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Tension Escalates After Canada Criticizes Saudi Arabia's Human Rights Record


Saudi Arabia is in a diplomatic standoff with Canada. It all happened after Canadian officials criticized the kingdom's human rights record. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not backing down, though. Here's what he told reporters yesterday.


PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Canadians have always expected our government to speak strongly, firmly, clearly and politely. We will continue to do that.

MARTIN: But this tension is ramping up. Over the past week, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador to Canada, expelled the Canadian ambassador in Riyadh and stopped all new trade between the two countries. NPR's Jackie Northam has been covering the story and joins us now. Hey, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: So as I mentioned in the intro, this is about human rights, Canadian officials criticizing the kingdom on this front. Specifically, what happened?

NORTHAM: Well, as you said, it started with a tweet criticizing Saudi Arabia for jailing human rights activists. And it's not the first time Canada or, frankly, any other nation has criticized the kingdom for its record on human rights. This time, though, it ignited a firestorm. Saudi Arabia called it a blatant interference in its affairs and, in a very short time, has taken dramatic steps in retaliation. You mentioned several in the intro, but Saudi Arabia has also stopped its national airline from traveling to or from Toronto. It's recalling more than 10,000 Saudi students from Canadian colleges and universities. And, most recently, it announced it was transferring out all Saudi patients from receiving medical treatment in Canadian hospitals.

MARTIN: Wow. So I think it's probably fair to say this doesn't happen to Canada all that often. I mean, this is unchartered waters for a country that prides itself on having, you know, really healthy diplomatic relations. So what happened here? And, especially because other countries are known to criticize Saudi Arabia on its human rights record, what was it about this particular tweet that set them off?

NORTHAM: Right. Well, I spoke with a number of analysts who say Saudi Arabia wants to use Canada as an example to scare off other countries from criticizing their internal affairs. But, you know, this is also seen as local politics and diversion tactic by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. He's trying to push through some ambitious economic reforms in Saudi Arabia, and they're not going as fast or as smoothly as hoped. Unemployment there is still high and growing, and foreign investment is decreasing. So he may be feeling some pressure back home, and this could be a way to whip up nationalist sentiment if, you like - rally the crowds.

MARTIN: So we heard Justin Trudeau say, we're not backing down. But, especially on the trade front, I mean, that's going to have an impact on Canada, isn't it?

NORTHAM: Well, the two countries do about $4 billion of trade a year. So it's not like Saudi Arabia is taking on the U.S. or the European Union and risks losing a lot of investment. Canada does not rely that much on Saudi Arabia, but the loss of thousands of Saudi students and their tuitions could hurt Canadian universities. Also, there's a $15 billion deal with Saudi Arabia for military equipment, Light Armored Vehicles, that could be at risk. But, you know, the Canadian government has not apologized for the tweet or its criticism of Saudi Arabia, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said yesterday, human rights are important to Canadians.

MARTIN: So Canada is obviously our neighbor to the north. Saudi Arabia and the U.S. are strong allies on a lot of fronts. Has the Trump administration weighed in on this?

NORTHAM: The U.S. has made it very clear it does not want to get embroiled in this dispute. The State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said earlier this week the two countries will have to resolve this on their own. Prime Minister Trudeau was asked about this at a press conference, and he said every country has the right to make its own decisions when it comes to diplomacy.

MARTIN: All right. Jackie Northam, NPR's international affairs correspondent. Jackie, thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.