Canada: A lesson in diplomacy

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Canada: A lesson in diplomacy

The word “diplomatic” is practically synonymous with mild manners, tactfulness, and generally being amenable to conciliation. Although I am always reluctant to make generalizations, it seems that many Canadians, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, take pride in being polite. 

That largely explains why the Saudi government and people were puzzled — even dismayed — when senior Canadian government officials and official social media accounts issued strongly worded statements a few days ago that were seen as interference in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs. 

The statements’ tone and tenor, and the channels through which they were disseminated, were seen as a serious violation of the norms and conventions of international relations, especially those between countries that have enjoyed good, mutually beneficial relations. Just how badly these statements have damaged bilateral relations remains to be seen. 

The row was triggered last week when Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland used her Twitter account to weigh in on the legal cases of some Saudi citizens. That very public statement did not comport with standard diplomatic practice, much of which is often done quietly behind the scenes. 

It was followed by even more strongly worded statements issued by the Foreign Ministry and the Canadian Embassy in Riyadh, calling on the Saudi government to “immediately release” these individuals. 

In response, Riyadh expressed its “disbelief” at these “negative, unfounded” statements, which are “not based on any true or accurate information.” It said the statements were tantamount to “blatant interference” in the Kingdom’s domestic affairs and a “violation” of its sovereignty. Riyadh also described the use of the phrase “immediate release” as “reprehensive use of language between sovereign states.” 

The Saudi government has followed up its words with actions. It has recalled its ambassador to Ottawa for consultations, declared the Canadian ambassador to Riyadh persona non grata, and asked that he leave the Kingdom within 24 hours. The Saudi government also said it is putting on hold all new business and investment transactions between the two countries. 

And in line with a royal directive, the Saudi Education Ministry said it is suspending scholarship programs in Canada, and transferring the estimated 7,000 Saudi students and trainees to other countries. An official in charge of scholarships at the ministry said it will do everything it can to ensure that the students’ transfer happens as smoothly as possible. He also said the “lion’s share” of transferred students will go to the US and the UK. 

The statements by Canadian officials have clearly dismayed Riyadh and strained bilateral relations. But perhaps just as importantly, Ottawa’s attempt at public diplomacy — disseminating its message to the Saudi public via social media — has proven counterproductive. 

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Saudis have expressed their unequivocal support for the Kingdom’s measures, echoing the sentiment that their country will not be dictated to or ordered to do anything against its own interests, especially if it pertains to domestic affairs. 

The Saudi Education Ministry said it is suspending scholarship programs in Canada, and transferring the estimated 7,000 Saudi students and trainees to other countries.

Fahad Nazer

Some Saudis have gone further by advising Canadian officials to fix their own domestic affairs first — with some referencing the issue of Quebecois independence — before focusing on those of other countries. 

A cursory look at the schedules of King Salman, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman or Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir makes clear that Saudi Arabia is a firm believer in diplomacy and maintaining good, mutually beneficial relations with many countries worldwide. Not a day goes by where a foreign dignitary does not come to Riyadh or Jeddah to meet with either the king, crown prince or foreign minister. 

The three have also traveled extensively to sustain long-running ties with old allies such as the US, Britain and France, and to strengthen newer but also important relations with countries such as Russia, China and India. However, the Saudi leadership appreciates that there are clearly defined parameters within which diplomacy operates. 

For the most part, diplomats conduct their work discreetly and are always searching for common ground. Issuing critical statements in public and in multiple languages, demanding that a sovereign nation take a specific and immediate measure regarding a domestic issue, is not in the tool kit of most diplomats seeking to strengthen relations with other countries or to resolve disputes. 

The Saudi response sends a clear signal to Canada and other nations: Goodwill gestures are always appreciated and will be reciprocated, but measures or words that are deemed to violate the norms of international relations will also be answered. 

  • Fahad Nazer is a political consultant to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington and an International Fellow at the National Council on US Arab Relations. He does not represent or speak on behalf of either organization. Twitter: @fanazer
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