The notorious Saudi infographic.

Is there an appropriate response by Canada to the bizarre events of the last few hours on the diplomatic circuit?

It’s not just that Canada’s ambassador has been kicked out of Saudi Arabia for Tweets by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and an official in her department that by no reasonable standard amount to interference in Saudi Arabia’s internal affairs, as the feudal theocratic kingdom’s Foreign Ministry claims.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland .

Conveniently, it turns out, Ambassador Dennis Horak was already out of the country on vacation – since no one in their right mind would holiday in Saudi Arabia. So, it’s not like he’s going to have keep driving till he finds a motel vacancy or buy a new toothbrush. The Saudi ambassador to Canada was also on holiday when he got orders to come home, but he got the worse deal. Ottawa may not be one of the fleshpots of the planet, but it sure beats Riyadh!

However, as the New York Times pointed out in an editorial yesterday, Saudi Arabia’s “ugly spat” with Canada has real consequences – freezing all new business with a country “which counts Saudi Arabia as its second-largest export market in the Middle East” and supposedly planning to pull 12,000 students from Canadian universities. (University starts in less than a month. Many of those students are medical residents. We’ll see how that works out.)

The New York Times suggested Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was doing “the kind of thing that backward, insecure despots often do” when faced with criticism – and this is a surprise, why? It also hinted, however, that he may have gotten a nod of approval from another insecure authoritarian leader, the one in the White House.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (Photo: Wikimedia Commons).

And – who knows? – since Canada in reality buys very little “dictator oil” from Saudi Arabia, perhaps taking an unjustified smack at our country was a low-risk way for the Saudis to try to get other Western nations to fall into line and stop pointing out the obvious, that Saudi Arabia is a dictatorial theocratic hellhole.

Not mentioned by the Times was the supposedly officially authorized Saudi infographic with a picture of an Air Canada Airbus heading for the CN Tower, suggesting we might be in store for a 911-style attack if we don’t watch our step.

This almost seemed like a backhanded admission that Saudi Arabia supplied more than personnel to the 911 attacks on the United States in 2001. It certainly got disappeared fast enough, and the guy who posted it is probably in deep doo-doo. The Saudis have since cancelled all flights between the two countries, just to be on the safe side, I suppose, since they obviously don’t have a very good grasp of how Canadians think.

As an aside, I imagine there were some diplomatically un-Tweeted snickers of amusement at Canada’s expense in the huge Stalinist Gothic Foreign Ministry Building in Moscow, seeing as last April we kicked the press secretary of the Russian Embassy in Ottawa out of Canada on very similar grounds after he posted Tweets critical of Ms. Freeland.

The late Ken Taylor, Canada’s ambassador to Iran in 1979.

While the mass expulsions of Russian diplomats by NATO countries were supposedly about the attempted murder of a Russian defector in Britain by persons unknown, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters at the time that someone in Russia’s Ottawa embassy “used their diplomatic status to undermine Canada’s security or interfere in our democracy.” He didn’t actually name First Secretary Kirill Kalinin, the only possible suspect for that particular accusation.

“We all can remember the efforts by Russian propagandists to discredit our minister of foreign affairs in various ways through social media and by sharing scurrilous stories about her,” the prime minister said.

So, if nothing else, the second-rate Saudi social media campaign in this kerfuffle suggests that, as with hockey, the Russians remain the acknowledged best in the world when it comes to playing Twitter bots.

My guess is that Canadian diplomats will advise the Trudeau Government to respond to the Saudi sanctions as the Russians responded to those by Canada – with a brisk statement of disagreement followed by steely silence. Presumably the remaining Russian Embassy staff in Canada got right back to doing whatever they were doing before Mr. Kalinin was put on the plane to Moscow, where he now resides. Whoever handles their social media accounts now certainly doesn’t do as good a job as he did.

Kirill Kalinin, former first secretary of the Russian Embassy in Canada.

Steely silence is probably sound advice, at least if one assumes diplomacy ought not to be practiced solely as an extension of domestic politics – as it clearly is now in the United States, apparently in shaky Saudi Arabia too, and was in Canada during the Harper years.

Canada should of course continue to support the human rights activists persecuted by the repugnant feudal Saudi regime, as Ms. Freeland has pledged to do, although I don’t suppose anything we have to say will have much impact on the Saudi regime, or even on our timorous allies who have been as quiet as house mice about this.

But why not use this opportunity to deliver a proportionate, appropriate retort to the Kingdom’s Foreign Ministry – a message they will certainly understand without having it explained to them – and at the same time quietly set right a foolish and dangerous policy of the Harper Government?

I mean, of course, the 2012 decision by former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper to close Canada’s embassy in Tehran, the capital of Iran, supposedly because Canadians don’t do business with theocratic despots – unless, of course, they’re our theocratic despots, as Mr. Harper apparently mistakenly thought the Saudis were.

Dennis Horak, Canada’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia (Photo: Government of Canada).

“Iran is among the world’s worst violators of human rights,” Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird said at the time. “It shelters and materially supports terrorist groups.” The same can certainly be said of Saudi Arabia, which has us in a full-blown swivet now at the possibility of losing a couple of billion for armoured cars we never should have sold them in the first place.

Closing the Canadian Embassy in Iran was dangerous because it’s unwise to stop talking to foreign governments because you disagree with their policies. It was misguided, because it wasn’t done for sound reasons, but to influence domestic politics and please other countries that don’t necessarily have Canadians’ interests at heart, as subsequent events keep proving.

Ken Taylor, the late Canadian ambassador in Tehran during the 1979 Islamic revolution who helped smuggle American embassy staff out of the country, diplomatically expressed his disapproval of the Harper Government’s decision at the time, suggesting that when everything else fails, diplomats on the ground in a foreign capital can still gather intelligence for their country. Not to mention help their citizens who get in trouble there.

We never should have closed the embassy in the ancient capital of the Saudis’ regional and theological rival. This error has never been set right because Mr. Harper prepared the political ground in Canada to score points if anyone dared to try.

Thanks to Saudi Arabia, our government has a chance to do the right thing. What could the Friends of Saudi Arabia, otherwise known as the Conservative Party of Canada and its media auxiliary, say, after all?

Join the Conversation


  1. Hi David,

    That’s a great observation; Canada behaves like Saudi Arabia with Putin’s Russia, and behaves like Putin’s Russia with Saudi Arabia!

    It’s even better (worse?) because the Russian’s probably were genuinely trying to persuade Canadians to have a more open mind about Russia in the 21st Century. But turns out our remarks about Saudi human rights violations were strictly virtue signalling, intended only to make us look good to ourselves, and intended to have no effect in Saudi Arabia! We are flustered because the Saudi’s unexpectedly took us seriously!

    Then, the US says OK you two kids, stop squabbling. And we get even more upset because we thought we were the favourite. I don’t really think opening a Canadian embassy in Iran is in the cards. It is fun to imagine that we have that kind of independence, but really we will put our embassies were we are told. We are politically fully committed to the US agenda. That we are, and get no special thanks for it, is what has ruffled our feathers a bit. But we will take it and go on.

    Thanks again!

  2. Maybe Freeland is turning the page and will no longer be only known for her ties to that known unapologetic Nazi collaborator, and the unfortunate lying about her families past. Next she will mention the Saudi genocide in Yemen, those groups she support in the Ukraine that salute in such an awkward way, and heaven forbid the disproportionate response in Gaza. I won’t hold my breath but maybe just maybe she will turn things around. Road to Damacus perhaps just don’t wear a white helmet because we are still not sure where those actors ended up…

  3. There is a time and place for everything. While there is an argument to be made for reopening the embassy in Tehran – isn’t it ironic Iran now seems to be the most grown up behaving country in its neighbourhood, doing so now would probably only add fuel to existing fire and further escalate mid east tensions. It is the sort of thing, we would warn Trump not to do, so despite it being a feel good revenge sort of thing, remember revenge is best served cold.

    I think the Saudi’s have made a serious blunder here and it would be a further mistake to take the west’s relative silence as approval for this sort of bad behavior. However, it is perhaps the best sign the US has forfeited leadership of the western world. If the Saudi’s tried to pull this sort of thing in the past, the US would have called them on the carpet so fast their heads would spin. Of course, things are now different and Trump acts like a dotty old uncle to the Saudi’s, indulging them perhaps because he is in awe of their wealth. Just because no one is now going to immediately discipline this unruly child, doesn’t mean people accept this behavior – it just means that whoever took on the parental role in the past is now missing in action. If the US does not reassert itself, someone will eventually fill the power vacuum.

    It’s kind of interesting to bring up the Iranians here. I recall at one time they had a leader who was an eager modernizer and tried to make his country more western. However, he was also very heavy handed, clumsy and oppressive. Does this sound familiar Mohammed bin Salman? It sure did not end well in Iran and Trump may not be a deep enough thinker to grasp this, but if Saudi Arabia goes down this path, it won’t end well for the US there either. I suspect someone at the US state department realizes that without adult supervision, the current leadership of Saudi Arabia is a danger both to itself and the US. I don’t know if that message will get through to Trump, but perhaps by the time things finally fall apart in the KSA, Trump will probably be gone and it will become some other President’s mess to clean up.

  4. Whatever else one can say about the idiot who currently runs Saudi Arabia, he seems to have one clear talent and that is swindling right and center-right Americans, and Canadians. The Sun editorial is such a joke. I mean:

    “There’s also no question under the growing influence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that Saudi Arabia feels it has been making progress toward social reform.”

    I don’t know a) How the Sun editorial board or anybody can know “Saudi Arabia”‘s feelings at all, and certainly not to the point that there is “no question.” And, outside of Saudi Arabia (where Crown Prince bin Salman has in fact been making open expression of dissent rather awkward) , plenty of people, in the Arab world and elsewhere, feel that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is an incompetent flake with a gigantic ego who makes frequent diplomatic messes.

    But I will allow Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman one talent, and that is hoodwinking insular Anglophone center-right and right-wing intellectuals who think that they are worldly because they have played golf with businessmen of diverse backgrounds. He does that with considerable skill. I mean, it takes some low cunning to simultaneously imprison women’s rights activists and get credit for advancing the rights of women.

    I should say that these recent developments have made me rethink Trudeau’s embarrassing Indian trip. At first I thought, surely the explanation of the Trudeau administration, that it was a deliberate attempt to humiliate him, could not be true. Harper’s recent actions, and really this absurd Sun editorial, make that explanation much more credible.

  5. Seems to me that we pulled off something similar about human rights with China back in 2016 and cheesed off the Chinese Foreign Minister who was visiting Ottawa. iPolitics comments section were suddenly filled with silly input by Chinese spammers never heard from before or since informing us of all our glaring errors, notably the indigenous situation. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw bricks but the Liberals do it anyway. Then we soldier on with the trilling Freeland, persona non grata in Russia, as Foreign Affairs or Global Affairs minister or whatever this current government calls her post – whose bright idea was it to appoint her? Ridiculous on the face of it, but a hearty gift to Obama/Hillary at the time whose neocon credentials for world hegemony loved it as poke in Vlad’s eye. She seems to have been thoroughly ineffective on NAFTA negotiations as well, since Mexico seems to have just about signed onto Trump’s bilateral deal on the auto sector. Useless sums her up.

    Then she pipes up and gives it the old college try on Saudi Arabia. Look, everyone knows Saudi Arabia is mired in 1458 on the Misogyny Calendar, and that the new clown prince thinks himself a genius so human rights is whatever he wants it to be in a dictatorship/absolute monarchy. Ask anyone in the oil business who spent a year or two working for Aramco and living in a compound. And we still treat Iran like dirt for no reason I can work out beyond saying yessir to the Americans.

    Countries are like people working together at a shady company or government department where everyone knows who the bad actors are making out like thieves but keeps their heads down. Occasionally, someone cannot take it any more and turns into a whistleblower, while everyone else discreetly looks away. Canada has been among the nudge-nudge crowd flogging arms to the Saudis (Trudeau’s Jeeps) but all of a sudden the trilling bird tweets publicly about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia instead of doing the usual low level commentary that gets published in the media.

    If there’s one thing a Saudi prince isn’t going to take lying down, it’s some foreign female giving him a lecture on the way he should behave. Nor any other woman of any kind. And if it’s a highly-placed woman from that freign country crticizing him, so much the worse from his viewpoint and he’ll go into an apoplectic rage. Women are decidedly second class citizens in his country and are kept down despite now being allowed to drive. Terrible situation in Saudi Arabia on our Western scale I know, but anyone with a modicum of commonsense would not have done what Freeland did. Yes sure, we are all officially PC in the West, and misogyny is abhorred, but hectoring from the sidelines isn’t going to change minds of people who simply have different values, effectively live in a different era and are an independent entity.

    The whole Liberal approach since their election has been one of preppy folk who don’t live in the real world and have never gotten out to earn a real living knowing that Mummy and Daddy would back them up if they faced personal financial trouble. We have been governed by a top down approach from our “theoretical intellectual betters” who know best what’s good for us. And if we go too far even in parliamentary committee on electoral reform or assisted dying, well no, we get the prearranged lump of nothing that our “betters” have decided is good enough for all us plods for now. It’s what the right wing in the US deride as progressive top-down medicine for the masses from people who know they know best because they’re all Ivy School grads. I’m afraid I’m more socialist than those poncey progressives, but I do get that lecturing from on high by academics is not appreciated by the masses. Morneau and his gig economy musings is the height of such nonsense for the real world. Sure, it might be true, but you’re an idiot if you ruin the aspirations of your citizens by stating the obvious out loud, and can offer no brighter future.

    So Freeland has in effect turned Canada into a whistleblower, and no other country is going to support us because they all want to keep their jobs i.e. commercial ventures. And the history of whistleblowers has not been pretty. If airheads lacking street smarts govern us this way, all they do is ignore reality, no matter the cheers from home where social conditions are different and women are being more recognized as time goes by. Sad but true, I think.

    The other side of the coin is the Cons waiting in the wings ready to flog our country off to anyone who wants it and can pay, and willing to do anything for a bit of coin. We’re about to get a dose of that too. Ford and his Buckabeer, where 60 cents is Ontario tax and won’t be reduced, will join the regressivists running Saskatchewan and soon Alberta. Then Dumbo Scheer will be trotted out offering jobs for all and become PM. You can see it all coming from a mile away, because the NDP is completely irrelevant.

  6. Canada needs to better way to deal with authoritarian regimes. These include, Saudi Arabia, Iran Vietnam, Cambodia, China and the list goes on. China under Xi is more belligerent towards other smaller nations and curtailing freedom of expression for it’s own citizens and so far because of trade gets a free pass at the expense of Taiwan. We need a principles based foreign policy that balances advocacy for himan rights and free and fair trade.

  7. Comparing what Canada did to the Russian Ambassador with what the Saudis did is conflating ad hominem attacks by the Russians on our minister with criticizing the actions of the Saudis arresting and imprisoning innocent activists and protestors. It’s a very false equivalency.

  8. Is that a recommendation to undo one of the right’s wrongs by being on the right—uh, make that ‘correct’—side of another wrong of the regal right’s?

    If it’s not worth sweeping aside swiftly enough to produce a pothersome lather but, rather, ponder its reasonable, swivetlessness, I’m all in!

    Logic without all the tizzy! Bravo!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.