The Latest Example of Erratic Saudi Foreign Policy

Imad K. Harb


Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir addresses the Canadian-Saudi crisis.

Once again, impulsive, ill-advised, and harmful foreign policy decisions are negatively impacting Saudi Arabia’s global standing. The kingdom has expelled the Canadian ambassador from Riyadh and recalled its own envoy from Ottawa, frozen trade and investment relations with Canada, and suspended scholarships benefiting some 15,000 Saudi students in Canadian institutions, many of whom in the medical profession. Saudi Arabia’s state airline halted flights to Canada, and Saudi government-sponsored media outlets began a propaganda campaign decrying reports of allegedly terrible conditions in Canadian prisons.

This came in response to a rather mild rebuke by Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland and her ministry over the treatment of Saudi rights activists, specifically Samar Badawi and her brother Raif Badawi (whose wife is a Canadian citizen and their children have political asylum in the country). In fact, Canada’s criticism was no different from that contained in the US Department of State’s Saudi Arabia 2017 country report on human rights which, incidentally, elicited hardly a response from the Saudi government.

In criticizing the Canadian action as interference in the internal affairs of his country, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir reminded everyone that the kingdom “does not interfere in the internal affairs of other states….” While his statement may have sufficed for the Canadian offense, the ensuing actions represented a harsh overreaction that raised eyebrows about the direction that Riyadh’s foreign policy is taking. This is especially troubling because Canada is an ally with which Saudi Arabia signed a $15 billion deal for light armored vehicles and has an annual trade volume of $4 billion with the kingdom. Indeed, many observers question who is making the decisions that could endanger Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the West. There was a similar spat with Germany in November 2017, but that only led to the Saudi summoning of the German ambassador in Riyadh and the blacklisting of some German companies.

Thus far, Saudi Arabia’s response to Canada’s criticism has not garnered overwhelming regional or international approval, which should be a warning to Saudi decision-makers. The kingdom received the support of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and the Palestinian Authority. On August 7, Egypt announced its solidarity with Saudi Arabia and rejection of interference in Saudi affairs. The secretary generals of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani and Yousef bin Ahmed al-Othaimeen, respectively, issued statements in support of the Saudi position. Perhaps sensing an opportunity, rights-challenged Russia also chimed in with condemnation of Canada’s supposed politicization of human rights and defended Saudi Arabia’s “specific national customs and traditions.”

On the other hand, Riyadh failed to get the support of half of the membership of the GCC for its unilateral decision against Canada. Responding to Zayani’s statement, Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that it does not reflect Doha’s opinion. Kuwait and Oman issued statements merely affirming their rejection of interference in the internal affairs of nations but pointedly refraining from supporting the Saudi actions.

Perhaps what is striking is the reported Canadian attempt to enlist the help of the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom—instead of the United States—to mediate the dispute (though Saudi Arabia has ruled out such mediation). The obvious reason is the frosty relationship between President Donald Trump and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, both of whom traded unfriendly barbs before, during, and after the last G-7 meeting last June. In fact, the most Washington could say about the latest Saudi Arabian-Canadian dustup is that the United States is a friend to both countries and is sure they could resolve the issue diplomatically. Still, the State Department’s spokesperson, Heather Nauert, stated that the United States and Saudi Arabia are “in dialogue” about human rights issues in the kingdom. This tongue-in-cheek American position reflects the fact that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) has been endorsed by the Trump Administration, and his cordial relationship with President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner may have emboldened him to the detriment of Saudi relations with a host of other countries.

It is hard to see how Saudi Arabia can decry interference in its domestic affairs without recognizing that it is doing the same in several countries. In fact, Saudi Foreign Minister al-Jubeir would do well to remember that his country—like many others—has quite a few skeletons in its closet. A few examples could shed some needed light.

For close to three and a half years, Saudi Arabia has been involved militarily in Yemen, helping to cause a humanitarian crisis there. While the Saudi intervention could be justified as one of fighting domestic Yemeni actors—the Houthis—who have usurped legitimate authority, and protecting Saudi national security interests, it nonetheless constitutes interference in another country’s domestic affairs. In addition, the kingdom also tried to interfere in Qatari domestic affairs since June 2017 (and prior) and led a coalition that partly isolated Doha from its regional environment, all purportedly in order to change Qatar’s political behavior. Just recently, plans by Saudi Arabia and the UAE were exposed, showing that the two countries intended to invade the Qatari peninsula that summer but that American intervention by former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson thwarted the effort.

In July 2013, Saudi Arabia was the premier supporter of the military coup of General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi against Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected president of Egypt. The kingdom and the UAE remain Sisi’s most ardent supporters and have poured billions of dollars in assistance despite his many human rights transgressions. In the autumn of 2017, amid a crackdown on domestic challengers to his ascendancy, MbS forced Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri to resign while on a trip to Riyadh and placed him under house arrest, precipitating a temporary but serious constitutional crisis in Beirut. If these instances of foreign policy activism are not examples of interference in other states’ affairs, then the phrase most assuredly needs redefinition.

Governments would do well to realize that their freedom in conducting domestic affairs is circumscribed by the mores and rules of international interaction and connectedness. Canada’s criticism of Saudi Arabia could potentially help the kingdom understand that its position within its regional and international environments may be determined by how much respect it shows to the principles of human rights. If Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vision for a new Saudi Arabia is to be realized, Riyadh should be more circumspect regarding criticism of human rights abuses and ready to both improve its human rights record and embrace the principles of openness and democracy.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here