Blame Canada! The Kingdom Lashes Out

Blame Canada! The Kingdom Lashes Out

In recent days, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has thrown a fit with Canada. Riyadh has kicked out the Canadian ambassador, recalled its own envoy, cancelled flights between the two countries, and put a freeze on new bilateral trade and investment. A pro-government youth club went so far as to post (but then remove) an image that seemed to threaten Canada with a 9/11 style terrorist attack.


The reason for the blowup? Canada’s call for the release of recently-jailed activist Samar Badawi. Badawi is an outspoken champion of women’s rights who has also campaigned for the release of her brother Raif, a blogger sentenced in 2014 to a thousand lashes and ten years in jail for “insulting Islam through electronic channels.”

By the standards of the old pantomime act in which Western governments criticize Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record but more or less leave the energy-rich and strategically aligned kingdom alone, Canada’s statement hardly stands out.

So why the furious response?

First, there’s a domestic angle. Saudi Arabia’s young Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman is liberalizing parts of Saudi society as part of a broader bid to attract foreign investment and reduce his country’s dependence on oil revenues.

But as part of that plan, he’s staged a power grab and crushed dissent to minimize challenges from rival princes or from conservative circles who hate what he’s up to. This, for example, explains why Prince Mohamed sees no contradiction in allowing women to drive while also arresting the women who have campaigned for allowing women to drive.

By lashing out at Canada – a country big enough to matter, but small enough not to risk any serious fallout – he is sending a signal: external criticism is now just as off-limits as internal criticism.

Second, there’s an external angle: the Trump effect. Just to be clear, the US has never – under any administration -- really put the screws to Saudi Arabia (or any other Sunni Arab allies) over human rights. But no modern US President has been as unapologetically uninterested in human rights issues as Donald Trump.

At the same time, Trump has signaled he is firmly in Saudi Arabia’s corner when it comes to the Kingdom’s key foreign policy objective, which is to crush Iran. Where Obama’s embrace of the Arab Spring and the Islamic Republic raised fears in Riyadh, Trump has set the House of Saud at ease.

Will Trump intervene on behalf of “very weak and dishonest” Justin Trudeau? Doubtful. And while Ottawa and Riyadh will probably eventually work this all out, other authoritarians will surely take notice that on Trump’s watch there’s room to be tougher at home and pricklier abroad.

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Watch the episode: Can we fix the planet the same way we broke it?

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody, Ian Bremmer here, kicking off your beautiful spring week from New York City. A little Quick Take. I thought I'd talk today about Russia, going to be in the news this week. Putin doesn't like it when they're out of the news for too long, certainly plenty going on between the US and Russia right now.

I'd say, first of all, to start off, the relationship is in the toilet. We know this. It is the worst it's been since the early '80s. That was true even under Trump. Trump and Putin personally had a pretty good relationship, but Trump wasn't able to get anything really done for the Russians, because both the Republicans in Congress, key members of cabinet under Trump, massive amount of constraints on what Trump could actually do, whether it's trying to bring Russia back into the G7 or recognize Crimea as a part of Russia, or remove or reduce sanctions. None of that actually got done. In fact, the relationship deteriorated over the four years.

But now we've got Biden and the focus is of course, more on human rights. The focus is more on climate change, which means that Russia as a massive energy exporter and particularly in terms of their influence on Eastern Europe and Western Europe on the downstream for gas delivery, for example, something that Biden is much more focused on. So a lot more pressure on the Russians, and the Russians don't care. Their willingness to hit back and show that the Americans are not willing to take any significant risks to constrain the Russians is also fairly significant. And this is playing out in a number of ways.

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Pakistani radicals vs French cartoons: It's been a tumultuous week in Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city. After widespread protests broke out across the Muslim world late last year after Paris defended French publications' rights to publish satirical images of the Prophet Mohammad, the radical Pakistani Islamist group Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), gave Pakistan's government until April 20 to expel the French ambassador, when it had planned nationwide demonstrations. When Prime Minister Imran Khan refused to meet their demands, more violence erupted across the country and authorities arrested the TLP leader — prompting TLP supporters to hit back by kidnapping six state security personnel in Lahore this past weekend. Authorities have now banned the TLP outright and are bracing for more violence in the coming days. France, meanwhile, has urged all of its citizens to leave Pakistan.

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