A bombshell hit the usually very quiet world of Canada-Middle East relations on Sunday: Saudi Arabia expelled the Canadian ambassador in Riyadh, recalled its own ambassador from Ottawa, froze any new trade and investment, and suspended the scholarships of the roughly 15,000 Saudi students in Canada. Officially, this was in response to fairly mild and standard criticism of the detention of Saudi human rights activists a few days earlier by the Canadian foreign minister and the Foreign Ministry itself.
Two recent trends drove events to this point: the accumulation of behind-the-scenes frustration in bilateral relations and the evolution of Saudi foreign policy under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Canada-Saudi ties have never been important for either country. Annual two-way trade fluctuated between $3 billion and $4 billion in recent years — roughly the amount of Canada-U. S. trade in two days. The two countries cooperate in a number of fields, notably in security and defense, but on a small scale. The one important exception has been education: About 15,000 Saudis are studying in Canadian universities and colleges, the fourth-largest contingent of foreign students. This includes about 1,000 medical students; indeed, by some counts, more than a third of Saudi doctors have received training in Canada.
Bilateral relations took a significant step forward in 2014 when the conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to a $15 billion deal to sell light armored vehicles (LAV) to Saudi Arabia, the largest manufacturing contract in Canadian history. This deal was meant to be a first step.
But that did not happen. When Justin Trudeau and the Liberals came to power in 2015, they decided to uphold the deal, in part to protect the 3,000 high-paying jobs it would support in critical Ontario electoral districts. But many in the media actively campaigned against it, and so did influential voices in civil society. The Liberals rapidly understood that because it was costly for a government seeking to brand itself as progressive and feminist to support selling weapons to a dictatorship, it was better to avoid bringing any attention to relations with Saudi Arabia.
Trudeau’s government upheld the deal, but relations were basically paralyzed — very few high-level visits were organized and proposed initiatives were put on ice. This significantly irritated the Saudis, who felt that Ottawa was too passive and failed to advance bilateral ties.
After this context of Canada-Saudi relations, the second driver of recent events has been the transformation of Saudi foreign policy since 2015. Under King Salman and his son, Riyadh has turned away from its traditionally cautious and timid foreign policy toward a far more assertive, ambitious, hyper-nationalist and often impulsive preference for throwing Saudi weight around, as witnessed by the brutal war in Yemen and the blockade of Qatar.
Viewed through this prism, Saudi Arabia’s excessively severe response to seemingly irrelevant Canadian tweets becomes less surprising — it is not so much about Canada, but more about sending a forceful message that Riyadh does not tolerate criticism of any kind. It is a message to Europeans: Criticize us and you will be punished. It is also a message to its neighbors: Toe the line, or you will also be punished. Relations with Canada, in this sense, are collateral damage; bilateral ties being marginal and Canada lacking a hard retaliatory capacity, Ottawa represents an easy target.
It will take some time for the dust to settle before the implications of Sunday’s events can be properly assessed. Because bilateral ties are marginal, the actual cost for either side is likely to be limited, with two possible exceptions.
The first is the LAV deal. The Saudi statement on Sunday said that new trade and investment would be frozen, which can be interpreted as leaving the door open for previous deals to be upheld. That said, Riyadh’s recent actions clearly suggest that it could be willing to cancel the deal, even if that means losing down payments made so far. Some rumors have circulated that because of its fiscal troubles, Riyadh had difficulty finding the cash for these payments.
The second possible exception is the 15,000 Saudi students in Canada, whose scholarships reportedly will be canceled. This is costly for Canadian universities, which rely on higher tuition fees for international students. It will also, of course, be costly for these students, who will have to be relocated. It is doubtful that the sclerotic Saudi bureaucracy will manage to do this swiftly.
Overall, this is a risky gamble for Riyadh, one that could be damaging in the longer term. Crown Prince Mohammed is trying to pitch his country as a stable and attractive investment destination as part of his efforts to reform the Saudi economy. This impulsive decision, in combination with aggressive actions in Qatar, Yemen and elsewhere, can only be counterproductive in this regard.
It is difficult to answer this before the dust settles. That said, it is unlikely that ambassadors will head back to Riyadh and Ottawa in the short term: Domestic politics in both countries will work against this outcome.
It is hard for Ottawa, like other Western capitals, to be perceived as adopting a conciliatory posture toward the kingdom. In Riyadh, Mohammed has not shown much inclination to walk back from his new foreign policy choices. It is difficult to see why he would do so after this.
The conflict, as a result, is likely to continue. In a narrow sense, its consequences are marginal. But it is worrying — and it is illustrative of the traits that drive the growing assertiveness of Saudi foreign policy.
Thomas Juneau is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. Follow him @thomasjuneau
Note: Updated Sept. 25, 2023.