The Slatest

The Administration’s Infuriating Both Sides–ing of the Canada–Saudi Arabia Dispute

A man stands outside the Canadian Embassy in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
A man stands outside the Canadian Embassy in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on Tuesday, one day after Saudi Arabia said it was expelling the Canadian ambassador.
Nasser al-Harbi/Getty Images

The next time President Donald Trump or one of his allies talks about the importance of standing up for the values of Western civilization, recall the time that his administration declined to take a side in a dispute between Canada and Saudi Arabia over the latter’s practicing of flogging journalists and locking up women for demanding the right to vote and drive.

The State Department had previously issued only a short, vague statement on Saudi Arabia’s furious reaction—including cutting off trade and diplomatic relations—to criticism from the Canadian foreign ministry over the arrest of two female activists, including the sister of an imprisoned blogger whose wife is a Canadian citizen. Spokeswoman Heather Nauert didn’t add much when she was repeatedly questioned about the issue at Tuesday’s press briefing. “Both sides need to diplomatically resolve this together,” she said. “We can’t do it for them. They need to resolve it together.”

While it’s true that the U.S. can’t be the one to solve this issue, it’s depressing that the State Department can’t at least support the right of its Canadian counterpart to issue the sort of concerned statement about human rights that Foggy Bottom puts out all the time.

Nauert refused to comment when asked whether the Saudis had “overreacted,” saying, “I’m not going to characterize it.” She also said, unconvincingly, that she was “not sure which activists Canada is asking about in particular”—despite the fact that these activists’ names were mentioned in Canada’s initial public statement and the subsequent media coverage of the dispute. She did call on Saudi Arabia to “address and respect due process and also publicize information on some of its legal cases,” though this makes it sound as if the issue is one of transparency rather than blatant human rights abuses.

Meanwhile, the dispute appears no closer to resolution. Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland is refusing to back down on her initial statement, saying, “Canada will always stand up for human rights in Canada and around the world, and women’s rights are human rights.” Her Saudi Arabian counterpart, Adel al-Jubeir, rejected the notion of mediation between the two sides, saying at a news conference Wednesday, “There is nothing to mediate. A mistake has been made and a mistake should be corrected.”

Saudi Arabia also rolled out a new measure meant to punish Canada, by barring its citizens from receiving medical treatment in the country. It has already ordered 15,000 Saudi students to leave the country and suspended state-run airline flights to Toronto.

The over-the-top Saudi reaction to Canada’s criticism has been compared to its efforts last year to isolate and blockade its regional rival Qatar, which have since extended to a proposal to build a literal moat to turn the peninsular nation into an island. It should be noted that the results of that campaign haven’t been great for the Saudis: Qatar hasn’t acceded to Saudi Arabia’s demands, has deepened trade with Saudi archrival Iran, and has even improved its standing with the Trump administration.

In the case of the fight with Canada, the main result so far is that many more people around the world now know about the imprisoned activists—Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah—than would have if the Saudis had just ignored the criticism, even if Nauert claims not to be aware of them.