, including Samar Badawi, the sister of jailed blogger Raif Badawi. (His wife and three children now live in Quebec and became Canadian citizens last year.) Tweets from Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, and the Foreign Ministry itself championed human rights and the rights of female activists recently rounded up.
In reponse, the Saudis exploded. Officials described Canada’s statements as “blatant interference in the kingdom’s domestic affairs, against basic international norms and all international protocols” and a “major, unacceptable affront to the kingdom’s laws and judicial process, as well as a violation of the kingdom’s sovereignty.”
The Saudis also ordered the suspension of upcoming Saudi Airlines flights to Canada, which echoed the steps taken by Riyadh at the start of its ongoing standoff with Qatar. The kingdom also ordered the withdrawal of some 12,000 Saudi citizens studying at Canadian universities. It was a startling move — seen as a huge overreaction by some analysts — that will force life-altering disruptions upon the students and their family members. “The Saudi students – and their tuitions – will be moved to study programs in other countries with similar education systems, such as the United Kingdom,” reported the Globe and Mail.
The affair took a turn for the absurd on Monday, when a prominent Twitter account linked to the Saudi government shared an image of an airplane careening toward the Toronto skyline. The tweet was deleted, but not before casting the wholly unwelcome shadow of 9/11 over proceedings and forcing an apology from a Saudi embassy official in Washington. Meanwhile, an entire ecosystem of Saudi social-media accounts continued a trolling offensive, offering their virtual support for indigenous rights in Canada as well as Quebecois separatism.
Officials in Ottawa defended their stance. “Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, including women’s rights, and freedom of expression around the world,” Marie-Pier Baril, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Foreign Ministry, said in a statement.
But looming over the spat is the matter of a controversial — and unfinished — $12 billion arms deal between the two countries. The deal, inked in 2014 by a since-defeated Conservative government, was upheld by Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the face of significant media criticism at home. Trudeau’s government issued new export permits allowing Canadian companies to proceed with Riyadh’s purchase of light armored vehicles, but Saudi officials were reportedly irked by the widespread negative coverage of the deal in Canada and it has led to a months-long chill in Saudi-Canadian ties.
Ali Shihabi, the founder of the Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank close to Riyadh, told Today’s WorldView that the crown prince has to react to Western posturing as he seeks to liberalize his own country. “MBS sees himself as managing an unprecedented and delicate reform process and doesn’t want outside criticism making it more difficult, let alone from allies who are beneficiaries of Saudi business,” he said.
But it’s also a mark of the crown prince’s heavy-handed governing style. MBS “has led a drive to reform his country by diversifying its economy, lifting some social restrictions while curbing the influence of the once-powerful ‘religious police’ who enforced austere moral codes,” explained my colleague Kareem Fahim. “The changes, though, have been accompanied by a steady drumbeat of repression, including the arrest of popular clerics, prominent business executives and the women’s rights advocates — sending a message, analysts said, that the reforms do not include a sliver of tolerance for political expression.”
MBS is also increasingly seen as the steward of an incoherent and largely unsuccessful foreign policy that includes the stalemate over Qatar, the ruinous war in Yemen and a botched attempt to collaborate with the Trump administration on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
On the last matter, MBS has voiced support for the White House’s vague peace plans. But there is growing disquiet in the Middle East, including in Riyadh, over the Trump administration’s near-total embrace of Israeli interests over Palestinian concerns. It prompted the Saudi king to issue a statement last week reiterating his support for Palestinian claims to Jerusalem as well as refugees’ rights of return, a clear rebuke to Trump — and perhaps to the crown prince’s willingness to play ball with Israel.
“While the Crown Prince has had a long leash from his father, King Salman, the regional and public heat was apparently too much for the older monarch, and in an unexpected move, the King overturned his son’s foreign policy proposal and reaffirmed the long-standing Saudi position on the matter,” wrote Bessma Momani, a professor of international affairs at the University of Waterloo in Canada. The dispute with Ottawa, she argued, offered a welcome distraction: “For a leader who is used to the nationalist support of his young and energized followers, it was time for MBS to get the Saudi people riled up again.”