Canada would be well advised to consider its next steps carefully; more often than not, a rift with the Kingdom is usually hard to fix. The potential consequences of its may not only harm future investment and large-scale trade, but also carry the real risk of upsetting the entire Muslim and Arab worlds.
Within hours, leading Arab and Muslim states, organisations and individuals such as the UAE, Bahrain, the Muslim World League and the secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council immediately sided with Riyadh in this diplomatic rift.
It began when a Canadian government department issued a statement demanding the immediate release of all activists detained in Saudi Arabia; Riyadh responded by expelling the Canadian ambassador and recalling its own envoy for consultation.
Some might argue that this could all have easily been avoided if Saudi Arabia had simply released the activists. However, the Saudi position is clear: Riyadh will not be dictated to. The Saudi government’s position is that the arrests took place in accordance with local laws. According to the public prosecutor's office, some of the detainees have confessed to conspiring with anti-Saudi bodies abroad. They should therefore be put on trial, not released simply because Canada demands it.
Of course, the situation would have been different had it been an individual Canadian politician, an NGO or a journalist making the statement. The issue here is that we are dealing with a public statement made on behalf of Canada’s equivalent of the ministry of foreign affairs.
Furthermore, the statement did not just raise concerns, or even object to the arrests — it demanded the detainees’ immediate release, which Saudi Arabia considers a blatant interference in its internal affairs and a breach of diplomatic etiquette.
Nevertheless, it is not too late for Canada to fix its relationship with Riyadh. Ottawa is entitled to its view, and it may very well communicate that view through the proper channels; but it should realize it is in no position to make demands of another sovereign country when the matter does not involve Canada.
The Canadian government could issue a new statement retracting its previous demands, and say — for instance — that they reflected only the position of the official who made them. Then, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should send a delegation on the first plane and meet the Saudi leadership in the Kingdom, because the longer this issue continues the more difficult it will become to solve. Case in point: Qatar.