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Saudi Arabia And Canada Are Fighting Over Human Rights And Quebec Independence Got Involved

Canada urged Saudi Arabia to free human rights activists. Saudi Arabia responded by kicking out the Canadian ambassador.

Last updated on August 7, 2018, at 10:39 a.m. ET

Posted on August 5, 2018, at 10:35 p.m. ET

There's no way to say this without it sounding weird: Saudi Arabia and Canada are currently engaged in a diplomatic brawl and now people are tweeting about independence for Quebec.

If you predicted that this would happen this year, please go play the lottery right now.
Ilmars Znotins / AFP / Getty Images

If you predicted that this would happen this year, please go play the lottery right now.

The spat has its origins in a decision from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, or MbS as he's known, to allow women the right to drive for themselves, a long-sought-after goal among rights activists.

But in the weeks before the ban was lifted, the government launched a crackdown on the very women who pushed for the change in the first place. Human Rights Watch said last Wednesday that two additional women's rights activists had been taken into custody, despite ongoing international outcry.
Fayez Nureldine / AFP / Getty Images

But in the weeks before the ban was lifted, the government launched a crackdown on the very women who pushed for the change in the first place.

Human Rights Watch said last Wednesday that two additional women's rights activists had been taken into custody, despite ongoing international outcry.

On Friday, Canada offered up a very Canadian statement — unfailingly polite while calling out the treatment of the women currently in custody.

Canada is gravely concerned about additional arrests of civil society and women’s rights activists in #SaudiArabia, including Samar Badawi. We urge the Saudi authorities to immediately release them and all other peaceful #humanrights activists.

Canada urged the Saudi government to "immediately release" activists who are being held, as well as "all other peaceful human rights activists."

That...hasn't gone over well with the Saudi government.

Oscar Del Pozo / AFP / Getty Images
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On Sunday, the kingdom issued a lengthy statement declaring that, in light of Canada's "entirely false claim and utterly incorrect" position, Saudi Arabia was ending all new trade and investments in the country.

#Statement | Any other attempt to interfere with our internal affairs from #Canada, means that we are allowed to interfere in #Canada's internal affairs.

Also, the Canadian ambassador was declared persona non grata and expelled from the country, and the Saudi ambassador to Canada was recalled to Riyadh.

"Any other attempt to interfere with our internal affairs from Canada, means that we are allowed to interfere in Canada's internal affairs," the Saudi statement read.

And then on Monday, Saudi Airlines said it would suspend service to Toronto.

BREAKING: #Saudi Airlines Suspend ✈️ to Toronto #Canada beginning Monday https://t.co/VtcLNiEime

Almost immediately after the kingdom's statement, Saudi Twitter accounts began tweeting about their ~concern~ for Canada's own treatment of First Nations members and the need for Quebec to gain independence.

@CanEmbSA In Saudi Arabia we feel worried about Canada committing cultural genocide against Indigenous people. We also support the right of Quebec to become an independent nation.

Which...I mean, sure, if you're going to dive into "whataboutism," granting support to the very real Quebecois separatist movement makes sense in a very 2018 way.

The province held two referendums on whether to break away from Canada, in 1980 and 1995, and decided both times to stay put. That hasn't stopped the issue from being an ongoing thing in Canadian politics though.
Afp / AFP / Getty Images

The province held two referendums on whether to break away from Canada, in 1980 and 1995, and decided both times to stay put. That hasn't stopped the issue from being an ongoing thing in Canadian politics though.

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"Saudi Arabia could have easily supported" the 1995 referendum, one user tweeted, "through the funding of media campaigns and attacks against the Canadian government to secure a Quebecan [sic] victory."

@KAFTA78 @CanEmbSA Saudi Arabia could have easily supported the 1995 Quebec independence referendum through the funding of media campaigns and attacks against the Canadian government to secure a Quebecan victory but we do not meddle in other nations’ domestic affairs, clearly, unlike Canada.

As for the First Nations issue, Canada has admitted that the country entirely messed up its treatment of the Indigenous population. But it is still a sore point.

Last year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized publicly for the assimilation tactics government-run schools used to force Indigenous children to forgo their heritage. But inequality is definitely still the norm, as one 2016 study found that 60% of First Nations children on Canada's reserves live in poverty.
Afp / AFP / Getty Images

Last year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized publicly for the assimilation tactics government-run schools used to force Indigenous children to forgo their heritage. But inequality is definitely still the norm, as one 2016 study found that 60% of First Nations children on Canada's reserves live in poverty.

In any case, Saudis on Twitter are doing their all to paint Canada's statement as a clear violation of international norms. (It wasn't.)

@AkbarSAhmed The Canadian position is an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of #SaudiArabia and is in contravention of the most basic international norms and all the charters governing relations between States.

And it was easy to notice that many of the English-language tweets heralding the new Saudi–Quebecois alliance were...strangely similar. Nearly identical, even.

This is fun cc @b_momani @cafreeland #cdnpoli

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Although some managed to be simple, yet creative.

#السعوديه_تطرد_السفير_الكندي . . We support Quebec's independence @CanEmbSA

A site called "Infographic KSA" has been using its verified Twitter account to boost the anti-Canada message to its followers.

Now deleted, here a screenshot of the threatening Saudi "infographic" featuring an airliner headed for the Toronto skyline. https://t.co/LrkCLxxjFk

But on Monday it briefly posted, then deleted, a meme warning Canada that "He who interferes with what doesn't concern him finds what doesn't please him" along with an Air Canada plane flying along the Toronto skyline.

The group later apologized and pull down its Twitter account.

Western observers are not sure that MbS, who earlier this year went on a US tour meant to woo said observers, made the right call here.

@IgnatiusPost Add to this the other significant mistakes -- Yemen; the Hariri hostage video; ridiculous war with Qatar; and his authoritarian proclivities -- and you have a pretty good track record of stumbling; bumbling and fumbling.

But the US State Department has been surprisingly quiet about the whole thing, referring questions about the spat to the Saudis and Canadians, rather than backing Canada or the Saudi activists.

I refer you to the Canadian and Saudi Ministries of Foreign Affairs for further information." This is, um, kind of shocking. One, as a State Dept friend reminded me for years, the Saudis are *partners* -- not allies. Canada is a treaty ally.

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That said, even if things don't cool off soon, it's not exactly going to break the world economy.

In 2010, Canada did $1 billion in exports to Saudi Arabia. To put it in persepective, right now we do ~$300 billion with the US. A break down in relations is never great but this ain’t exactly going to kill us. #cdnfp

But it is already negatively affecting thousands of Saudi students in Canada, who have reportedly been told to return home.

Just got word that indeed Saudis are telling their students (16,000+) in Canada to return home. Scholarships will be rescinded. This is awful for these students, many who are not likely to be in Canada over the summer but now scrambling with what to do with their lives. Unjust!

It's still pretty likely, though, that Canada will do everything it can to smooth things over, because Canada. But it's (politely) pushing back on Saudi Arabia's claim of Canadian meddling.

"We are seriously concerned by these media reports and are seeking greater clarity on the recent statement from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," a spokesperson for Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told BuzzFeed News in an emailed statement. "Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, very much including women's rights, and freedom of expression around the world. Our government will never hesitate to promote these values and believes that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy."
Pedro Pardo / AFP / Getty Images

"We are seriously concerned by these media reports and are seeking greater clarity on the recent statement from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," a spokesperson for Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland told BuzzFeed News in an emailed statement. "Canada will always stand up for the protection of human rights, very much including women's rights, and freedom of expression around the world. Our government will never hesitate to promote these values and believes that this dialogue is critical to international diplomacy."

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